Rosh Hashanah: What you should know about the Jewish New Year - explainer

Rosh Hashanah kicks off the Jewish calendar year and starts the High Holy Days and the Days of Repentance. Here is everything you need to know about it.

RABBI MOSHE SILVER blows a Yemenite shofar at the Jerusalem Promenade (photo credit: REZA GREEN)
RABBI MOSHE SILVER blows a Yemenite shofar at the Jerusalem Promenade
(photo credit: REZA GREEN)

Rosh Hashanah is the the beginning of the Jewish New Year, in this case 5783, and kicks off the High Holy Days. It is an important two-day holiday with a focus on long prayer services in synagogue, spending time with family and praying for repentance as God judges you for the year and writes his judgement in the Book of Life.

Naturally, the Rosh Hashanah holiday, also known as Yom Teruah, is host to a number of different religious symbols, obligations, customs and traditions formed over thousands of years. 

The most famous of these are Rosh Hashanah foods like the apple and honey and in the famous blowing of the shofar.

But what is Rosh Hashanah and how is it celebrated?

Here is everything you need to know.

 Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash)
What is Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah, as stated earlier, is the holiday marking the beginning of the Jewish calendar year.

Specifically it marks the end of the Month of Elul and begins the Month of Tishrei.

However, rather than just being a holiday celebrating the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah has a far more serious and solemn role as being the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance, which lasts from the start of Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur.

These days are important as they are a time of atonement and reflection, where one says teshuva to repent for any of their sins and to be inscribed positively in the Book of Life by God. 

This, in turn, is related to the traditional greeting used on Rosh Hashanah. Rather than simply saying "chag sameach" for a happy holiday, people traditionally say either "shana tova," meaning Happy New Year; "shana tova umetuka," meaning have a Happy and Sweet New Year; and "ketiva ve'hatima tova," meaning a good inscription and sealing in the Book of Life; and "l'shana tova tikatevu ve'tihatemu," meaning may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Once Rosh Hashanah ends, however, the traditional greeting is "gmar hatima tovah," meaning a good final sealing in the Book of Life, until Yom Kippur ends.

But alternatively, one can just say Happy Rosh Hashanah

 THIS YEAR, especially, we yearn for a healed world and a repaired society. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90) THIS YEAR, especially, we yearn for a healed world and a repaired society. (credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
What are Rosh Hashanah symbolic foods and traditions?

There are a few traditional foods associated with Rosh Hashanah. The most well-known is the apple and honey, which is meant to signify a happy and sweet new year. However, there are others, such as round challah bread, pomegranates and eating fish heads. 

These all, in turn, relate to another tradition held by many for Rosh Hashanah: The symbolic foods known as the simanim, which are eaten at what is known as the Rosh Hashanah seder. These simanim can vary from family to family, but a few commonly-seen food items include beets, pumpkins, beans, leeks, gourds, spinach and dates. These are mostly all derived from the Talmud.

One other tradition is to eat a new fruit or food of some kind so as to make sure one can say the shehehiyanu blessing.

APPLES AND honey: The classic Rosh Hashanah combination. (credit: SUFECO/FLICKR)APPLES AND honey: The classic Rosh Hashanah combination. (credit: SUFECO/FLICKR)
What are Rosh Hashanah prayers?

The prayer services for Rosh Hashanah are very long and last several hours. Unlike through most of the year, the hazzan's (cantor's) repetition of the Shmona Esrei do not word-for-word repeat the same prayers. Rather, the repetition is much longer, includes several long and elaborate songs and serious prayers.

One of the most famous additions to the prayer services of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is Unetanneh Tokef, a centuries-old piyyut said during the Kedusha portion of the hazzan's repition of Musaf. The piyyut reflects on the awe-inspiring and eternal nature of God, the fear of judgement as our fates are sealed and how we are helpless before God and pray for mercy.

But undoubtedly, the most famous part of Rosh Hashanah prayers is the blowing of the shofar.

This is where the holiday's other name, Yom Teruah, comes from. 

A total of 100 shofar blasts are traditionally heard each day of Rosh Hashanah. This in turn is divided into a few different types of blasts. 

  • Tekiah, where the shofar is blown once for a single blast
  • Shevarim, where the shofar is blown three times for three shorter blasts
  • Teruah, where the shofar is blown nine times for nine very short and fast blasts
  • Tekiah gedolah, where the shofar is blown for one very long extended single blast

The shofar blasts are incredibly important and one is obligated to hear them as part of their obligations for Rosh Hashanah. However, they are not blown on a day when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat.

Another important Rosh Hashanah ritual is tashlich, when bread is ceremonially thrown into a body of water to ritualistically cast off our sins. 

The exact origin of this ritual is unknown, and while it is widely accepted today by mainstream Jewish streams, it has traditionally held considerable opposition, with some finding it heathenistic and others saying it violates commandments against feeding wild animals during the holiday.

 PERFORMING the ‘Tashlich’ ritual on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah in Tel Aviv last year after Israel entered a second nationwide lockdown. (credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS) PERFORMING the ‘Tashlich’ ritual on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah in Tel Aviv last year after Israel entered a second nationwide lockdown. (credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
When is Rosh Hashanah 2022?

Rosh Hashanah differs from other Jewish holidays in that it always lasts for two consecutive days. Most Jewish holidays only have two consecutive days in the Diaspora, while in Israel they last just one day.

This year, Rosh Hashanah starts on the evening of September 25 and ends on the evening of September 27. The next day, the third day of Tishrei, is also the fast day known as the Fast of Gedaliah.

Here are the times for Rosh Hashanah in 2022, when the Hebrew year of 5782 ends and 5783 begins.

Keep in mind that candle lighting refers to the start of the first day of Rosh Hashanah and the ending time refers to when it ends after the second day.

New York

Candle lighting at: 6:30 p.m.

Rosh Hashanah ends at: 7:25 p.m.

Los Angeles

Candle lighting at: 6:27 p.m.

Rosh Hashanah ends at: 7:20 p.m.

Jerusalem

Candle lighting at: 5:45 p.m.

Rosh Hashanah ends at: 7:00 p.m.

Tel Aviv

Candle lighting at: 6:09 p.m.

Rosh Hashanah ends at: 7:02 p.m.

Haifa

Candle lighting at: 6:08 p.m.

Rosh Hashanah ends at: 7:01 p.m.

Beersheba

Candle lighting at: 6:09 p.m.

Rosh Hashanah ends at: 7:02 p.m.