At sundown on October 2nd, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year’s Day, began. Here’s a fun fact: “Rosh Hashanah” literally means “head of the year”! This Rosh Hashana was the “head” of year 5777 on the Jewish calendar.
Rosh Hashanah, the first of our High Holy Days, commemorates the creation of the world. It’s a time to reflect on the previous year and figure out ways to make the next year even better. This thought process is similar to the resolutions that people make on the secular New Year’s Day in January, but Rosh Hashanah is traditionally full of prayers and religious services instead of parties in Times Square.
But that’s not to say that Rosh Hashanah isn’t a celebratory day! Like other Jewish holidays (except for Yom Kippur, which is a day of fasting), getting together with family for a big feast is also traditional. On Rosh Hashanah, we eat apples dipped in honey to symbolize our hopes for a “sweet” new year. My family also puts extra honey in our challah bread, making an already yummy treat even tastier!
When I was little, I remember my family taking part in another Rosh Hashanah tradition: Tashlikh, or “casting off”. We went to a river and threw small pieces of bread into it, to symbolize “casting off” the past year’s misdeeds and misfortunes.
In the Torah, this holiday is referred to as “Yom Teruah” – “the day of the sounding of the shofar”. A shofar is a kind of trumpet made from a hollowed-out ram’s horn. There are different words for different kinds of notes to play on the shofar, including one long note (tekiah), three shorter notes (shevarim), many quick staccato notes (teruah), and one long loud note that’s held as long as you can blow (tekiah gedolah, literally “the big tekiah”). You can hear a shofar here. The sound of the shofar is meant to draw everyone’s attention and call us to the synagogue. Some say that the sound of the shofar is also a call for repentance, to get us thinking about things we did wrong in the past year. We have ten days to put those thoughts together, because then comes Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement.
The Talmud says that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, G-d decides which people’s names should be inscribed in the “Book of Life” or the “Book of Death” for the following year, based on past behavior and current repentance. For this reason, a traditional greeting on Rosh Hashanah is “L’shana tova tikateyvu” – “May you be inscribed for a good year.” Sometimes we shorten it to “Shana tova,” which simply means “Good year.” This is a little different than wishing someone a “happy” new year like we do on January 1st. We want the year ahead of us to be not superficially happy, but good – full of good deeds and achievements, and of opportunities to fix our past misdeeds.