With a name that translates to “head of the year,” Rosh Hashanah marks the Jewish celebration of the birth of the universe, the changing of the civil calendar, and the start of the religion's High Holidays. It is also known by the names of Yom Teruah (Day of Shofar Blowing), Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance), and Yom Hadin (Day of Judgment).
As one of the holiest times of the year for observers, Rosh Hashanah is commemorated by the blowing of a shofar, usually fashioned from a ram's horn, and the recitation of special prayers. Other traditions include the consumption of apples dipped in honey and the customary greeting of "L'shanah tovah,” which translates to "for a good year."
When Is Rosh Hashanah?
The two-day holiday begins on sundown before 1 Tishrei, the first day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, this typically falls somewhere between September 5 and October 5 each year.
The celebration commences the Yamim Nora'im — the 10 Days of Awe that culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Origins of Rosh Hashanah
There is no specific mention of Rosh Hashanah in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, though Leviticus 23:24 refers to the first day of the seventh month as a time of rest, marked by a convocation and blasting of horns.
The term Rosh Hashanah first appears in the Book of Ezekiel, written during the Babylonian exile of the Hebrews in the 6th century BCE. However, this passage merely refers to the start of a new year, without any mention of a celebration.
By the time rabbinic teachings were compiled into the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish oral laws, circa 200 CE, Rosh Hashanah had become a period in which humans are subjected to the divine judgment of God. A follow-up text, the Gemara, expands on this concept by explaining how God inscribes the names of everyone into one of three books: the righteous earn another year of life, the wicked are condemned to death, and those in-between, which comprises most of the population, have 10 days to reflect and repent for their sins.
It's unclear how Rosh Hashanah grew from a minor celebration into a major holiday by the time the rabbinic laws were put into writing, though one theory holds that Jews were influenced by the Babylonian new year's festival of Akitu, which emphasizes the sovereignty of their chief god, Marduk. As for why the holiday takes place over two days instead of one, it's believed the extra time was granted to allow messengers to relay news of the new moon (and thus the start of festivities) to remote members of the diaspora.
Celebrations: Shofar, Prayers, and Food
The shofar holds a special place in Jewish scripture: It symbolizes the story of Abraham's sacrificial offering of a ram in place of his son Isaac. This horn is typically blown 100 times during Rosh Hashanah's morning services, its blasts varying in length from teruah (staccato) and shevarim (short) to tekiah (long) and tekiah gedolah (an extended tekiah).
As befitting the holiday's importance, Jews put aside their work and spend a significant portion of the two days attending services and reading from a special prayer book known as the machzor. Specific passages recount the births of Isaac and Samuel the Prophet, as well as the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. Services also feature a lengthier version of the amidah, the main Jewish prayer, with additions touching on themes of the new year, God's kingship, and the significance of the shofar.
Along with the candle lighting and blessings that typically accompany Jewish holiday feasts, the first night of Rosh Hashanah commences with the eating of apples dipped in honey to represent the wish for a "sweet" new year. Other traditional foods include fish heads, pomegranates, and tzimmes, a carrot-based dish.
Although these particular foods are typically ingested only at the first meal, Jews are permitted to eat challah bread on both days of the holiday. Baked in a circular shape instead of the usual braided loaf, to symbolize the crown of God, the challah is also dipped in honey instead of receiving its typical salt flavoring.
The first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah is marked by the ceremony of tashlich, in which participants toss pieces of bread into running water to represent the cleansing of their sins.
Another established tradition is the exchanging of new year's cards, which dates back to at least the 14th century, though this practice has become less common in an age when messages are often relayed by texts or social media.
Finally, there are the customary greetings of "L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem" for men and "L'shanah tovah tikatevi v'taihatemi" for women, which both mean, "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year." However, the shortened version of "L'shanah tovah" is often used instead, its informality enabling the Hebrew phrase to enter secular conversation in the same manner that "mazel tov" is used to express congratulations.