The celebration of Rosh HaShanah commemorates literally the “head of the year.” This is the Jewish New Year and, after festive celebration, marks the beginning of a ten day period of prayer, repentance and self-examination. This period of time is known as one of the High Holy Days, which also includes Yom Kippur. These days are also known as the Yamim Noraim – literally the “days of awe.”
Although technically not a pilgrimage festival, Rosh HaShanah is a national holiday in Israel and many will travel to its borders for the celebration. It is honored by Jews throughout the world, most often with celebration and then a time of reflection, either at home or in the synagogue. Several rituals are performed at home to provide blessing upon the house and its inhabitants.
Customs that surround the day include the sounding of the shofar, a ram’s horn; eating of challah; pronouncement of the blessing; and tasting of apples and honey to anticipate the sweetness of the coming new year.
Dates for Rosh HaShana
(begins sundown, evening before)
September 30 - October 1
The roots of Rosh HaShanah are found in the Torah. Leviticus 23:24-25 declare that on the first day of the seventh month a day will be set aside for rest. It is to be marked by the blowing of the shofar. A convocation of the people will be assembled and the day will be marked as holy.
In biblical times, there were four “new years” in the Jewish calendar. Each had a special purpose and significance to the people.
The first day of the month of Nisan was called the New Year of Kings. This was the date used to calculate the number of years a king had reigned.
The first of the month of Elul was the new year for tithing of cattle. It was on this day that one of every ten cattle was marked and offered as sacrifice.
The first day of the month of Tishrei was the new year of crops and planting. This agricultural day was considered the New Year of the Years.
- The 15th of the month of Sh’vat was known as the New Year of the Trees.
Although the Torah refers to Nisan as the first month of the Jewish year, the first day of Tishrei has become Rosh HaShanah. A couple of concepts led to the acceptance of this day for the one celebration of the new year. The first goes back to the days of the Babylonian captivity of the Israelites. The Babylonians once a year marked a “Day of Judgment.” They believed that the deities held a council. During this time, the gods renewed the world and judged each individual, handing him an eternal destiny and fate which was inscribed in a tablet.
The legend was a powerful one and seems to have influenced the Jews as they carved out a celebration of their new year. They filtered the idea that a council of gods met to judge into the truth that God judges ever Jew on that day, assigning the righteous to the Book of Life and condemning the wicked to an eternal damnation. Those individuals who were “on the fence,” God would grant ten days which would conclude on Yom Kippur. During these days the individual was to repent and thus be sealed in the Book of Life.
In addition to the transformed Babylonian traditions, the Jewish people generally believed that the first of Tishrei was when God created the heavens and the earth. It was not until the second century C.E. that the holiday became associated with the name Rosh HaShanah.
Customs and Rituals
Although the holiday has elements of festivity and jubilee, Rosh HaShanah is an extremely religious feast. The symbols and rituals point to both happiness and humble reflection. The sweet foods anticipate the blessings of the coming year. The round challah is a food representing the circle of life and the reflection that should take place each year.
The traditional greeting on Rosh HaShanah is a wish of “many years.” The Hasidic custom was to wish a Hebrew phrase meaning “may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year,” emphasizing that the year and its outcome was ultimately in the hands of God.
Meals on Rosh HaShanah include apples and honey, with the hopes and prayers for a sweet year. Several local traditions are sprinkled into the celebration, including the eating of the head of a fish, with the prayer “let us be the head and not the tail.” Other symbolic foods include dates, black-eyed peas, spinach and gourds. Pomegranates also find their way into many of the meals. Some areas will include an entire seder ritual.
The shofar is blown each morning during the entire month of Elul, which is the month before Rosh HaShanah. This calls the Jewish people to self-examination and repentance. The sound of the shofar is supposed to awaken the listener from their sleep and alert them to God’s judgment.
Rosh HaShanah is known as the day of judgment. On this day, three books are opened in ceremonial fashion. The book of life carries the names of the righteous among all nations. The book of death is reserved for those whose fate is sealed with damnation. The third book is for the ones living in doubt and who have non-evil sins. During the ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur it is the goal of those in the latter book to repent, be forgiven and have their names transferred to the book of life.
Rosh HaShanah is filled with prayers and reflections. Prayers are given that lift high the concept of God’s sovereignty and judgment, along with the overriding hope of forgiveness. Prayers may be made on one’s own behalf, or for the cause of others.
Funerals and Mourning during Rosh HaShana
Jewish teaching provides specific guidelines for how the deceased should be properly mourned by the family through defined Periods of Mourning in Judaism.
The Jewish burial usually takes place within a couple of days after the death. It is usually a time of stress and busyness for the family, as many decisions and details surrounding the funeral must be considered. A telephone call relaying personal condolences would be welcomed.
Public viewing of the body is against Jewish law and tradition. There is no equivalent to the wake or funeral visitation. Today Jewish funerals are held at a funeral home, synagogue, cemetery building or graveside. Attending a funeral is a demonstration of care and concern for the surviving family and respect for the deceased. Invitations to a funeral are rarely offered, but friends are always encouraged to attend. In Judaism accompanying the family to the gravesite is one of the highest forms of kindness.
After the burial, the first period of mourning begins. Shiva (meaning “seven”) consists of seven days of mourning during which family members remain in their home. During shiva the family would stay home from work, refrain from public appearances, and not conduct any business transactions. Friends and family members would reach out to the bereaved by visiting the home to offer comfort and support.
When Rosh HaShanah falls in the middle of the shiva period, the remainder of shiva is anulled upon the commencement of the holiday. It is permissible for the family to attend congregational services, but they should not participate in any leadership role. Celebrations of the new year should be tempered by respect for the departed.
Because of the sensitive nature of the time of loss, a Rabbi should be consulted for proper procedures for mourning during the holiday, particularly in complicated situations. The rabbi will take into account the circumstances, traditions and Scripture and offer guidance.
Remembering Loved Ones during Rosh HaShana
Since Rosh HaShanah serves as a day of mourning, there is a prescribed time to commemorate, honor and reflect on life and the role that loved ones have played in its circle. There is a real sense in the service and the day of the connection with important people of the past.
The Yizkor (also Yiskor) is a special memorial service held four times a year. Though it is not held during Rosh HaShanah, it will be held ten days later on Yom Kippur. Yizkor is the Hebrew word for “remembrance.” This dedicated part of the service is considered one of the most recognized times to remember the deceased. Yizkor is a time to remember and honor deceased family members. Lasting tributes such as contributions to charities, hospitals or hospices, synagogues or other organizations provide meaningful memorials for departed loved ones.
The tradition of inscribing one’s name in the book of life is a common occurrence in the Jewish faith. Families may light a yizkor candle, plant a tree in Israel, or dedicate a name plaque. Other meaningful and appropriate ways to memorialize a loved one include the creation of a Plaque and Memory page online through the National Jewish Memorial Wall (NJMW.org). The inclusion on a memorial or yahrzeit wall is a meaningful way to show honor and respect for the deceased.