This article is a guide to the laws that are specific to Rosh Hashanah. For a general guide to the laws pertaining to all holidays (for example, the laws of cooking and carrying), see Laws of Yom Tov.

Most of us think of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, as a very serious day—the day on which we proclaim G‑d as King of the universe as He sits in judgment of the world and its inhabitants. And yet, Rosh Hashanah is also a joyous holiday, since we have faith that G‑d will grant us a sweet new year. These two ideas are expressed in the different laws and customs of Rosh Hashanah.

Selichot

With the new year rapidly approaching, our preparations for the High Holidays move into high gear. Several days before Rosh Hashanah, we begin to recite the Selichot—a collection of penitential prayers and liturgy—before the morning prayers.

According to Ashkenazic custom, the first Selichot are recited after “halachic midnight” on the Saturday night preceding Rosh Hashanah. Since a minimum of four days of Selichot must be observed, if the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Monday or Tuesday evening, we begin reciting Selichot on the previous Saturday night. Following the Saturday night service, Selichot are recited daily before morning prayers until Rosh Hashanah (except on Shabbat).

Sephardim recite Selichot throughout the entire month of Elul.

Selichot are meant to be recited with a minyan. Why is that? First of all, we are assured that any prayers recited with a minyan are not turned away by G‑d.1 However, there is another reason that is unique to Selichot:

At the heart of Selichot are the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy, which G‑d taught Moses as a tool to obtain divine forgiveness. According to the Talmud, G‑d revealed the Thirteen Attributes while “wrapped in a tallit, like a cantor leading the congregation.”2 Therefore, they are considered davar sheb’kedusha, “words of holiness,” which are said only with a “congregation,” i.e., a minyan, just like Kaddish.3

What if you cannot make it to a minyan? In that case, you can still say Selichot on your own, but whether or not you say the Thirteen Attributes depends on your custom. Many have the custom to recite the Thirteen Attributes using the tune for Torah reading, as if they are reading the verses and not “praying” them.4 The Chabad custom, however, is to omit the section of the Thirteen Attributes completely when praying alone.5 Additionally, when praying alone, the custom is to omit the Aramaic passages in the Selichot.6

Erev Rosh Hashanah

On the day before Rosh Hashanah, Selichot are again recited in the early hours of the morning. The Selichot for Erev Rosh Hashanah are significantly longer than the Selichot of the previous days.

Morning Services

Regular weekday prayers are said; however, as is the case on the eve of all holidays, tachnun is omitted (it is, however, recited as part of the Selichot prayers).7

No Shofar

While the custom is to blow the shofar during the rest of the month of Elul, the shofar is not blown on Erev Rosh Hashanah,8 since we want to separate the shofar blasts of the month of Elul—which are a custom—from the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, which is a biblically ordained mitzvah.9

Hatarat Nedarim

In order that we begin the Day of Judgment and the new year free from the sin of unfulfilled vows, there is a custom to convene a Beit Din (a rabbinical court) after morning prayers to perform the Hatarat Nedarim ceremony and annul the vows we may have accidentally made during the course of the past year. A Beit Din consists of a minimum of three adult males, plus the petitioner.10 However, many, including Chabad, have the custom for ten people to sit on the Beit Din, as this is considered a court with stronger authority.11

Unlike the members of a regular Beit Din, the members of the Hatarat Nedarim Beit Din may be related to one another and do not need rabbinic qualifications.12

Hatarat Nedarim needs to be said in a language that is understood by both the petitioner and the court.13

During the Hatarat Nedarim procedure, four (or eleven14) men convene. One of them stands up and faces the remaining panel of "judges," who are seated, and asks them to annul his vows, which they do. That person is then seated, becoming part of the panel, and the next individual asks for annulment. This continues until all have had their vows annulled. (You can find the text for Hatarat Nedarim in the Tehillat Hashem siddur p. 358).

The widespread custom is that women do not do Hatarat Nedarim on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. (However, a women may appoint her husband to annul her vows along with his own. In this case, the husband should inform the court that he is seeking to nullify his wife’s vows together with his own.15)

Women can annul their vows by saying Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur along with the chazzan, since the Kol Nidrei prayer is also about annulling vows.16

Except for a husband acting on behalf of his wife, a messenger cannot be used to annul vows for someone else.17

Shemittah Year and the Pruzbul

In a Shemittah year (the Sabbatical year that comes every seven years), in addition to the agricultural restrictions that apply in Israel , the observance of Shemittah includes the forgiving of all loans and debts left unpaid at the conclusion of the Shemittah year.18 Even if a borrower wishes to repay his debt, the lender may not accept it unless he reminds the borrower that the debt has been cancelled.19

At the same time, the Torah forbids us to refrain from lending money for fear of Shemittah canceling the loan, and commands us to lend happily, despite the possibility that we may not be paid back.

