Rosh Hashanah (Head of the Year) refers to the celebration of the Jewish New Year. In 2018, Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on Sunday, September 9th. The first day of Rosh Hashanah always falls on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. This Rosh Hashanah, we will enter the year 5779 of the Hebrew calendar.
As we celebrate the anniversary of the creation of the world and mark the start of a new year, we think about our own renewal. The blast of the shofar, a ram’s horn, awakens us, a reminder that the chance to make a fresh start in the coming months begins with introspection and repentance. Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) refers to the annual Jewish observance of fasting, prayer, and repentance. It is considered to be the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. This year, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Tuesday, September 18th.
The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the Yamim Noraim (pronounced yah-MEEM noe-rah-EEM), meaning the Days of Awe or the High Holy Days. During this period we focus on self-reflection and the powerful Jewish practice of T’shuvah (pronounced tuh-SHOO-vah) (return). We offer apologies to others and to God for the wrongs we have done, and also vow to do better in the New Year. Tradition uses the imagery of a Book of Life, teaching that God writes our decree for the year to come on Rosh Hashanah and seals it on Yom Kippur. Hence, the common greeting for the High Holidays of “G’mar hatimah tovah,” (pronounced guh-MAHR khah-tee-MAH toe-VAH) meaning, “May you be inscribed for a good [year].”
According to the Talmud, we should go through life imagining our good deeds and our flaws on opposite sides of a perfectly balanced scale. Thus every new moment brings with it the opportunity to do good and tip the scale toward our merits. The High Holidays create a space for us to set our intentions for the coming months, and to work towards being our best selves.
High Holiday Customs
There are many traditions associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—most with multiple meanings behind them.
- Sweet foods, such as apples and honey, represent a sweet year, a round challah that recalls the continuous cycle of the seasons.
- The Tashlich (casting off) ceremony is held on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (the second day when the holiday begins on Shabbat). We symbolically cast away our sins from the past year by tossing breadcrumbs into a body of running water.
- It is customary to eat a “new fruit” (or a fruit that one has not eaten in a while) on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. A pomegranate is a traditional choice, but any fruit will do.
- While most people dress up for the High Holidays, look down during Yom Kippur services and you will likely find more than a few pairs of sneakers! The tradition of wearing sneakers on Yom Kippur stems from a desire to eschew luxury and comfort on this solemn day by not wearing leather shoes. (Leather was a sign of luxury in earlier times.)
- Traditionally, many Jews wear white on Yom Kippur. Because white is a symbol of purity and Yom Kippur is a day when we undertake a spiritual cleansing, it is an appropriate color for the occasion.
- While giving tzedakah is a mitzvah all year long, the day before Yom Kippur is thought to be an especially meaningful time to share our blessings with those who are less fortunate.
- L’shanah Tovah – Happy New Year
- L’shanah Tova U’Metuka – Happy and Sweet New Year
- G’mar Hatima Tovah – literally “a good sealing” (referenced above)
- Tzom Kal – literally “easy fast.” Another Yom Kippur greeting is, “Have an easy and meaningful fast.”
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Fun Facts:
Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” draws on the Unetanah Tokef, which many consider the most important prayer in the High Holiday liturgy. Avinu Malkeinu, the prayer that means “Our Father, Our King,” has been covered by the jam band Phish and inspired Mogwai, a Scottish post-rock-trio, to write a 20-minute epic song “My Father, My King,” which borrows the prayer’s traditional melody, is alternately soft and beautiful and loud and raging.
A huge thank you goes out to the RSS Parents Association, which gives holiday guides such as this one to families at Rodeph Sholom School as a way to educate the community and provide tools to promote Jewish practice with their children at home.