As summer starts to turn to autumn and the days start getting a little shorter, a wave of holidays is on the horizon, ready to overwhelm our hearts, souls, and calendars. The first, and one of the most well known, holidays is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews all around the world gather in their local temples and synagogues for the beginning of what is known as the High Holidays. This year we will be welcoming in the Hebrew year of 5773 on the Jewish calendar.
Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the first two days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and is known as the “day of judgment.” It is important to note that Rosh Hashanah always falls exactly 10 days before Yom Kippur, “the day of atonement.” The traditional view of Rosh Hashanah is that it celebrates when God examines and reviews each person’s actions over the previous year. It is a time for deep and careful reflection on our actions, both personal and communal. This time of year is also intended for thinking about how to improve in the future.
The Jewish month of Elul, which immediately precedes Tishrei, is intended to also be a month of deep reflection and assessment to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and the moving forward that follows such a monumental day on the Jewish calendar.
There are several components to the two-day holiday that make the Rosh Hashanah experience unique. In addition to the service being filled with liturgy mainly addressing topics of personal reflection, repentance, humility, and gratitude, there is a traditional service called Tashlich that is often observed. Tashlich is the symbolic ceremony of casting away our sins; this is generally done by taking pieces of bread and throwing them into a moving body of water. There are also certain foods that are unique to Rosh Hashanah: Apples dipped in honey, round challahs (often baked with raisins), and pomegranates are traditional staples at any Rosh Hashanah meal.
The prayer service during Rosh Hashanah is significantly lengthier than the average Shabbat or Yom Tov (holiday) prayer, and the prayers are found in a special type of prayer book called a mahzor. The prayer service also is accompanied by the blasting of the shofar, a ram’s horn whose symbolism dates back to biblical times.
There are three different types of blasts that are generally sounded from the shofar: tekia, shevarim, and teruah. Tekiah is one long, undisturbed blast, shevarim is three medium blasts, and teruah is made up of nine short blasts. It is customary on Rosh Hashanah to hear 100 blasts from the shofar each day, but when Rosh Hashanah coincides with Shabbat, the shofar is not sounded on that day. The blowing of the shofar is fitting for the holiday, as the Torah references Rosh Hashanah as “Zikaron Teruah,” or remembrance of the shofar blast.
Another central theme that runs through Rosh Hashanah is “Teshuva.” Teshuva is often translated as repentance, but more accurately comes from the Hebrew word meaning to return; to return to our ideal self, to our loved ones, to our most self-aware state of being, and traditionally returning to G-d.
There are special greetings that Jews exchange to one another that are specific to Rosh Hashanah. Many say “shana tova” to one another, which translates to “a good year” or “shana tova umetukahl,” which translates to a good and sweet year. Consistent with the traditional belief that God examines each individual person’s actions and assess whether or not to inscribe them in the “book of life,” it is also customary for people to greet each other on this day by saying “ketiva vechatima tovah,” “may you be written and sealed [in the ‘book of life’] for [a] good [year]”.
Rosh Hashanah is one of the most universally celebrated of the Jewish holidays, regardless of denomination, and as a result, it is not uncommon for synagogues to require buying or reserving seats in the sanctuary. It is also a time when synagogues will seek donation commitments and membership commitments. However, the financial commitments and seat reservations are secondary to the apples and honey that we eat to signify a sweet year to come and the true nature and powerful day that Rosh Hashanah can be.
There is a version of an old hasidic parable that powerfully illustrates the message and themes of Rosh Hashanah:
There is a mighty and gracious king that lives in a castle over a mountaintop. The castle is heavily guarded with the royal army and no undesired individual can simply enter the castle grounds. The king pays close attention to his son, who he has spoiled to no end. His son, a man who acts like a boy, is immature, and has no greater knowledge of the world and himself because of his sheltered upbringing. The king sends him out of the house, accompanied by royal guards, to live among the people so that he can have a greater awareness of the world around him.
The son of the king finds himself living among simpletons and lowlifes. Not only does he live among them, but he grows accustomed to their lifestyle as the royal guards have returned to the castle. Years go by and the boy is still living among the people. He is completely immersed and resembles nothing of his royal roots. From the distance he sees a group of soldiers marching and on the arm of the soldiers he sees his father’s royal crest.
Immediately he remembers who he is and why he is among the people. He knows that he was sent out to learn, explore, grow, and return, but he became consumed with the distractions around him. He knows that even though he has not grown the way that his father had hoped it is time to return.
He makes his way back to the royal lands, where he is stopped at the gate of the castle. When he proclaims that he is the son of the king, the guards laugh and dismiss his claims. He is unrecognizable to even the guards who saw him grow up in the castle. He screams up at the castle walls, “Father, father.” The king, hearing a familiar voice, knows that his son has returned and welcomes him into the castle.
There are many ways to understand this story, but many believe that it resembles the time of Rosh Hashanah as well as the importance of the shofar. The shofar and the High Holydays not only act as the royal crest, awakening us to the people we are and reminding us of the people we want to be, but also act as the cry up to the king, reminding G-d that we are still here, we are still his children, and despite our imperfections, we should be welcomed by Him.
May we all approach Rosh Hashanah with this story in mind, with a desire to connect with Judaism, the Jewish people, G-d, and most of all with ourselves. May it be a time of reflection and a time to strive for growth and positive changes in our lives.