Rosh Hashanah begins the ten day period beginning known as the Yamim Noraim--Days of Awe-- or the Aseret Yemai Teshuvah-- the Ten Days of Repentance, which end on Yom Kippur. This time is for serious reflection, self examination, and reconciliation; it is a time for us to consider our past sins and seek forgiveness from other individuals and from God.
But Rosh Hashanah is also a time of joyful celebration; it is a time of hopefulness, renewal, good wishes, and sweetness. It is a festival when we celebrate creation and the Heavenly One's sovereignty over a world full of possibility
The Meaning of Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah literally means, Head of the Year. Although commonly referred to as the New Year, Rosh HaShanah is actually only one of four new years in the Hebrew calendar. In the Talmud, in tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1, it states:
1. The 1st of Nisan, the Hebrew month of Pesah [Passover], is the new year for Kings and Festivals. [This is what we would call the beginning of the calendar year, with Nisan, identified as the first month].
2. The 1st of Elul, the month preceding Tishrei, is the new year for the tithe of cattle. [This is what we would call the beginning of the fiscal or the tax year].
3. The 1st of Tishrei is the:
* New year for years, that is, Rosh Hashanah.
* New year for Sabbatical years.
* New year for Jubilee years.
* New year for planting trees.
* The new year for tithing vegetables.
4. The 15th of Shevat is the new year for trees (Tu Bi'Shevat).
Rosh Hashanah, which takes place on the First of Tishrei, actually occurs on the first day of the seventh month of the Hebrew Calendar. How then is this the 'new year"? Well, Rosh Hashanah is Yom Harat Olam - The Birthday of the World. Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of creation, and therefore a new beginning in the cycle of time that began when God created the world.
The commandment to observe Rosh Hashanah is first found in the Torah in the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus). There it states:
In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, there shall be a rest day for you, a remembrance proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation. You shall not do any labour and you shall offer a fire-offering to the Eternal. (Leviticus 23:24-5)
The nature of the day was established in the Torah, but the name Rosh Hashanah was not used until later, perhaps out of fear that a major Jewish festival around the Autumn new moon would be associated with the many pagan moon festivals that were common at the time. But by the time of the return from the Babylonian exile in the fourth century B.C.E., the observance of Rosh Hashanah as a new year festival was well established. By the time the Mishna was codified at the end of the second century C.E., Rosh Hashanah had taken on the meanings that we know today.
In the Torah, Rosh HaShanah is referred to as Yom Teruah - the day of sounding the Shofar. The Shofar is the horn of a ram which is blown like a trumpet. In ancient times it was used as a call to war and to announce important events, such as the new moon and holidays. As the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon or Maimonides) taught, the sound of the Shofar calls out to us, Awake all you who are asleep; search your ways and mend them in repentance.
The Torah also refers to Rosh Hashanah as Yom HaZikaron- the Day of Remembrance. Certainly, on the anniversary of the creation of the world, there is much to be remembered and for which to be thankful. It is also a day to remember our personal histories, and particularly our behaviour over the last year. We reflect on those times when we might not have lived up to our best selves. Some commentators suggest that Yom HaZikaron is a reference to the story of the Akedah - the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), which is read on Rosh Hashanah. In this story, the patriarch Abraham is asked by God to bring his son, Isaac, as a sacrificial offering. As the result of Abraham's willingness to follow God's command, God spared Isaac and provided a ram to be sacrificed in Isaac's place. According to tradition, this event happened on the first of Tishrei. The Shofar also reminds us of the ram which took Isaac's place on the altar.
The Rabbis referred to Rosh Hashanah as Yom HaDin - the Day of Judgment. It is on Rosh Hashanah that each of us stands before God and appeals for forgiveness for our sins. One of the most powerful images that is used in the liturgy of the Days of Awe is the notion of a book of judgment that God maintains. As it is expressed in the Unetaneh Tokef, on Rosh HaShanah, God inscribes in the book, "who will live and who will die, who will have a good life and who will have a bad life," for the next year. Our judgment is written on Rosh Hashanah, but the book is not actually sealed until Yom Kippur, and so throughout the Ten Days of Repentance, we can try and influence God's final decree. By "Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah" - Repentance, Prayer and Charity - we can temper divine judgment. This is the idea we express when we greet people on Rosh Hashanah with the words, "May you be inscribed and sealed
Rosh Hashanah is a festival rich in customs and symbols. Perhaps the most well known and delicious customs is the dipping of apples in honey. This is simply a way of sharing our wishes for a sweet new year. Another food custom for the High Holy Days is to bake Challah, not in the traditional braided loaves that are customary for Shabbat, but rather in round loaves. The round shape is symbolic of the cyclical nature of life and the coming of a new year. Another explanation is that the round Challah looks like a crown and reminds us of God's sovereignty, a major theme of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.
The primary Mitzvah of Shofar is to hear the sound of the Shofar. On Shofar, a total of 100 blasts are sounded, divided into four categories of notes: Tekiah, a single unbroken note; Shevarim, three short individual blasts rising in tone; and Teruah, nine short staccato notes. Each of these three series of blasts should last about the same length of time. The different blasts are called out by name and blown in sets which combine the different sounds. After the final set, a fourth blast, called the Tekiah Gedolah - "big tekiah" - is sounded. The Tekiah Gedolah is one long sustained blast, lasting as long as it can be held by the Baal Tekiah - the Shofar Blower. The Shofar is generally not blown if Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat.
Another beautiful custom of Rosh Hashanah is Tashlich - "casting off". On Rosh Hashanah afternoon, Jews gather around a body of flowing water, such as a river or lake, and empty our pockets into the river, symbolically casting off our sins. At the waterside, Tehillim - Psalms are recited as well as the words of the Prophet Micah (see below), and then bread crumbs, previously installed in one's pocket as surrogate sins, are shaken out into the water to demonstrate our desire to be rid of our sins. This practice is inspired by the words of the Prophet Micah (7:18-20), who wrote:
Who, O God, is like You? You forgive sins and overlook transgressions.
For the survivors of Your people;
He does not retain His anger forever, for He loves kindness;
He will return and show us mercy, and overcome our sins,
And You will cast into the depths of the sea all their sins;
You will show kindness to Jacob and mercy to Abraham,
As You did promise to our fathers of old.
Of course, Teshuvah - ridding ourselves of sin and seeking forgiveness - is the main theme of this season. Therefore, it is also common on Rosh Hashanah to seek out people you may have wronged during the past year and ask them for forgiveness. The Talmud maintains that the Days of Repentance atone only for sins between man and God. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible.
Greetings are very important during the High Holy Days. Beginning during the preceding month of Elul, it is customary for Jews to wish each other Shanah Tovah - A Good Year, or more fully, L'Shanah Tovah Tikatevu - May You be Inscribed for a Good Year. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is customary to add L'Shanah Tovah Tikatevu Ve-Tehateimu - May You be Inscribed and Sealed for a Good Year. It is also common to send New Year greetings through cards or letters. Commercial Jewish New Year cards are easily found in most card shops, and are a nice way to catch up with family and friends as the new year begins.
This is also a time of the year when many will visit the grave sites of loved ones. As the Day of Remembrance approaches and we seek to reconcile ourselves with other people, it is also helpful to remember those who have passed and pay our respects. Some also believe that the prayers of the deceased can intercede on behalf of the living. During the Days of Awe, we don't want to overlook any opportunities for repentance.