When Hillel the Elder saw that the wealthy were avoiding giving loans as the Shemittah year approached, depriving the poor of desperately needed money, he came up with a novel idea. Based on the premise that only private debts are cancelled by Shemittah, and that Shemittah nowadays is only a rabbinic injunction, Hillel instituted the "pruzbul," which is a mechanism by which debts are transferred to the Jewish court, thereby making the debts public and not subject to cancellation by Shemittah.20

Customs vary as to when one should make a pruzbul. Technically, loans are cancelled only at the end of the Shemittah year. However, once the Shemittah year begins, a lender may not demand payment of a loan. For this reason, many people, including those following the Chabad custom, make a pruzbul on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, before the onset of the seventh year.21 Others have the custom of making it at the end of the Shemittah year, which is when the loans are cancelled.22 Yet others try to do it twice—at the beginning and at the end of the Shemittah year—which was the practice of the Rebbe, of righteous memory.23

To make a pruzbul, the lender stands in front of a Jewish court and releases his loans to them, saying:

הריני מוסר לכם כל החובות שיש לי, שאגבה אותם כל זמן שארצה

“I give over to you [the Beit Din] all debts which I have, so that I may collect them any time I wish.”

Since a Jewish court is needed in order to make a pruzbul, the custom is to do it right after Hatarat Nedarim, because a Jewish court has already been convened.

The Rebbe suggested that even if no one owes you any money, you should lend out a small amount of money in order to make the pruzbul.24

For more about the pruzbul, see Shemmitah Loan Amnesty.

Other Customs

Mikvah

Many men have the custom to immerse in the mikvah before Rosh Hashanah in order to enter the new year in added holiness.25

Cemetery

There is a custom to visit the cemetery on Rosh Hashanah eve, especially the graves of the righteous, and ask G‑d to forgive us in their merit.26

Fasting

Some have the custom to fast on the eve of Rosh Hashanah (at least part of the day), if fasting will not cause them any weakness.27

Tehillim/Psalms

We try to minimize frivolity and use any free time for the recitation of Psalms on the day before Rosh Hashanah, and especially during the two days of Rosh Hashanah itself.28 29

First Night of Rosh Hashanah

Candle-Lighting

To usher in the Yom Tov, women (or men, when living in an all-male household) light candles on the first and second evenings of Rosh Hashanah.

As with other holidays, one may transfer fire from a pre-existing flame on Rosh Hashanah, provided that Rosh Hashanah does not fall out on Shabbat. Therefore, before the onset of the holiday, make sure that you have a flame burning that will last throughout the holiday, such as a burner or candle, for the second night of candle-lighting and for cooking. (For more on this, see Laws of Yom Tov.)

Extinguishing a fire is not permitted on Yom Tov, so after you’ve lit the candles, let the match burn out on its own.

After lighting the candles, we recite the following special blessings.

  1. Ba-ruch A-tah . . . asher ki-deshanu . . . le-hadlik ner shel Yom Hazikaron.
    “Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to light the candle of the Day of Remembrance.”
  2. Ba-ruch A-tah….. she-heche-ya-nu ve-ki-yi-ma-nu ve-higi-a-nu liz-man ha-zeh.
    “Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.”

On the first night, we light candles before sunset, and on the second night, after nightfall. If you didn’t have a chance to light before sunset on the first night, you may light after sunset, provided that you use a pre-existing flame.

For candle-lighting times in your area, see Candle-Lighting Times for Shabbat & Holidays.

