Tonight we begin celebrating Rosh Hashana, the start of the new Jewish year. Rosh Hashana is not marked by great parties and merry-making for the Jewish New Year is also known as the Day of Judgement, the day when all humans are held accountable before Heaven for their good deeds and bad, and their fate for the coming year is decided. A good part of the two days of the festival is spent in emotional and uplifting prayers in the synagogue where we acclaim G-d as the King of Israel and as King of the whole universe, and where we ask Him to write us in the Book of Life, which remains open until Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in 10 days time, giving us time to repent and atone for our sins.
The holiday is marked with the blowing of the Shofar (the ram’s horn), which is meant to literally sound an alarm to wake us up from our bad ways and return us to the righteous path. We also eat sweet foods to symbolise our wish for a sweet New Year. A classic staple at the Rosh Hashana table is the apple, which is round, symbolising the cycle of the year, dipped in honey for a sweet new year.
On the second night of Rosh Hashana it is traditional to eat a fruit from the new season. The most popular fruit is the pomegranate, both for the beauty of its shape, and because it is traditionally believed that it has 613 seeds, the same as the number of mitzvot (commandments) that a Jew is commanded to keep.
It is also traditional in many households to eat all different kinds of foods whose names, in a kind of wordplay, remind us of good things that we wish for ourselves. So for example we eat carrots in various forms – tzimmes is a very popular dish amongst Ashkenazim – because the Hebrew name גזר (gezer) is the same root as גזרה (gezera) meaning decree. So we wish for “good decrees” for the coming year.
Other foods are the head of a fish so that we should be at “the head and not the tail”; and beetroot whose Hebrew name is סלק, (selek) similar to לסלק (lesalek) – to get rid of – so we wish to be rid of our enemies.
On the second day of Rosh Hashana we walk to a body of flowing water, a river, brook or the sea, or we try to get to a vantage point where we can see some flowing water, and say the prayer of Tashlich in which we symbolically cast our sins into the water.
You can learn more about Rosh Hashana and its traditions here.
This year, because Rosh Hashana falls on Thursday and Friday, we run straight into Shabbat, giving us a 3-day festival (which means I will be offline until Saturday night at the very least).
Here is a video of the Shofar being blown at the Kotel at morning prayers during the month of Elul, when Selichot, special penitential prayers, are recited every morning.
I wish all my family, friends, and readers worldwide Shana Tova Umetuka. A Happy and Sweet New Year. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.
לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו