Rosh Hashanah Quick Facts

Hebrew Meaning of Name: “Head of the Year”

English Name: Jewish New Year

Transliteration: Rosh Hashana

Western Calendar Month: September or October

Jewish Calendar Date: Tishrei 1–2

Duration: Two days outside Israel, one day in Israel; marks the beginning of the Ten Days of Awe, which conclude with Yom Kippur

Establishment of Rosh Hashanah In the Bible: Leviticus 23:23–25; Numbers 29:1

Purpose of Rosh Hashanah

Literally the “head of the year,” Rosh Hashanah is one of four new year holidays designated in the Jewish calendar and the de facto “Jewish New Year.”[1] The first of the two High Holy Days listed in Leviticus (Yom Kippur being the second), Rosh Hashanah is at once a joyous celebration and a time of solemn reflection.

Originally a “memorial of blowing of trumpets,” Rosh Hashanah has by rabbinical tradition become a “Day of Judgment.” The holiday—and the Ten Days of Awe that fall between it and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)—provides us with an opportunity to make amends for past wrongs in preparation for the new year.

Origin of Rosh Hashanah

In Leviticus 23: 23–25, the Lord establishes the Day of Trumpets:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work, and you shall present a food offering to the LORD.”[2]

This holy convocation formed the basis for what we now know as Rosh Hashanah. The sound of the trumpets reminded our people of the Lord’s faithfulness thus far, rang in the year to come, and also hinted at the future coming of the Messiah.

For many years, however, this memorial day to the Lord fell into disuse, as we see in the book of Nehemiah.

A little parable will help us understand. Imagine finding, after many years, a trove of letters that your father had left you before he died. In these affectionate and heretofore-unseen letters you discover instructions for living up to the family name; you realize with some shame that you have completely failed to follow these instructions, but you resolve to carry them out from now on.

This metaphor for the plight of the ancient Israelites isn’t perfect, but it gives a sense of what happened to our people during the time of Nehemiah. Nehemiah 8–9 tells us that on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei), the Israelites gathered by the water gate in Jerusalem to listen to the Levites (members of the priestly tribe). Ezra the Scribe opened the scroll of the Torah and read from it. The Israelites wept when they heard him read, for they had lived in ignorance for so long that they no longer knew the precepts of the Torah.

It was a bitter discovery, but Nehemiah and the Levites told the Israelites not to despair:

Then [Nehemiah] said to them,“Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”

(Nehemiah 8:10–11)

The feasting which Nehemiah commanded for the first of Tishrei was a key precedent for establishing the tenor and significance of Rosh Hashanah. The passage’s most salient emotions—sorrow for past wrongs and joy at the prospect of reconciliation—have imbued the holiday of Rosh Hashanah ever since.

How Rosh Hashanah Is Observed

Many Jews spend the month of Elul, which directly precedes Rosh Hashanah, in prayer and preparation for the High Holy Day season. This is considered a propitious time for making amends for past wrongs and turning one’s heart towards God (called teshuvah—see this article on the “Book of Life” for more on this concept).

The heart of Rosh Hashanah itself is the blowing of the shofar. One author writes, “the sound of the shofar was the call to arms, the alarm for any disaster, the signal to assemble for community business, the solemn announcement of an excommunication. It calls up the remembrance of Sinai when the sound issued from a thick cloud and the people trembled…. And such a sound will announce the time of the Great Day of the Lord.” The shofar is a sacred sound whose various blasts express the soul of our people—our despair, our penitence, our hope, our earnest expectation.

The Talmudic discussions summarized in the Rosh Hashanah tractate have led to very precise prescriptions regarding the construction and the blowing of the shofar.  Throughout the Rosh Hashanah service, the shofar is blown in a set order, ultimately totaling 100 blasts. In each cycle of blowing, tekiah, a long blast originally used in battle as a call to arms, is followed by the galloping shevarim (lit. “broken”), three sobbing sounds that remind us of our sinful, broken state. Then comes the teruah, nine short staccato sounds, and the cycle of blasts concludes with the long, wailing tekiah gedolah.

