Rosh haShana and The High Holy Days

The Hebrew month of Elul (August/September) is the month of the “High Holy Days”. The period between Rosh haShana (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is also called “the ten days of awe”, because of the need for introspection and repentance. This year Rosh haShana begins Wednesday evening, September 4th.

Rosh haShana (lit. head of the year) heralds the Hebrew month of Tishrei (September/October) Tishrei is Aramaic for “to begin”.

It is celebrated for two days and is seen as a Day of Judgment. On the first day, the tashlich* (“you will cast”) ritual takes place in which “sins” are symbolically cast into open water. People also throw bread and pebbles.

Rosh haShana is a day of rest, like the Shabbat. The sound of the shofar* (ram’s horn) is intended to awaken  people from their “slumber” and alert them to the coming judgment. The days of repentance begin with Rosh haShana and climax at Yom Kippur. Religious Jews believe that even though judgment is pronounced on Rosh haShana, during the following ten days they can mend their ways and alter judgment in their favour. (That is why people are extra nice to each other.)

In the weeks leading up to the holiday, people greet each other with “Shana Tova” (A good year) or “Shana Tova uMetuka” (A good and sweet New Year). Often they add “Gmar Chatima Tova” (May you be inscribed in the Book of Life), referring to the coming Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement.

Apple and honey, symbolizing the sweet New Year is always part of the holiday cuisine. Other symbolic food is a fish head (“head” of the new year) and a round challah, to symbolize the year cycle).

In ancient times, Rosh haShana was the beginning of the economic year. The emphasis was on the agricultural seasons and the pilgrim’s festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot). It those days it was only celebrated for one day, instead of the modern two-day holiday. 

Rosh haShana is seen as the anniversary of God’s Creation. On this day, mankind passes before the Creator, like sheep before the shepherd. Three books are opened – the Book of Life, which seals the righteous, who will live; The wicked are “blotted out of the book of the living” (See Psalm 69:29), while those “in between” have until Yom Kippur to repent and become righteous.

By Petra van der Zande

Excerpt from the book: Remember, Observe, Rejoice.  Used with permission.