What is Rosh Hashanah?

Daniel Sugarman explains the whys and wherefores of the Jewish new year.


Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, always falls on the first and second day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. The words “Rosh Hashanah” literally mean “the beginning/head of the year”.

Although it is seen as a festival, Rosh Hashanah is also regarded as an important and solemn occasion. In Jewish thought, it is seen as being the time when all the people of the world – Jewish and non-Jewish – are judged for their actions over the previous year, and their reward or punishment designated.

What happens on Rosh Hashanah?

Talmudic literature details a number of different days of the calendar seen as “new years” (the new year for animals, for example, and the new year for the trees). However, only one of these is known collectively by Jews as “Rosh Hashanah” – the one that falls on the first and second of Tishrei.

Other festivals are celebrated for two days by people living outside of Israel, but only one by people living inside the Holy Land. However, Rosh Hashanah is different – no matter where one lives, the festival is observed for two days.

Ashkenazi Jews begin reciting Selichot  - prayers asking God for forgiveness – during the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Traditionally, Sephardi Jews start reciting the Selichot prayers an entire month before the New Year.

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur (10days later) it is sealed…who will live and who will die...”

Another name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom HaDin – which literally means “judgement day”. According to Jewish belief, “all the inhabitants of the world pass in front of Him [God] like sheep [for judgement].”

Many Jews will spend hours praying in the synagogue over the course of the two days. However, according to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is actually not a time to pray for forgiveness, or for a good year – the appropriate time for that is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The idea behind that is that if God, in his aspect of judgement, passes sentence on Rosh Hashanah on all the people in the world, it is not a good idea to single oneself out of the crowd

Rosh Hashanah is also known as “Yom Hazikaron”, the “day of remembrance” – an allusion to our deeds over the past year being remembered, as well as our remembrance of all the good things God has done for us in the past.

Rosh Hashanah customs

The Shofar – there is a custom to use a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah to blow a series of piercing cries in front of the entire congregation. One reason given for this is to strike fear and confusion into Satan, who on Rosh Hashanah acts as a prosecutor, urging punishment on people for their misdeeds.

There is actually a Rabbinical requirement to hear the Shofar, so it is more than a custom. The “Baal-Tokeah” – the one who blows the Shofar – will blow a series of notes over the course of the day (although not on a Shabbat if that falls during the festival). The types of notes are as follows:

  • Tekiah – a solid note for a few seconds
  • Shevarim – literally, “broken” – three short, measured sounds, one after the other
  • Teruah – a short series of staccato notes, intended to represent crying or sobbing
  • Tekiah Gedola – the final note at the end of a series – much longer than a regular tekiah.


The Meal

There are a number of customs associated with the Rosh Hashanah celebratory meal, involving symbolic food:


  1. The Fish Head – there is a custom to have either a fish head (or among some Sephardim, a lamb’s head) as part of the Rosh Hashanah meal. This is meant to symbolise that, in the year to come, we should be at the head (on top) rather than the tail (at the bottom)
  2. Apple in honey – One of the most famous customs of Rosh Hashanah, we dip apple in honey, to symbolise that we should have a sweet new year.
  3. Pomegranates are a fruit closely associated with Rosh Hashanah. They have dozens of pips, and are eaten to symbolise that we should be as fruitful as the pips of a pomegranate.
  4. Other things eaten for symbolism on Rosh Hashanah include carrots, dates, leeks and gourds.

One type of food avoided on Rosh Hashanah are nuts, because the gematriah - numerological number – of the Hebrew word for nut is the same as the Hebrew word for sin. Famously, one Rabbi responded to that custom by saying “the gematriah of sin is sin” – meaning that people should spend slightly less time focussing on symbolism and more time on making sure they do good deeds rather than bad.


Ashkenazim and many Sephardim (although not most Spanish and Portuguese Jews or Yemenite Jews) perform the ceremony of Tashlich in the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah (except when the first day falls on Shabbat, in which case it is performed on the second day.

Tashlich is a prayer recited by a body of natural, flowing water, where ones sins are symbolically cast away. Some people actually cast bread or stones into the water, carrying the symbolism further – although others are strongly opposed to such a practice.

After Rosh Hashanah

The day after Rosh Hashanah is usually a fast day, known as the Fast of Gedaliah (the only exception is when this day falls on a Shabbat, when the fast gets pushed off until Sunday).

There is a week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur –and the ten day period, including the two religious holidays, is known as the “Aseret Ymei Teshuvah” – The 10 Days of Repentance. Although God judges everyone on Rosh Hashanah, the following days in the lead up to the Day of Atonement serve as an opportunity for people to repent for their sins, and maybe change the Heavenly decree for their year ahead to be a more positive one.

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