Rosh Hashanah: The Head of the Year

Quick Facts

  • Summary: The Jewish New Year celebration
  • 2018 Date: 9th – 11th September (sunset to sunset)
  • Celebrated by: Jews, the State of Israel
  • Linked Holidays: Yom Kippur, Jewish High Holy Days

Background and Theological Significance

Rosh Hashanah (in Hebrew, רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה, meaning ‘the head of the year’) is the Jewish New Year festival that marks the beginning of the civil year. Rosh Hashanah is based upon a festival in the Torah called Yom Teruah or ‘the day of blasting’ which is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. In Leviticus 23:24-25 G-d says to Moses; ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall present the Lord’s offering by fire’. This festival occurs on the 1st Day of the Jewish month Tishrei, ten days before the commemoration of Yom Kippur. Although the Torah describes Yom Teruah as falling in the seventh month according to the liturgical year, the festival has come to mark the start of the civil year which begins in Tishrei, hence the name Rosh Hashanah.

The Hebrew calendar actually has four different New Year’s Days; one for the liturgical year, one for the civil year, one for the tithing of trees and one for the tithing of animals. Since early times the Jewish people have identified the month of Tishrei as the start of a new civil year. The reasons for this are twofold; firstly, the belief that Rosh Hashanah marks the creation of Adam and Eve and therefore celebrates the origins of humanity; and secondly, the general tendency among Middle Eastern societies to begin years according to the agricultural harvest. Rosh Hashanah has become the most prominent New Year celebration for the majority of Jews and is now one of the largest Jewish celebrations throughout the year.

History

Rosh Hashanah originated in the Torah as the festival of Yom Teruah, ‘the day of blasting’, part of the High Holy Days season that lead to the great commemoration of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The festival gained its name from the tradition of blowing a shofar (a ram’s horn trumpet) on this day, in remembrance of the Binding of Isaac. Later Jewish tradition in the Mishnah suggested that the festival was seen as a day of judgement when the names of the righteous, wicked and those in-between were recorded in the book of life, with the semi-righteous given ten days until Yom Kippur to atone and become righteous. Yom Teruah was later chosen as the date for the start of the civil year, in part due to it coinciding with the harvest time and the start of a new agricultural year.

The 1st Day of Tishrei falls 163 days after the start of Pesach, although Jewish authorities have taken measures to ensure that Rosh Hashanah does not fall on a Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday. The Hebrew calendar is based on twelve lunar months, making it shorter than the Gregorian calendar by approximately 11 days each year. Although an intercalary month is inserted every few years to align it with the solar year, the inconsistency means that Rosh Hashanah will occur anywhere between 5th September and 5th October according to the Gregorian calendar.

What Happens?

Rosh Hashanah was originally celebrated as a one-day festival, starting at sunset on the last day of Elul (the previous Hebrew month) and ending at sunset on the first day of Tishrei. However, since the destruction of the Second Temple it has been traditional to observe it as a two-day celebration on the 1st and 2nd Days of Tishrei, a practice that is particularly common amongst Conservative and Orthodox Jews. Karaite Jews do not regard the 1st Day of Tishrei as Rosh Hashanah due to it being a Rabbinic tradition rather than a decree from the Torah, and they only celebrate the day as Yom Teruah.

Rosh Hashanah starts after sunset on the 29th Day of Elul. The services in the synagogues have special festive additions, including reading special poems called piyyutim and blowing the shofar several times. Jewish communities meet to celebrate together with food and fellowship. It is traditional to eat apples dipped in honey to welcome a sweet new year, as well as fruit, bread and a whole fish with the head intact. Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews often celebrate Rosh Hashanah by performing a ritual called tashlikh, when they throw bread or stones into flowing water to symbolise casting away their sins. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated by Jews round the world and has grown to include different traditions and customs as part of the New Year’s celebration. It remains one of the great festivals of the Hebrew calendar that brings together Jews from all traditions to celebrate their common heritage and faith.

Shofar in Rosh Hashanah‘ by מינוזיג is licensed under CC by SA 4.0

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