Observances and Customs of Rosh Hashanah

During the Days of Awe, or even sometime before the holidays begin, it is customary for Jews to send greeting cards to friends and family, wishing them a Shanah Tovah (good year). Jews also have a special way of greeting each other during this time of the year. They may say L'shanah tovah! (for a good year) or L'shanah tovah tikatevu v'taihatemu! (may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year), which is a more formal greeting.

On the last Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, observant Jews attend a special nighttime service known as Selichot (forgiveness), which includes a series of important prayers. Around midnight, the congregation reviews the thirteen attributes of God, a ceremony that helps prepare everyone for the approaching holy days.

Welcoming the New Year

Rosh Hashanah is announced by the sounding of the shofar, a trumpet made of a ram's horn. During biblical times, people used the shofar as a method of communication, sending signals from one mountain peak to another. Blowing the shofar also heralded important events such as holidays, the new moon, or preparation for war.

According to Jewish tradition, the shofar is symbolic of Abraham's aborted sacrifice of Isaac, when a ram was offered in Isaac's stead. Today, its plaintive and evoking tone is designed to stir the heart of every Jew to repentance and toward a closer relationship with God.

It is customary during any holiday to follow the Torah principle of hiddur mitzvah (beautification of the commandment), which requires taking additional time and effort to observe rituals in a more beautiful and exceptional manner. This is why during this time of year, Shabbat and holiday dinners are served upon the best dishes, glassware, and fine linen. Frequently, people will adorn their home with fresh flowers.

The shofar is not just a plain ram's horn. The horn needs to be treated with a special cleaning process that hollows it out to produce three basic sounds: teki'yah, a single blast; teru'ah, a series of three short blasts; and shevarim, a series of nine short staccato blasts. It is considered a great honor to blow the shofar, and it is no easy task. Though it works a little like a trumpet or bugle, it's more difficult to blow the shofar and produce the right sounds.

The ceremony of blowing the shofar is generally conducted in the synagogue. At home, Rosh Hashanah is welcomed by the lighting of two candles, over which the mother of the family recites two special blessings. Then, the father recites the Kiddush (blessing over the wine) and the motzi (blessing over bread), which is made over two loaves of specially prepared challah.

Challah prepared for Rosh Hashanah is baked in a round shape, to symbolize a crown and remind the Jewish people of the sovereignty of God. Another explanation is that the round challah represents the circle of life and the hope that it will continue for eternity.

The Holiday Dinner

There are no special menus designated for the Rosh Hashanah dinner; traditionally, the meal is similar to a Shabbat dinner. However, there is one special dish that is customarily served on Rosh Hashanah—apples and honey. That's because dipping apples in honey is symbolic of having a sweet new year. Honey is also spread over bread or included in recipes such as honey cakes or tzimmes, a sweet stew made of carrots, cinnamon, yams, and/or prunes (the recipes vary). Other symbolic foods include carrots, leeks, cabbage, beets, dates, gourds, pomegranates, and fish.

A Ceremony of Purification

Even though Rosh Hashanah is a happy, festive holiday, we should remember the somber nature of the Days of Repentance. On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, observant Jews perform the ritual of Tashlikh (casting off). The ceremony involves walking to a body of water, reciting designated prayers, and then emptying one's pockets or tossing bread crumbs into the water. These actions symbolize casting off sins of the last year in order to be pure in the eyes of God.

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