High Holy Days

The New Year

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blast_blocklines. {Lev.23:32}

Yom Teruah

Rosh Hashanah is referred to in the Torah as Yom Teruah — the Day of Sounding the Shofar (when not falling on Shabbat) — or Yom HaZikaron — Day of Remembering. It was not called Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, until Talmudic times. While it is clear from the verse above that this was a festival day in the Bible, the nature of the festival is unclear. The notion of Rosh Hashanah as the New Year may have come later. In the tradition, Rosh Hashanah as the New Year is tied to the creation of the world. Thus in the Talmud there is a debate as to whether the world was created in Nisan (the month when Passover falls) or in Tishri. This reflects a more general divergence of practice found throughout the ancient world, where some people's new year began in the spring (Nisan) and other's in the fall (Tishri). The Talmud settles the argument by saying, "You're both right," there being three new years in the Jewish calendar. Nisan 1 is the New Year for tithing of animals; Shevat 15 (Tu Bishvat) is the new year for the trees; and Tishri 1 is the new year for years and marks the anniversary of the creation of the world.

Biblical scholars speculate that Rosh Hashanah's origin lies in ancient Near Eastern divine coronation festivals, some of which took place in the fall. If this is true, then it is not surprising that God as King is the central motif of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.

The focal place for our observance of Rosh Hashanah is the synagogue rather than the home. The synagogue services are long, exceeded by only those of Yom Kippur. The liturgy's main theme is that of God as King-melekh, the One who created the world and continues to renew His creation. The themes of God as King and Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world are intertwined with those stating that this is a period of repentance that God is in the process of judging all living things. The traditional nusah, the musical rendition for the High Holiday services, conveys the solemnity of the period.

Each of the services has its own variation in the music for the High Holy Days. There is even a different musical rendition of the trope, cantillation, for the Torah readings of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Today is the birthday of the world.

Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world recalls for us God's creation of the world in the beginning of time. Strikingly, the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah is not the story of creation {Gen.1:1} but rather the birth of Isaac, and the haftarah concerns the birth of Samuel—both tales of long-desired births to barren women. Pesikta Rabbati, an early rabbinic midrashic work, states that the world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul. Rosh Hashanah then is the sixth day of creation, the day on which humans were created. For the beginning of humanity marks the real beginning of creation. It is the beginning of history and most of all the beginning of the relationship between the human and the Divine. Rosh Hashanah thus affirms the importance of human life, even of one single birth, as the equivalence of God's creating the world. By stressing life, it calls upon us to examine the quality of our lives as we prepare for Yom Kippur—the day when life is to be judged.

Rosh Hashana

Other Customs

There are several customs unique to Rosh Hashanah. Candles are lit and Kiddush is said as on all holidays. There are a number of food customs associated with Rosh Hashanah, the most prevalent being the dipping of apples in honey. As an expression of a desire for a sweet year, apples, or other foods such as challah, are dipped in honey at the beginning of meals on Rosh Hashanah. The phrase "May it be Your will to renew us for a year that is good and sweet" is recited. We do not put salt on our challot even though this is customary on Shabbat because we want the sweet taste of honey, not a salty taste. It is customary to eat round challot rather than the oval or rectangular ones. This is significant. Round challot look like crowns—either the crown of God's kingship or the crowns with which God traditionally rewards the people of Israel if they are righteous. There is a related old tradition of making hallot in the shape of ladders (we will be exalted or brought low) or the shape of birds "Like the birds that fly, even so will the Lord of Hosts shield Jerusalem, shielding and saving, protecting and rescuing. Then the children of Israel shall return to Him..." {Isa. 31:5-6}.

Other Food Customs

Other food customs are to eat foods that in similar ways also express wishes for the New Year, e.g., eating the head of a fish since we would rather be a head than a tail.

We do not eat nuts, because the Hebrew letters of the word-egoz (nut) have a numerical equivalent to the Hebrew word for sin. At the beginning of the second evening meal of Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to eat a "funny fruit," which means any fruit we have not eaten in a long time, such as casaba melon, kiwi, etc. This has to do with the question of reciting the she-he-heyanu blessing on the second night, which is explained below in the discussion of why Rosh Hashanah is celebrated for two days even in Israel.

Tashlich

On Rosh Hashanah afternoon it is customary to go to a flowing body of water (a river, lake, or ocean rather than a pond) and symbolically cast our sins away by throwing bread crumbs into the water. This ceremony is accompanied by reciting Micah 7:18-20, Psalms 118:5-9 and Psalms 33 and 130. The verse "You will cast {tashlich} your sins into the depths of the sea" {Mic. 7:19} is cited as support for this custom. Tashlich has been opposed by a number of rabbinic scholars who are afraid the symbolism will be taken too literally and people will believe they can rid themselves of sin through this ceremony rather than through the arduous process of repentance. Despite this opposition, tashlich is still widely observed. Tashlich may be observed on any day from the first day of Rosh Hashanah until Hoshana Rabbah (the last_blockline day of Sukkot).

Why is Rosh Hashanah Two Days?

Unlike other festivals that are celebrated in the Diaspora for two days because of uncertainty about the calendar, Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday celebrated for two days in Israel. The reason is the same as with all the other festivals, that is, the uncertainty involved in a calendar that depended on when the new moon was promulgated by the rabbinic court in Jerusalem. The problem of Rosh Hashanah is heightened by the fact that it falls on Rosh Chodesh—the new moon itself; therefore, even in Jerusalem, it would have been difficult to let everyone know in time that the New Year had begun. To solve this problem, a two-day Rosh Hashanah was practiced even in Israel. (Note: Once the calendar was set, people in Israel observed only one day until the early Middle Ages, when the practice was changed back to observing two days).

Kol Nidre | Yom Kippur | The implications of Teshuvah

Yom Kippur is supposed to lead from thought to deed; from looking at ourselves to transforming the way we act. The haftarah of Yom Kippur is a striking statement of the larger importance of the day and warns us against the danger of thinking that all this praying in and of itself is enough. Instead in the haftarah God quotes our words and answers us:

Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bullrush and lying sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day when the Lord is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin. {Isa. 58:3-7}.

Personal change is to lead us to work for social justice in the world. Projects in support of tzedakah and social justice should be given extra attention at this time of year.

It is traditional to light Yizkor candles on Erev Yom Kippur. Candle lighting should occur before coming to Kol Nidre Service.

A guide to greetings.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is customary to greet one another with any of the following traditional greetings:

Shanah Tova – A Good Year

L’Shanah Tova Tikatevu
May you be inscribed for a good year [in the Book of Life]
L’Shanah Tova U’Metukah
May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year [in the Book of Life]

Yom Kippur

On Yom Kippur however, the greeting changes to G’mar Hatimah Tova which means A Good Final Sealing [in the Book of Life] to you.

Questions/Comments?

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