Prayers

There are many additional prayers on Rosh Hashanah, which you will find in your machzor. The Amidah (“The Standing Prayer”) that we say between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur also has some small changes:

  • At the end of the third blessing, instead of ending with the words “ha-El hakodosh,” “the holy G‑d,” we end with “hamelech hakodosh,” “the holy king.”30 What happens if you forget and say “ha-El hakodosh” as usual? If you realize your mistake right away, just correct yourself and say “hamelech hakodosh.” If you’ve already started the next blessing, you need to restart the Amidah.
  • In the first blessing, we add, “Zochreinu L’chaim . . .” - "Remember us for life, King who delights in life; and inscribe us in the book of life, for Your sake, living God."
  • In the second, we add, “Mi kamocha . . ." - “Who is like You, merciful Father, who in compassion remembers His creatures for life."
  • In the second-to-last blessing, we add, “U’kesov L’chaim . . .” - “And inscribe all the children of Your covenant for good life.”
  • In the last benediction, we add, “U’besefer Chaim . . .” - “May we be remembered and inscribed before You in the book of life, of blessing, of peace and of good sustenance."31
  • Instead of saying “oseh sholom” at the end of the Amidah and Kaddish, we say “oseh hasholom.”32

If one omitted any of the above changes (besides for hamelech), one does not have to repeat the Amidah.

During Kaddish, after the word “l’eila,” many have the custom to add the word “u’l’eila,” referring to G‑d as “above and beyond blessings, praises, etc.”;33 the Chabad custom is to only do so in the Kaddish of Neilah on Yom Kippur.34

After services on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, it is traditional to greet males with “Leshanah tovah tikatev v’tichatem” (לשנה טובה תכתב ותחתם) and females with “Leshanah tovah tikatevee v’tichatemee” (לשנה טובה תכתבי ותחתמי), meaning, “May you be written and sealed for a good year.”35

After the first night, we no longer wish each other this specific blessing, since we assume that our fellow has already been inscribed for a good year right at the start of the holiday. Instead, you can simply wish others a good year, or “Gemar chatima tovah” (גמר חתימה טובה), “A good ‘final sealing.’”

For more on the traditional greetings see What Is Shanah Tovah? New Year Greeting Translation and More.

Kiddush

We begin the meal with the holiday kiddush over wine, followed by the shehecheyanu blessing (see “Candle-Lighting” above). If the same person is both lighting the candles and making kiddush, he or she does not repeat the blessing of shehecheyanu during kiddush.

Meal

In many instances in the Bible, when G‑d reveals a prophecy to a person, He then tells the prophet to perform a physical sign (e.g. Ezekiel was commanded to make a model of the future Temple), thus ensuring that the prophecy will be actualized not just in the spiritual realms, but in the physical as well. Similarly, on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, we eat several foods which symbolize the type of year we wish to have.36

After washing for bread and making the blessing on the challah, the custom is to dip the challah into honey instead of salt (some do it in addition to salt).37 The Chabad custom is to continue to dip the challah into honey for all Shabbat and holiday meals through Hoshanah Rabbah.38

At the start of the meal, we dip a piece of sweet apple into honey.39 Before eating it, we make the blessing ha’etz over the apple and then add:40

Ye-hi ratzon she-ti-cha-desh alei-nu shanah tovah u-m'tu-kah.

“May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year.”

A head of a ram,41 fish or other kosher animal is served. This symbolizes our desire to be a "head and not a tail.”42

A pomegranate is also eaten, symbolizing our wish to have a year full of mitzvahs and good deeds, as a pomegranate is filled with luscious seeds.43 (Although the official Rosh Hashanah new fruit is eaten on the second night, if one has not had any of the symbolic fruits, such as the pomegranate, the entire season, he should recite the shecheyanu blessing on the fruit.44)

In addition to those foods mentioned, it is customary that throughout the meal, we eat foods whose names in the vernacular allude to blessing and prosperity. For example, many have the custom of eating a carrot dish, because in Yiddish the word for “carrots,” “meren,” means “to multiply.”

Sour or Bitter foods

Throughout Rosh Hashanah, many have the custom to refrain from eating foods which are sour, bitter or tart. Instead, the focus is on sweet foods, symbolizing our desire to have a sweet year, blessings and abundance.45 Therefore, the custom is to not prepare dishes that taste vinegary or lemony.46

Oh, Nuts

It is customary not to eat nuts on Rosh Hashanah. Why?

One reason is that nuts tend to increase saliva in your mouth, making prayer difficult.47 Another reason is that the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for "nut," “egoz,” is seventeen. Seventeen is also the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word for “sin,” “chet,”48 and on Rosh Hashanah we want to stay far away from anything reminiscent of sin.49

For more on this, see Is it true we don't eat nuts on Rosh Hashanah?

