1. Myth: Rosh Hashanah Is the “Jewish New Year”

Hallmark cards, greetings from public officials, and even Chabad.org articles refer to Rosh Hashanah as the “Jewish New Year,” which can imply that this is somehow the Jewish equivalent of January 1.

Fact: Rosh Hashanah Is the “Head of the Year”

That’s right, rosh is Hebrew for “head” and shanah means “year.” More than just the first day of the year, Rosh Hashanah functions like the head of the human body. If your mind is healthy, it sends healthy signals, properly directing your body parts. Likewise, a healthy Rosh Hashanah creates a healthy foundation for the rest of the year.

How do you have a healthy Rosh Hashanah? We all know the “doctor’s orders”: Desist from working, come to the synagogue to pray, hear the shofar, and celebrate with festive meals.

Another nuance: In a sense, there’s nothing inherently “Jewish” about this holiday. Every single human, indeed every element of creation, stands before G‑d in judgment on Rosh Hashanah.

Explore why this nuance in translation is so significant

2. Myth: Only Diaspora Jews Keep Two Days

Shavuot, Passover, and Sukkot are all extended for an extra day in the Diaspora. Back when each month was declared by the court after witnesses attested to seeing the new moon, the news of the new month took time to travel from Jerusalem, and people in distant lands did not know which day to celebrate (read why this is still done today), so they observed two. There is a common misconception that Rosh Hashanah, like the pilgrim festivals, is celebrated for only one day in Israel.

Fact: Everyone Keeps Two Days

The reason is simple. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the first day of the month, when the new moon is declared. This means that even in Israel, they could not know for sure whether Rosh Hashanah would be declared on that day or the following day.

The universally accepted practice became that Rosh Hashanah should be observed for two days. This ensures that the celebration will definitely take place on the day when witnesses attest to seeing the new moon, and the new month is declared.

In addition to being celebrated everywhere, this two-day holiday is inherently different from the double celebrations observed by Diaspora Jews on all other holidays, in which each day is treated as possibly being sacred and possibly being an ordinary day. In contrast, the sages describe this holiday as a yoma arichta, a “long day,” all of which is observed as most definitely being Rosh Hashanah.

Read: Why Is Rosh Hashanah Two Days?

3. Myth: The New Fruit Expresses Our Wishes for the New Year

On the first night of Rosh Hashanah we eat a series of symbolic (mostly sweet) foods to express our wishes for a good and sweet year. This includes (raisin-studded) challah and apple dipped in honey, the head of a fish or ram, carrots etc.

On the second night, after kiddush, we enjoy a “new” fruit, which we have not eaten all season. Some people are under the impression that the new fruit is a reflection of the new year we are celebrating.

Fact: The New Fruit Enables Us to Say Shehecheyanu

The reason for the new fruit is somewhat technical.

As you may remember from last post, Rosh Hashanah a two-day holiday. On the first night, we say the Shehecheyanu blessing, in which we thank G‑d for enabling us to celebrate this holiday. We say this same blessing over other milestones, like new clothing or a fruit that just came into season. Now, as discussed, the two days of Rosh Hashanah are considered to be one elongated day. As such, some suggest that on the second day of Rosh Hashanah the holiday is no longer new, and it does not warrant a blessing. Others say that the second day is really a valid holiday on its own, and the blessing is in order. The halachah follows the second approach. Nevertheless, in order to satisfy the first opinion, we have a new fruit on the table and keep in mind that the Shehecheyanu blessing (said either after candle-lighting or kiddush) is for the fruit as well—just to cover all bases.

See this Law in the Alter Rebbe’s Code of Jewish Law

4. Myth: Rosh Hashanah Is a Sad Day

Considering that Rosh Hashanah is the day upon which G‑d decides our fate for the coming year, some view it as a day of sadness, fear, and anxiety.

Fact: Rosh Hashanah Is a Festival

There is no question that Rosh Hashanah is a solemn day, as we crown G‑d King of the Universe and pray for a sweet year. At the same time, it’s a mitzvah to eat delicious food and drink fine wine at the four Rosh Hashanah meals.

The Book of Nechemia records a particularly significant Rosh Hashanah in the early days of the Second Temple era, when the people were so remorseful for their past deeds that they began to weep. “This day is holy to the L‑rd your G‑d,” Nehemiah told them. “Don’t mourn or weep. Go, eat tasty foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our L‑rd, and do not be sad, for the joy of the L‑rd is your strength.”