Aside from the blowing of the shofar, a unique program of liturgy accompanies Rosh Hashanah. We do not recite the Hallel (Psalms 113–118) on Rosh Hashanah because it is a solemn High Holy Day and these psalms are reserved for joyous occasions. The Shehecheyanu (a prayer for special occasions, thanking the Lord for “bringing us to this season”) is said on the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah. To justify the second utterance of this prayer, many Jewish people dress up in new clothes or eat new foods so that they have something “new” to thank God for.

Ten verses of three sorts must be read on Rosh Hashanah—malkiyyot, zichronot, and shofrot. Malkiyyot are verses that praise God as King (a Hebrew name for God is “Avinu malkeinu,” “Our Father our King”). Zichronot are verses of remembrance, from the word zikaron, remembrance[3]. Shofrot concern the blowing of the shofar. The cumulative effect of reciting these many verses is akin to the blowing of different kinds of blasts on the shofar—just as each blast conveys a unique emotional timbre (attention, sorrow, readiness), so too do these verses convey unique aspects of God’s character (sovereignty, faithfulness, presence).

“Selichot” or prayers and poems of repentance are added to the daily liturgy before the start of Rosh Hashanah and continue until Yom Kippur. They lay a special emphasis on God’s traditional “Thirteen Attributes.”

Special Synagogue Readings for Rosh Hashanah

Much like the waxing and waning moon, which Jews looked to in ancient times to determine the beginning of a lunar month (e.g., Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishrei), God’s relationship with His people has changed over time, depending on  Israel’s obedience or rebelliousness. Our people have attempted to build this cyclical pattern into the Jewish calendar. Jews interpret the summer holiday Tisha B’Av as the most mournful day of the year; Tu B’Av, the Jewish day of love, marks a shift in tone. By Elul (August–September), the people’s desire for God and appreciation of His lovingkindness intensifies, until this love reaches a fever pitch on Rosh Hashanah, a day of acclamation and praise for God the King.

For this reason, the Torah and haftarah portions on the first day of Rosh Hashanah concern barren women who conceive, occasions that show God’s love in a special way.

Sarai, who afterwards was named Sarah, found favor with the Lord and was blessed with a child, Isaac, who fathered Israel.

Hannah, who fervently implored the Lord to give her a child, promising to dedicate him to His service, bore Samuel, one of the prophets of Israel. And in fact, the Lord rewards those who show steadfastness and faith in their prayers. The Talmud says that the Jews have this advantage over all other people—they fight with their tears. Through earnest beseeching the Lord hears and answers our prayers when they are made with a right heart. Lamentations 3:25 says: “The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul that seeks Him.”

According to rabbinical tradition, the second day’s Torah portion—Genesis 22—explains the significance of the shofar. In this famous passage, God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Just as Abraham is on the verge of sacrificing his son, the Lord intervenes and tells him not to. Abraham finds a ram nearby and sacrifices it as a substitute. Thus the ram (and by extension, its horns, shophar or shofar) has come to symbolize the Lord’s mercy.

First Day:

Torah portion: Genesis 21 (Sarah conceives)

Maftir: Numbers 29:1–6

Haftarah: 1 Samuel 1:1–2:10 (Hannah conceives)

Second Day:

Torah portion: Genesis 22 (Abraham instructed to sacrifice Isaac)

Maftir: Numbers 29:1–6

Haftarah: Jeremiah 31:1–19

Traditional Customs and Folklore of Rosh Hashanah

Jews customarily prepare round loaves of challah on Rosh Hashanah to celebrate the rounding out of the year and the continuation of the liturgical cycle, sometimes braiding the challah in patterns such as crowns (to symbolize God’s kingship) or ladders (to symbolize the ascent and descent of people through life on the Day of Judgment). We dip the challah in honey on Rosh Hashanah, since on this day we celebrate a sweet new year (l’shanah tova umetukah), along with apples dipped in honey. Apples signify roundness and thus return—the turning again of the yearly cycle, as well as our turning back to the Lord (teshuvah, or repentance) and the Lord’s turning back in compassion to His people. Jews traditionally abstain from nuts on Rosh Hashanah because they supposedly cause phlegm buildup, making it difficult to say the holiday’s many prayers. Another reason is because the letters for “nut” in Hebrew (egoz) add up to seventeen, the numerical equivalent of “sin” (chet).

