The Meaning of Rosh Hashanah

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There’s nothing sweeter than new beginnings, which is a central theme for Rosh Hashana, the first of the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah is the first among the High Holy Days because it is the start of a new year, literally translating to ‘head of the year’. It is a time for feasting, reflection, togetherness, renewal, forgiveness, and preparation.

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The Symbolic Shofar

The Symbolic Shofar

In the Torah, Rosh Hashanah is referred to as Yom Teruah, or ‘Day of Shofar Blowing’. Indeed, the shofar is central to this holiday, symbolizing a call to wake up, think about the past year, and prepare for the judgement in the Book of Life. The shofar also reflects Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, and the ram that took his place, this is why the shofar is made from a hollowed ram’s horn.

The blowing of the shofar may call to mind a crying voice, and this is no coincidence. As one of the major themes of Rosh Hashanah is repentance, it reflects the regrets and sins which are considered. During the morning service, the shofar will be blown 100 times, in various types of calls, from short and sharp to long and lingering as stipulated in the Torah.

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Bread is used to illustrate sins

Traditions of Rosh Hashanah

The greeting most often used is Shana Tova, which means ‘have a good year’ or Shana Tova U’Mitukah, which means ’have a good and sweet new year.’ After Rosh Hashanah, and before Yom Kippur, the customary greeting is Gmar Hativa Tova, which means ‘a good signing/sealing’, which refers to the Book of Life and a person’s fate, which was written during Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur.

On the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, it is a custom to perform tashlich, where sins are ceremonially ‘cast off’ into a body of water such as a river or lake. Quite often, bread or pebbles are used to illustrate the sins. In the evening, girls and women light candles and recite blessings. On the second night of Rosh Hashana, new candles should be lit with the old flames.

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Apples dipped in honey – Desire for the New Year to be sweet with blessings

The Foods of Rosh Hashanah

Feasting is a time for connection and celebration. On Rosh Hashana, many symbolic foods represent the desire for a good year ahead. For instance, the first supper of Rosh Hashanah is traditionally started with apples dipped in honey—this represents the desire for the new year to be sweet with blessings.

The symbolism does not end there: round challah loaves symbolize the yearly cycle, and they are also sweetened to call to mind blessings and positive thoughts. Pomegranates, one of the Seven Species from ancient Israel, are a central symbol of this time: they represent a wish for the coming year to be filled with good deeds and fruitfulness.

Finally, many seasonal foods fit Rosh Hashanah perfectly. Tzimmes, a carrot stew, is often served, as well as leeks, dates, and pumpkin. Generally, it is a custom to eat sweet foods to represent the sweetness of the coming year—this is the reason why bitter foods are avoided.

Shana Tova! Wishing you a sweet and stellar Rosh Hashana!

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