The Jewish New Year comes in the autumn on the first Tishrei, reminding us that this is a time not only to celebrate the miracle of life, but also to contemplate the somber reality of mortality. Between the two -- life and mortality -- comes the important message to consider carefully how we live our lives in order to live them better. Life is lived in relationship: to God and to other people. At this time of year we repair our relationships from the hurts that may have been suffered during the past year in order to enter into the new year spiritually and emotionally cleansed. Hence the most important business of the New Year season is repentance. Ten days are set aside for repentance (which we call the Yamei Teshuvah) which begin on Rosh Hashanah and extend through Yom Kippur. In reality, the month of Elul which precedes Rosh Hashanah is also a time to begin the process of repentance.
Rosh Hashanah goes by three names and each reveals an aspect of the season's meaning. One name is Yom HaZicharon, the Day of Remembrance. On Rosh Hashanah, traditions teaches, God remembers our deeds for the past year. The chief metaphor employed is the Book of Life, in which our deeds are written by virtue of our words and behavior, and which stands in witness for or against us at this time of year. We are called upon to look back and remember what we have said and done, to repent for that which was wrong, and to made amends (atone) for our transgressions.
Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. Tradition holds that at this time of the year, our lives hang in the balance because God judges us to determine our future. In fact, it is a time for reflection and self-judgment. As God "scrutinizes our record" so are we to scrutinize our souls. This can be a difficult and painful process, but it is made easier knowing that the entire community is engaged in the same process of introspection and self-judgment.
Jewish tradition holds that whenever we sin against another human being, we sin against God. However, we cannot apologize directly to God until we have first rectified the wrong with the person whom we have offended. The first step, therefore, is to approach those whom we have wronged and ask for their forgiveness. Only then can we ask God's forgiveness. The prayers recited in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah reflect this perspective.
Rosh Hashanah, itself, means "the head of the year, or the beginning of the year. In fact, the Mishnah teaches us (Masechet Rosh Hashanah 2a) that there are four new years, and Rosh Hashanah is the new year for counting years and calculating shmittah (the sabbatical year), the yovel (the Jubilee year), saplings and vegetables. As such, it is a time of celebration, as are all new years, but unlike some, it is not merely a time for riotous festivity, but is part of a larger Season of Repentance which begins in the beginning of Elul, a month before Rosh Hashanah, with the first blast of the shofar and the first introduction of penitential prayers to the daily liturgy. The season continues through Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Day of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, includes Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and the Sukkot festival which follows five days later, lasting for seven or eight days (depending upon which tradition one follows).
Rosh Hashanah is a joyous time because it is a time of renewal and repentance, accompanied by the expectation of forgiveness. The holiday is replete with traditions and rituals reflecting this understanding. The holiday is ushered in on its eve with candles. After kiddush is recited over wine, the family shares apples and honey, symbolic of the sweet New Year we wish for others and for ourselves. Then a round challah is eaten; the shape reflects the cyclical nature of the year. It is traditional to bake the challah with raisins, another symbol of sweetness. The food eaten throughout the holiday is especially sweet: tzimmes (sweet potatoes, carrots, and dried fruits baked together) and honey cake are especially traditional.
The synagogue liturgy employs a number of metaphors which evoke the themes of the season. Chief among them are the Sovereign of God, author of life and sole power in the universe, and the Book of Life. Tradition teaches that on Rosh Hashanah God decides whether or not to write us into the Book of Life for the coming year. The decision is made on the basis of our past deeds. The Book is sealed on Yom Kippur, giving us Ten Days to repent from our sins in order to be written and sealed into the Book of Life. Many people find this image terrifying and theologically problematic. There are two sides to the image, however. One is God's sovereign power to determine life and death, but the other is our role in determining our future based on our moral/religious decisions. We are neither powerless nor all-powerful in determining our futures and the prayers of Rosh Hashanah reflect this understanding. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which encapsulates these ideas succinctly and graphically, is one of the best known prayers of the holiday liturgy; legend holds that it was composed by a rabbi in the Middle Ages who chose martyrdom over forced conversion.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the prayer services on Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar. It is a mitzvah (commandment) to hear the shofar blown and its sound reverberates in the Jewish soul. The Rambam (Moses Maimonides) wrote that the shofar wakes us up spiritually to our responsibilities to God and humanity. It calls us to repent from our sins. In addition, the shofar connects us to two occasions for its use: one past and one future. The shofar was blown at Mount Sinai when the Torah was revealed to Israel, the Torah tells us, and tradition holds that it will herald the coming Messianic Age, as well. Hence the Torah beckons us to live our lives on the continuum between Revelation and Redemption. The names of the blasts of the shofar are (1) Tekiah (one long blast; (2) Shevarim (three short blasts); and (3) Teruah (nine staccato blasts). The shofar is blown during the Torah service of Rosh Hashanah morning, following the reading, and during the musaf amidah. To here the sounds of the shofar, click here.
The Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah are Genesis chapter 21 (the birth of Isaac) on the first day and chapter 22 (the binding of Isaac) on the second day. The birth of Isaac combines the theme of birth, renewal, and the covenantal promises fulfilled for another generation. The binding of Isaac is a far more complex story which involves sacrifice, redemption, and commitment. It would appear that traditionally the Torah reading was the birth of Isaac and the subsequent chapter was read the following day because the Torah was rolled to that spot. However, the power of the Akedah (the story of the binding of Isaac) is so enormous that in many Reform congregations, the Akedah is read the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and the account of Creation (Genesis, chapter 1) is read the second day.
There is a tradition to visit a moving body of water on Rosh Hashanah afternoon and empty one's pockets of crumbs (symbolic of one's sins) into the water. This is a charming tradition, especially when the weather is good. It derives from verses from the book of the prophet Micah, which are read as the crumbs are scattered on the water:
Who is a God like you, who pardons iniquity, and passes over the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? Adonai does not retain anger for ever, because God delights in mercy. Adonai will again have compassion upon us; Adonai will suppress our iniquities; and you will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. Micah 7:18-20 You will show truth to Jacob, and loving mercy to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old.
Originally, the only requirement was that the water must be flowing -- not stagnant -- to carry away sins. Later rabbis required presence of fish: Like fish caught in nets, we are constrained by the web of sins we weave we are held down weakens our sense of self sin becomes a habit that leads us further down. Similarly, guilt can sometimes prevent us from rising above the past to become better people. Having repented throughout Elul, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, and on Rosh Hashanah morning, Tashlikh provides an opportunity to unburden ourselves of guilt that no longer serves a purpose so we can move on with our lives.
The Jewish Holidays: A Guide & Commentary by Michael Strassfeld (Harper & Row).
The How To Handbook for Jewish Living by Kerry M. Olitzky and Ronald H. Isaacs (Ktav).
It's a Mitzvah! by Bradley Shavit Artson (Behrman House and the Rabbinical Assembly).
Jewish Family & Life by Yosef I. Abramowitz and Rabbi Susan Silverman (Golden Books).
The Kid's Catalog of Jewish Holidays by David Adler (Jewish Publication Society).
Seasons for Celebration by Rabbi Karen L. Fox and Phyllis Zimbler Miller (Perigee Books).