Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday marking the first and second days of the Jewish year. (In 2018, Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on September 9 and continues through nightfall on September 11). It’s the day G‑d created Adam and Eve, and it’s celebrated as the head of the Jewish year.

Rosh Hashanah Is Celebrated With

  • Kiddush over wine or grape juice
  • Round, raisin challah bread dipped in honey
  • Apples dipped in honey (on the first night)
  • The head of a fish, pomegranates, and other foods symbolizing our wishes for the coming year (on the first night)
  • A new fruit (on the second night)
  • Performing Tashlich, a brief prayer said at a body of fresh water
  • Attending services in synagogue
  • Desisting from creative work

For additional instruction regarding this year, see our Rosh Hashanah calendar.

The Shofar-Blowing

A Yemenite Jew blows shofar (circa 1930s).
A Yemenite Jew blows shofar (circa 1930s).

The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is hearing the sounding of the shofar,the ram’s horn. It is a mitzvah to hear the shofar on both mornings of the holiday (except if the first day is Shabbat, in which case we only blow the shofar on the second day).

The first 30 blasts of the shofar are blown following the Torah-reading during morning services, and as many as 70 are then blown during (and immediately after) the Musaf service. For someone who cannot come to synagogue, the shofar may be blown the rest of the day. If you cannot make it out, please contact your closest Chabad center to see about arranging a “house call.”

Click here to learn more about the shofar and its significance.

Candle-Lighting

Photo: Mushka Lightstone
Photo: Mushka Lightstone

As with every major Jewish holiday, women and girls light candles on each evening of Rosh Hashanah and recite the appropriate blessings. On the second night (or if lighting after nightfall on the first night), make sure to use an existing flame. Think about a new fruit that you will be eating (or garment that you are wearing) while you say the Shehechiyanu blessing.

Click here for candle-lighting times in your area.

Festive Meal

We eat festive meals every night and day of the holiday. Like all other holiday meals, we begin by reciting kiddush over wine and then say the blessing over bread. But there are some important differences, as we’ll explain below.

Round Challah in Honey

The bread (traditionally baked into round challah loaves, and often sprinkled with raisins) is dipped into honey instead of salt, expressing our wish for a sweet year. We do this on Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat before Yom Kippur), in the pre-Yom Kippur meal and during Sukkot.

Apples in Honey

Furthering the sweet theme, it is traditional to begin the meal on the first night with slices of apple dipped in honey. Before eating the apple, we make the ha’eitz blessing and then say, “May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year.”

Fish Head and Pomegranates

Many people eat parts of the head of a fish or a ram, expressing the wish that “we be a head and not a tail.”

In many communities, there are additional traditional foods eaten, each symbolizing a wish for the coming year. Many eat pomegranates, giving voice to a wish that “our merits be many like the [seeds of the] pomegranate.” Another common food is tzimmes, a sweet, carrot-based dish eaten because of its Yiddish name, merren, which means both “carrot” and “increase,” symbolizing a wish for a year of abundance.

(Read about the elaborate array of symbolic foods eaten in Sephardic communities here.)

Keep It Sweet

It is traditional to avoid nuts (here’s why) as well as vinegar-based, sharp foods, most notably the horseradish traditionally eaten with gefilte fish, since we don’t want a bitter year.

New Fruit

On the second night of the holiday, before we break bread (and dip it in honey), we eat a “new fruit,” something we have not tasted since the last time it was in season. (Read this blog post to learn the reason for the new fruit and the other traditional foods.)

Rosh Hashanah Greetings

When you meet a fellow Jew on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, wish him, “Leshana tovah tikatev v’tichatem,” or, for a female, “Leshana tovah tikatevee v’tichatemee” (“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year”). After the first night, wish them a “G’mar chatimah tovah” (“A good inscription and sealing [in the Book of Life]”). (More on the Rosh Hashanah greetings here.)

Tashlich

Credit: Collection of Yeshiva University Museum
Credit: Collection of Yeshiva University Museum

On the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah (provided that it is not Shabbat), it is customary to go to a body of water (ocean, river, pond, etc.) and perform the Tashlich ceremony, in which we ceremonially cast our sins into the water. With this tradition we are symbolically evoking the verse “And You shall cast their sins into the depths of the sea.” The short prayer for this service can be found in your machzor.

Rosh Hashanah Prayers

Much of the day is spent in the synagogue. The evening and afternoon prayers are similar to the prayers said on a regular holiday. However, the morning services are significantly longer.

The holiday prayerbook—called a machzor—contains all the prayers and Torah readings for the entire day. The most significant addition is the shofar-blowing ceremony. However, there are also other important elements of the prayer service that are unique to Rosh Hashanah.

Torah Readings

A Torah scroll
A Torah scroll

The Torah is read on both mornings of Rosh Hashanah.

On the first day, we read about Isaac’s birth and the subsequent banishment of Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21:1–34). Appropriately, the reading is followed by a haftarah reading about the birth of Samuel the Prophet (I Samuel 1:1–2:10). There is a common theme in these readings: prayers for children were answered, and both births took place on Rosh Hashanah.

On the second morning, we read about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac, a powerful display of Abraham’s devotion to G‑d, which has characterized His children ever since (Genesis 22:1–24). As mentioned above, the shofar-blowing recalls the ram, which figures prominently in this story. The haftarah tells of G‑d’s eternal love for His people (Jeremiah 31:1–19).

(More on the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah here.)

Extra Prayers

The open ark in the main sanctuary of Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie.
The open ark in the main sanctuary of Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie.

The cantor’s repetition of the Amidah (Silent Prayer) is peppered with piyyutim, poetic prayers that express our prayerful wishes for the year and other themes of the day. For certain selections, those deemed especially powerful, the ark is opened. Many of these additions are meant to be said responsively, as a joint effort between the prayer leader and the congregation.

Even without the added piyyutim, the Rosh Hashanah Musaf prayer is significantly longer than it is the rest of the year. This is because its single middle blessing is divided into three additional blessings, each focusing on another one of the holiday’s main themes: G‑d’s kingship, our wish that He “remember” us for the good, and the shofar. Each blessing contains a collage of biblical verses that express its theme, and is then followed by a round of shofar-blowing.

What’s Next?

Lulavim and etrogim for sale in Israel prior to Sukkot (file photo).
Lulavim and etrogim for sale in Israel prior to Sukkot (file photo).

Rosh Hashanah is the start of the Yamim Nora’im (High Holidays). The holy day of Yom Kippur, when we gather in the synagogue for 25 hours of fasting, prayer and inspiration, is just a week later. The days in between (known as the 10 Days of Repentance, or the Ten Days of Return) are an especially propitious time for teshuvah, returning to G‑d. Yom Kippur is followed by the joyous holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah.

The season of the High Holidays is an epic journey for the soul, and Rosh Hashanah is where it all begins.