This article, written by Sue-Ellen Flescher, was originally published in the summer of 2005 in “One World” newsletter. We offer it again in honor of the recent celebration of Rosh Hashanah in 2017.
The Jewish New Year Festival, called Rosh Hashanah is a solemn religious festival in which Jews pray for God’s forgiveness, for a good year, and for long life. Rosh Hashanah begins on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishri and lasts two days. Families go to synagogue, where the services include the blowing of the shofar, a hollowed-out ram’s horn. After the evening service, families, workers, or members of a synagogue eat together. Part of this meal includes a sweet bread called challah, which is dipped in honey to remind people of the good things the New Year may bring. A time of repentance happens after Rosh Hashanah and then Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is celebrated on the tenth and last day of the festival.
Since biblical times, the months and the years of the Jewish calendar have been established by the cycles of the moon and the sun.
Torah law prescribes that the months closely follow the course of the moon, from New Moon to the next New Moon. In addition, the lunar months must always align themselves with the seasons of the year, which are determined by the sun.
This luni-solar calendar uses months to approximate the tropical year, but since 365 days (12 months) are about 11 days shorter than the tropical year, a leap month is inserted about every third year. This keeps the calendar in tune with the seasons.
In the fourth century, Hillel II established a fixed calendar based on mathematical and astronomical calculations. This is the Jewish calendar we still use today.
When is New Year’s Day?
There are four different days to choose from:
1 Tishri – Rosh HaShanah – The celebration of the creation of the world. It marks the beginning of a new calendar year.
15 Shevat – Tu B’shevat – The New Year for trees.
1 Nisan – New Year for Kings – Nisan is considered the first month. This is the month when Passover occurs.
1 Elul – New Year for Animal Tithes (taxes)
When does a day begin?
A Jewish calendar day does not begin at midnight, but either sunset, or when three medium-sized stars are visible.
Sunset marks the 12 night hours and sunrise marks the 12-day hours. Depending on the season, the day or night may be different lengths.
How is it celebrated?
While it does have its festive side, Rosh Hashanah is not one big party, as the New Year’s celebrations on December 31 tend to be. Rosh Hashanah is a time for personal introspection and prayer.
Jews may also visit graves. It is thought that the prayers or good wishes of the dead can help the living. By wishing each other well and sending cards, people let friends know what happened in the past year and what plans lie ahead. Christmas cards and get-togethers fill a similar role for Christians.
Traditional Jewish foods accompany Rosh Hashanah. Typically, a blessing will be said over two loaves of bread, known as challah. The round shape symbolizes a crown, a reminder of the kingship of God. Challah also stands for the circle of life, and the hope that our lives endure without end.
Apples dipped in honey are another Rosh Hashanah tradition. It symbolizes the hope for a “sweet year” ahead. Honey is spread on challah.
Cultural Crossroads has produced several interactive programs, including “Is This Your New Year?” and “Everyday’s a Holiday” as well as articles such as the foregoing article, which focus on various cultural holidays and traditions, in the interest of underscoring the way in which people of all cultures celebrate.