Even as our fate hangs in balance, we are confident that our loving Father in Heaven will grant our wishes for a sweet year.

(Incidentally, the Rebbe would point out that this verse also tells us how important it is to make sure that everyone, even those with limited finances, is provided with the means to celebrate the holiday in style.)

Read the Full Account in the Book of Nechemia

5. Myth: You Only Need to Hear Shofar Once

Considering that we blow the shofar on both days of Rosh Hashanah (and again at the culmination of Yom Kippur), there is the inclination to believe it’s not as important to make it to services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah (or at all, if one will hear the shofar on Yom Kippur).

Fact: You Need to Hear It on Both Days

As you’ve read in the past two facts, both days of Rosh Hashanah are equally important (everywhere in the world), and it is therefore equally important to hear the shofar on both days. If you are unable to attend services, arrange for someone to blow shofar for you (or blow it yourself, if you’ve studied the pertinent laws) at home.

Final bit of myth to debunk: Shofar on Yom Kippur is not a replacement for Rosh Hashanah shofar. Hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is mandated by Torah law. Blowing at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is a non-obligatory custom.

Find out why we blow the shofar after Yom Kippur

6. Myth: Rosh Hashanah Is the Day the World Was Created

“Today is the birth of the world,” we say in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. This would seem to imply that the creation of heaven and earth, the first of the six days of creation, took place on this day.

Fact: It is the Anniversary of Humankind’s Creation

G‑d began creating the world on the 25th of Elul. The first day of Rosh Hashanah, Tishrei 1, was the sixth day, on which Adam and Eve were created.

So why is it celebrated as the anniversary of the creation? Because a world without humans to sanctify it is hardly worth celebrating. Once Adam and Eve were placed within the Garden of Eden and tasked with creating something beautiful within the chaos, the world was ready to actualize its potential.

Read a beautiful articulation of this idea

7. Myth: Apple and Honey Is Central to the Celebration

There are people who are at the stage in their relationship with Judaism that they are willing to do just one thing to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. For some, this may be attending a Rosh Hashanah dinner and eating all the symbolic foods.

Fact: Symbolic Foods are a Talmudic Custom

Don’t get me wrong here. Enjoying a festive meal is very important, and having symbolic foods is a rich and ancient custom. But if you are going to do one thing for Rosh Hashanah, hands down, the most important thing is to hear the shofar blown.

Read: 11 Reasons Why We Blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah

8. Myth: At Tashlich We Throw Our Sins Into the Water

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah after the afternoon prayer, we go to a lake, river, or sea (preferably a body of water that has fish), and recite the Tashlich prayer. Common wisdom is that in doing so we throw our sins into the water. How convenient!

Fact: Tashlich Is a Deeply Symbolic Ceremony

It would be foolish to believe that a single stroll to a pond could result in forgiveness for an entire year’s worth of shortcomings.

In fact, Tashlich is evocative of the coronation ceremonies of old, where the rushing waters symbolized good wishes for a long reign—appropriate on Rosh Hashanah when G‑d is coronated King of the Universe.

During this ceremony we do shake out our pockets and ask that G‑d “cast our sins into the water,” but the physical motions are not what grant us atonement. Rather, if we pay attention to the symbolism and apply the sincere desire to heal our relationship with G‑d as portrayed in the physical demonstrations of Tashlich, it becomes part of the process of repenting and returning to G‑d in purity.

Read more about the meaning of Tashlich

9. Myth: Rosh Hashanah Seats Are Expensive

The conventional North American synagogue is structured in a way that members are expected to contribute annually toward the congregation’s overhead, and an additional fee is often expected for each seat occupied on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While this generally ensured the congregation’s fiscal wellbeing, it often placed a barrier between people of lesser means and synagogue attendance.

Fact: There’s a Good Chance There’s a Free Service Near You

Since the latter part of the 20th century, Chabad centers have cropped up in thousands of cities, almost always offering free entry to synagogue services.

Facing declining membership in an age when people are no longer accustomed to paying to belong to clubs of any kind, many other congregations have adopted this approach as well, throwing open the doors of the synagogue to any Jew wishing to participate.

So what are you waiting for?

Find a Rosh Hashanah Near You!