Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first and second days of Tishri. In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah literally means, “head of the year” or “first of the year.” Rosh Hashanah is commonly known as the Jewish New Year. This name is somewhat deceptive, because there is little similarity between Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the year, and the American midnight drinking bash that is commonly followed the next day by a football game party.
There is, however, one important similarity between the Jewish New Year and the American one: Many Americans use the New Year as a time to plan a better life, often making “resolutions.” Likewise, the Jewish New Year is a time to begin introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and planning the changes to make in the New Year.
The name “Rosh Hashanah” is not used in the Bible to discuss this holiday. The Bible refers to the holiday as Yom Ha-Zikkaron (the day of remembrance) or Yom Teruah (the day of the sounding of the shofar). The holiday is instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25.
The shofar or the ram’s horn is blown somewhat like a trumpet. One of the most important observances of this holiday is hearing the sounding of the shofar in the synagogue. A total of 100 notes are sounded each day. The Bible gives no specific reason for this practice. One that has been suggested is that the shofar’s sound is a call to repentance.
Another popular observance during this holiday is eating apples dipped in honey, a symbol of our wish for a sweet new year. We also dip bread in honey (instead of the usual practice of sprinkling salt on it) at this time of year for the same reason.
Another popular practice of the holiday is Tashlikh, “casting off”. We walk to flowing water, such as a creek or river, on the afternoon of the first day and empty our pockets into the river, symbolically casting off our sins. Small pieces of bread are commonly put in the pocket to cast off. This practice is not discussed in the Bible, but is a long-standing custom.
The common greeting at this time is L’shanah tovah (“for a good year”). This is a shortening of “L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem” (or to women, “L’shanah tovah tikatevi v’taihatemi”), which means “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”
Judaism has several different “new years,” a concept which may seem strange at first, but think of it this way: the American “new year” starts in January, but the new “school year” starts in September, and many businesses have “fiscal years” that start at various times of the year.
In Judaism, Nissan 1 is the new year for the purpose of counting the reign of kings and months on the calendar, Elul 1 (in August) is the new year for the tithing of animals, Shevat 15 (in February) is the new year for trees (determining when first fruits can be eaten, etc.), and Tishri 1 (Rosh Hashanah) is the new year for years when we increase the year number.
So, during this holiday at least get some apples, dip them in honey and may you too have a sweet new year. L’shanah Tovah.