Don’t Snooze

Every moment of Rosh Hashanah is precious, so you want to use them all to the fullest. Spend any extra time in prayer—especially reciting psalms. This time is so special that we even try to minimize our sleep and avoid frivolous talk and activity.50

Second Night of Rosh Hashanah

Since one is not allowed to prepare for the second day of Yom Tov on the first day, all preparations for the second day, including candle-lighting, should be done after nightfall.

New Fruit

Usually when a holiday is two days long, we recite the blessing of shehecheyanu, thanking G‑d for reaching this special occasion, at the onset of each day of the holiday. After all, the reason the holiday is two days long is that, due to the way the new months were sanctified in ancient times, we were unsure of which day was really the first day of the holiday (for more on this, see Why are holidays celebrated an extra day in the Diaspora?)

However, with regard to the two days of Rosh Hashanah, even in ancient times in Israel they kept the holiday for two days. Therefore, the Talmud tells us that the entire Rosh Hashanah is considered to be one long holiday.51 Based on this, there is a minority opinion which holds that one should not make a shehecheyanu on the second night.

Therefore, to accommodate this opinion, it is customary that on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, a "new fruit," i.e., a seasonal fruit which we have not yet tasted since its season began, should be present on the table when the holiday candles are kindled and during kiddush. While reciting the shehecheyanu blessing after candle-lighting or kiddush, have the new fruit in mind.

Since the shehecheyanu we just said during kiddush applied to the fruit as well, we eat the fruit right after we sip the kiddush wine, even before washing for bread.52

Even if you cannot get a new fruit, you still recite shehecheyanu, since the halachah follows the majority opinion that shehecheyanu needs to be recited the second night as well.53

After eating the new fruit, if one ate the amount of a kezayit (a bit less than an ounce), an after-blessing is made, and then we wash our hands and eat the challah dipped in honey.

Many have the custom to eat the symbolic foods, such as the apple dipped in honey and the pomegranate, on the second night as well. While this is not a Chabad custom,54 there is no reason to specifically refrain from eating these foods if you like them.

Rosh Hashanah Day

Prayers

Many have the custom not to eat anything before hearing the shofar. If you feel weak or fear that hunger will distract you from being able to pray properly, you may eat or drink, but make sure not to have a meal55 (i.e. don’t wash for bread or have more than two ounces of mezonot56).

Until the Shacharit Amidah, with a few notable exceptions, the morning prayer is the same as every Shabbat and holiday. The exceptions are:

  • Before Borchu, instead of saying, “O king who sits on a lofty and sublime throne,” we say, “The king is seated on a lofty . . .” The difference is that during the year, we feel more distant, while on Rosh Hashanah, we understand that our King is very near to us.
  • Right before Borchu, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, the custom is to recite Psalm 130.
  • After Borchu, if Rosh Hashanah is a weekday, we skip the special Shabbat readings in which we exalt G‑d’s creating the world and resting on the Shabbat, and follow the regular weekday routine.

From the Amidah and on, the Rosh Hashanah prayers are very different than a normal Shabbat or holiday, so pay careful attention to your machzor.

During the repetition of the Amidah, the Torah ark is opened and closed for various parts of the prayer. If you aren’t too tired or weak, it is preferable to stand while the ark is open.

Torah Reading

After the ark is opened, but before taking out the Torah scrolls, the congregation recites the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy three times.

Two Torah scrolls are taken out. On the first day, we read about the birth of Isaac, and on the second, about the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. In the second scroll, on both days, we read about the special offerings that were brought on Rosh Hashanah.

The Haftorah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is from I Samuel 1:1–2:10, which describes the birth of the prophet Samuel to Elkanah and his wife Chanah, who had been childless for many years.

The Haftorah for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is from Jeremiah 31:1–19, which talks about G‑d’s everlasting love for His people, and the future ingathering of the exiles.

Shofar

After reading from the Torah and Haftorah, it’s time to get ready for the mitzvah of the day: blowing of the shofar.

Before blowing the shofar in the synagogue, the custom is to recite Psalm 47 seven times. Afterward, we recite verses in the form of an acrostic that spells out the the words “kera Satan,” “rip the Satan,” the Heavenly prosecutor.

The entire congregation then listens as the shofar-blower recites the blessings. When listening to the blessings, have in mind that these blessings should also apply to the additional shofar blasts during the Musaf prayer. In order to “connect” the blessings to the mitzvah that follows, refrain from talking until the last shofar-blowing at the end of the Musaf prayers.