On Rosh Hashanah, we tell each other “L’shana tova tikatev v’tichatem,” which translates to: “May you be inscribed for a good year.” The “inscribing” refers to the Book of Life, where our names are said to be recorded on Rosh Hashanah and “sealed” on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)[4]. These words often appear on decorative greeting cards, which it has become customary to send on Rosh Hashanah. People usually send greeting cards from a week ahead of Rosh Hashanah until a week or so after, wishing friends and family health and prosperity in the new year.

Although never endorsed by the rabbis, the tradition of Tishlikh has long enjoyed popularity among Jewish people and it’s not hard to see why. During Tishlikh groups gather near a body of flowing water with fish—a river or brook if possible, but in dry places a pond or well will do. Then all those assembled empty their pockets into the water or scatter bread. The lint and other rubbish, or alternately the bread, cast into the water signify our past sins and misdeeds, an act inspired by a verse in the Book of Micah: “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (v. 7:19b).

Rosh Hashanah in the New Testament

As Messianic Jews, we know that our names have been forever inscribed in the Book of Life, for we have found atonement through the death of Yeshua.[5] Nevertheless, we join the Jewish community in choosing to look back on and commemorate the closing of another year and the beginning of the next. Whereas some Jews believe in an annual day of accounting for one’s actions, we believe that Yeshua’s death has atoned for our sins forever. Nevertheless, we hear the blast of the shofar at Rosh Hashanah as an ongoing call to spiritual vigilance, and it expresses our yearning for the Lord. Not only that, for us the shofar serves as a reminder of Yeshua’s coming return. “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Messiah will shine on you,” the Apostle Paul writes in (Ephesians 5:14). “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Messiah will rise first.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).

As the season approaches, you might want to pick up a few New Year’s greeting cards to send to Jewish friends and family. They will appreciate your thinking of them during this special time of year, just as, if you are not Jewish, you appreciate their thoughtfulness in sending you Christmas greetings.

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End Notes

  1. Although Rosh Hashanah is celebrated as the primary New Year, the Mishnah tells us, “There are four new years. On the first of Nisan is new year for kings and for festivals. On the first of Elul is new year for the tithe of cattle. . . . On the first of Tishri is New Year for Years, for release and Jubilee years, for plantation and for [tithe of] vegetables. On the first of Shebat is New Year for Trees…” (Rosh Hashanah 1.I)
  2. Cf. Numbers 29:1: ‘And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall do no customary work. For you it is a day of blowing the trumpets.’ And Psalm 81:3–4: “Blow the trumpet at the time of the New Moon, at the full moon, on our solemn feast day. For this is a statute for Israel, a law of the God of Jacob.”
  3. Another name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Hazikaron, not to be confused with another Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day.
  4. The Book of LIfe is first mentioned by Moses in the Exodus: “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written!” (vv. 32:31–32). The Mishnah states that the Book of Life records man’s deeds: “Know what is above thee—a seeing eye and a hearing ear, and thy deeds written in a book” (Avot 2.1).
  5. The Apostles John and Paul make reference to the same Book of Life in the New Testament, thus marking it as an image shared by Jews and Christians alike.

Jewish Holidays 2017

Note that in the Jewish calendar, a holiday begins on the sunset of the previous day:

Jewish Holidays 2018

Zohar the Shofar

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Rosh Hashanah in 60 Seconds

Kosher Joe: Rosh Hashanah

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