Rosh Hashanah: a time of rejoicing and serious introspection
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is a fall holiday, taking place at the beginning of the month of Tishrei which is actually the seventh month of the Jewish year (counting from Nisan in the spring). It is both a time of rejoicing and of serious introspection, a time to celebrate the completion of another year while also taking stock of one’s life.
The two days of Rosh Hashanah usher in the Ten Days of Repentance (Aseret Yemei Teshuvah), also known as the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim), which culminate in the major fast day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Days of Awe represent the climax of a longer process. Starting at the beginning of the previous month, called Elul, the shofar is traditionally sounded at the conclusion of the morning service. A ram’s horn that makes a trumpet-like sound, the shofar is intended as a wake-up call to prepare for the Tishrei holidays. One week before Rosh Hashanah, special petitionary prayers called Selichot are added to the ritual. Rosh Hashanah itself is also known as Yom Hadin or the Day of Judgment, on which God opens the Books of Life and Death, which are then sealed on Yom Kippur.
What Is Rosh Hashanah?
The most common name for this holiday is Rosh Hashanah, the name used in the eponymous tractate of Talmud devoted to the holiday.
The Torah refers to this day as Yom Teruah (Day of Shofar Blowing).
It is also referred to as Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance) and Yom Hadin (Day of Judgement) since this is the day when G‑d recalls all of His creations and determines their fate for the year ahead.
Together with Yom Kippur (which follows 10 days later), it is part of the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe, or: High Holidays).
The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, on both days of the holiday (except if the first day is Shabbat, in which case we blow the shofar only 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 additional are blown during (and immediately after) the Musaf service, adding up to 100 blasts over the course of the Rosh Hashanah morning services (some communities sound another round of 30 blasts after services as well). For someone who cannot come to synagogue, the shofar may be heard the rest of the day.
The shofar blowing contains a series of three types of blasts: tekiah, a long sob-like blast; shevarim, a series of three short wails; and teruah, at least nine piercing staccato bursts.
The two days of Rosh Hashanah usher in the Ten Days of Repentance (Aseret Yemei Teshuvah), also known as the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim), which culminate in the major fast day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
The Days of Awe represent the climax of a longer process. Starting at the beginning of the previous month, called Elul, the shofar is traditionally sounded at the conclusion of the morning service. A ram’s horn that makes a trumpet-like sound, the shofar is intended as a wake-up call to prepare for the Tishrei holidays. One week before Rosh Hashanah, special petitionary prayers called Selichot are added to the ritual. Rosh Hashanah itself is also known as Yom Hadin or the Day of Judgment, on which God opens the Books of Life and Death, which are then sealed on Yom Kippur.
The origins of Rosh Hashanah may be sought in a royal enthronement ritual from biblical times, though the Bible itself never mentions the “New Year” or “Day of Judgment” aspects of the holiday. Even though Rosh Hashanah falls in the seventh month, later rabbinic tradition decided to designate it the beginning of the year. It has a universal significance as the anniversary of the day on which the world was created, or of the day on which humanity was created. Another explanation can be found in the significance of Tishrei as the seventh month, hence the Sabbath of the year.
Rosh Hashanah Liturgy
The prayer book for the High Holidays is called the Mahzor. Three unique sets of prayers are added to the morning service during Rosh Hashanah. These are known as Malkhuyot, which address the sovereignty of God, Zikhronot, which present God as the one who remembers past deeds, and Shofarot, in which we stand in nervous anticipation of the future.
Each of these sections culminates in the blasts of the shofar, the most potent symbol of the holiday. The shofar is alluded to in the most memorable Torah reading for the holiday, the Akedah or Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). The story and the shofar serve as reminders of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, carrying with them the message of sacrifice, hope, and continuity. Among the popular traditions associated with the holiday is a ceremony performed on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah called Tashlich, when people throw crumbs or pieces of bread, symbolizing their sins, into flowing water.
Rosh Hashanah’s Theology and Themes
This is the time of year during which we are to atone for both our individual — and on Yom Kippur, our communal — sins committed over the course of the previous year, before God literally closes the books on us and inscribes our fates for the coming year. God’s rule over humanity and our need to serve God are stressed time and again over the course of the holiday.
The biblical name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah
Numbers 29:1 commands us to observe a Yom Teruah, on the first day of the seventh month. (Why the Jewish New Year is celebrated in the seventh month is another issue: suffice it to say that the rabbis list a total of four new years in the Jewish calendar.)
Teruah means a massive shout, either by a crowd or by a horn. For example, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down when the people (Joshua 1:20) “raised a mighty shout” (teruah gedolah).
This is a form of prayer and appears many times in Psalms — for example, “All you people clap your hands, raise a joyous shout (teruah) to God” (47:2).
As for meaning a shofar blast, during their travels in the desert, a teruah of the shofar let the Israelites know that it was time to move on.
Both of teruah’s meanings, supplicatory shouting and the sounding of the shofar, unite in Yom Teruah. It is a day of blowing the shofar and a day of prayer. The feeling of yearning exemplified in the shofar’s ululations are meant to inspire us to long to connect to God in a way that is beyond what words can measure.