The Meaning of Rosh HaShanah
Rosh HaShanah literally means “Head of the Year” in Hebrew. It falls in the month of Tishrei, which is the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar.
The reason for this is because the Hebrew calendar begins with the month of Nissan (when it's believed the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt) but the month of Tishrei is believed to be the month in which God created the world. Hence, another way to think about Rosh HaShanah is as the birthday of the world.
Rosh HaShanah is observed on the first two days of Tishrei. Jewish tradition teaches that during the High Holy Days God decides who will live and who will die during the coming year.
As a result, during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (and in the days leading up to them) Jews embark upon the serious task of examining their lives and repenting for any wrongs they have committed during the previous year.
This process of repentance is called teshuvah. Jews are encouraged to make amends with anyone they have wronged and to make plans for improving during the coming year. In this way, Rosh HaShanah is all about making peace in the community and striving to be a better person.
Even though the theme of Rosh HaShanah is life and death, it is a holiday filled with hope for the New Year. Jews believe that God is compassionate and just, and that God will accept their prayers for forgiveness.
Rosh HaShanah Liturgy
The Rosh HaShanah prayer service is one of the longest of the year. Only the Yom Kippur service is longer.
Rosh HaShanah service usually runs from early morning until the afternoon and is so unique that it has its own prayer book called the Makhzor.
Two of the most well known prayers from Rosh HaShanah liturgy are:
Unetaneh Tohkef – This prayer is about life and death. Part of it reads: "On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many will leave this world and how many will be born into it, who will live and who will die... But penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree."
Avienu Malkeinu – Another famous prayer is Avienu Malkeinu, which means “Our Father Our King” in Hebrew. Usually the entire congregation will sing the last verse of this prayer in unison, which says: "Our Father, our King, answer us as though we have no deed to plead our cause, save us with mercy and loving-kindness."
Customs and Symbols
On Rosh HaShanah it is customary to greet people with "L'Shanah Tovah," which is Hebrew that is usually translated as "For a Good Year" or "May you have a good year."
Some people also say "L'shana tovah tikatev v'etahetem," which means "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year." (If said to a woman the greeting would be: "L'shanah tovah tikatevi v'tahetemi"). This greeting refers to the belief that a person’s fate for the coming year is decided during the High Holy Days.
The shofar is an important symbol of Rosh HaShanah. It is an instrument often made of a ram's horn and is blown one hundred times during each of the two days of Rosh HaShanah. The sound of the shofar blast reminds people of the importance of reflection during this important holiday. Learn more about the shofar in this article.
Tashlich is a ceremony that usually takes place during the first day of Rosh HaShanah. "Tashlich" literally means "casting off" and involves symbolically casting off the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread or another food into a body of flowing water. Learn more about tashlich in this article.
Other significant symbols of Rosh HaShanah include apples, honey and round loaves of challah. Apple slices dipped in honey represent our hope for a sweet new year and are traditionally accompanied by a short prayer before eating that goes: "May it by Thy will, O Lord, Our God, to grant us a year that is good and sweet."
Challah, which is usually baked into braids, is shaped into round loaves of bread on Rosh HaShanah. The circular shape symbolizes the continuation of life.
On the second night of Rosh HaShanah it is customary to eat a fruit that is new to us for the season, saying the shehechiyanu blessing as we eat it to thank God for bringing us to this season.
Pomegranates are a popular choice because Israel is often praised for its pomegranates and because, according to legend, pomegranates contain 613 seeds – one for each of the 613 mitzvot. Another reason for eating pomegranates on Rosh HaShanah has to do with the symbolic hope that our good deeds in the coming year will be as many as the seeds of the fruit.
Some people choose to send New Year’s greeting cards on Rosh HaShanah. Before the advent of modern computers these were handwritten cards that were snail mailed weeks in advance, but nowadays it is equally as common to send Rosh HaShanah e-cards a few days before the holiday.