Tonight begins the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which begins at sunset this evening, September 13th, and ends on at sunset on September 14th.
In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means, literally, “head of the year” or “first of the year” and is commonly known as the Jewish New Year. The holiday is a solemn one and is a time of introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and planning the changes to make in the new year, similar to the secular “New Year’s Resolutions” so many make every January 1st.
Rosh Hashanah is linked to the Day of Atonement holiday, Yom Kippur, which takes place 10 days later. These two days, and the days in between, are known as the Days of Awe or the Days of Repentance and are meant to mark a time of repentance and reconciliation.
The holiday was instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25 and Jews believe that Rosh Hashanah represents, either figuratively or literally, the creation of the World or the Universe. In Jewish liturgy Rosh Hashanah is described as “the day of judgment” and “the day of remembrance”. Some early Midrashic descriptions (the Midrash is a series of early homiletic-style commentaries) depict God as sitting upon a throne, while books containing the deeds of all humanity are opened for review, and each person passing in front of Him for evaluation of his or her deeds.
No work is permitted on Rosh Hashanah. Much of the day is spent in synagogue, where the regular daily liturgy is somewhat expanded. In fact, there is a special prayer book called the Machzor used for both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because of the extensive liturgical changes for these holidays. One of the most important liturgical practices associated with this holiday is hearing the sounding of the shofar in the synagogue. The shofar is a ram’s horn which is blown somewhat like a trumpet and is blown at four particular occasions in the prayers on Rosh Hashanah.
The ritual of tashlikh is performed on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Prayers are recited near natural flowing water, and one’s sins are symbolically cast into the water. Many also have the custom to throw bread or pebbles into the water, to symbolize the “casting off” of sins. The traditional service for tashlikh is recited individually and includes the prayer “Who is like unto you, O God…And You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea”, and Biblical passages including Isaiah 11:9 (“They will not injure nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”) and Psalms 118:5-9, 121 and 130, as well as personal prayers. Though once considered a solemn individual tradition, it has become an increasingly social group ceremony for many communities.
Another popular observance during this holiday is eating apples dipped in honey, a symbol of a wish for a sweet new year. Bread is also dipped in honey (instead of the usual practice of sprinkling salt on it) at this time of year for the same reason.