You need to hear the shofar blasts, as do the people around you, so it is very important to remain silent and listen carefully as the thirty shofar blasts are blown.

After the blowing of the shofar, the Torah scrolls are returned to the ark.

Musaf

The Talmud tells us that on Rosh Hashanah, G‑d asks of us, “Say before Me [verses whose themes are] sovereignty, remembrances and shofar. Sovereignty, so that you should crown Me king over you; remembrances, so that I should remember you for good; and with what? With a shofar.”57

Therefore, the Musaf Amidah includes three special blessings: one about G‑d’s sovereignty; another about how He remembers His creation; and a third about the power of the call of the shofar. Each blessing contains verses which follow the theme of that blessing. After each one of these three blessings, we blow ten shofar blasts.58

In many synagogues, during the silent Amidah, the chazzan bangs on the bimah to indicate that he reached the end of one of the blessings, and then the shofar is blown. If you are taking your time and are not yet up to that spot, pause and listen silently to the shofar blasts, and afterward continue with your prayers.59

If, for whatever reason, you are praying without a minyan, do not blow the shofar after these blessings.60

These three special blessings, together with the shofar blasts, are repeated during the chazzan’s repetition of the Amidah. After the repetition of the Amidah, it is customary to blow yet another ten blasts, for a total of one hundred blasts. Additionally, Chabad has the custom to blow another thirty blasts after the prayers have been concluded; however, you should not be concerned if you miss those blasts, since you have already fulfilled the mitzvah of hearing the shofar.

Kiddush and Festive Meal

After the conclusion of the prayers, we go home and have a festive meal, certain that it has been decreed that we will have a sweet new year.

Unlike all other holidays, for the daytime kiddush we say:

:תִּקְעוּ בַחֹדֶשׁ שׁוֹפָר בַּכֶּסֶה לְיוֹם חַגֵּנוּ: כִּי חֹק לְיִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא מִשְׁפָּט לֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב

“Sound the shofar on the New Moon, on the appointed time for the day of our festival. For it is a statute for Israel, the judgment of the G‑d of Jacob.”

After kiddush, we wash and make hamotzi, and, as mentioned earlier, the challah is dipped into honey.

Tashlich

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, after the afternoon prayer, we walk to a lake, river or sea—preferably, a body of water that has fish—and recite the Tashlich prayers, alluding to the verse “He shall return and grant us compassion; He shall hide our iniquities, and You shall cast into the depths of the sea all their sins.”61

After the Tashlich prayers are recited, it is customary for the men to shake the corners of their tzitzit.62

If you will not have time to do Tashlich after the afternoon prayers, you may do so beforehand.63 Additionally, if you missed the opportunity to say Tashlich during Rosh Hashanah, you can do so until Yom Kippur.64

Tashlich is not recited on Shabbat; therefore, if the first day of Rosh Hashanah is Shabbat, Tashlich is recited the second day.65

Shabbat Shuvah

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, “Shabbat of Return,” because its special Haftorah reading begins with the words “Shuvah Yisrael,” "Return O Israel," from the prophecy of Hoshea. It is also referred to as Shabbat Shuvah because it falls during the Ten Days of Repentance (teshuvah, in Hebrew).

The prayer service on this Shabbat is the same as on an ordinary Shabbat, with the exception of the additions that are made to the Amidah throughout the Ten Days of Repentance.

Tzom Gedaliah

After the Babylonians destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and exiled many Jews in 3338 (423 BCE), they appointed Gedaliah ben Achikam as governor of the remaining Jews in the Holy Land. Tragically, he was assassinated on Rosh Hashanah. In memory of Gedaliah’s death and its disastrous aftermath, we fast every year on the 3rd of Tishrei, the day after Rosh Hashanah. If the third of Tishrei falls out on Shabbat, the fast is postponed to the 4th of Tishrei. Like other “minor” fasts, it begins at dawn (alot hashachar) and ends at nightfall.

During morning services, it is customary to add special Selichot, penitential prayers. During both morning and afternoon prayers, the Torah is taken out, and we read the portion from Exodus 32:11–14 and 34:1–10 in which G‑d forgives Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf. During the afternoon prayers, we also read a Haftorah, from Isaiah 55:6–56:8.

As it is written in Zechariah 8:19, Tzom Gedaliah is one of the four fasts that will be converted to joy and feasting with the arrival of Moshiach. May it happen soon.

For more on this, see Tzom Gedaliah Fast Day.