10 March 2011

Rosh Hashanah: The Jewish High Holy Day of the New Year

Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew: ראש השנה‎), (Arabic: ﺭﺃﺱ ﺍﻟﺴﻨﺔ, Ras as-Sana‎) (literally "head of the year") is the Jewish New Year. It is the first of the High Holidays or Yamim Noraim ("Days of Awe"), celebrated ten days before Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashana is observed on the first two days of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. It is described in the Torah as "Zikaron Terua" ("remembrance of the blowing of the horn")

Rosh Hashanah marks the start of a new year in the Hebrew calendar (one of four "new year" observances that define various legal "years" for different purposes as explained in the Mishnah and Talmud). It is the new year for people, animals, and legal contracts. The Mishnah also sets this day aside as the new year for calculating calendar years and sabbatical (shmita) and jubilee (yovel) years. Jews believe Rosh Hashanah represents either analogically or literally the creation of the World, or Universe. However, according to one view in the Talmud, that of R. Eleazar, Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of man, which entails that five days earlier, the 25 of Elul, was the first day of creation of the Universe.

The Mishnah, the core text of Judaism's oral Torah, contains the first known reference to Rosh Hashanah as the "day of judgment." In the Talmud tractate on Rosh Hashanah it states that three books of account are opened on Rosh Hashanah, wherein the fate of the wicked, the righteous, and those of an intermediate class are recorded. The names of the righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life, and they are sealed "to live." The middle class are allowed a respite of ten days, until Yom Kippur, to repent and become righteous; the wicked are "blotted out of the book of the living forever."

In Jewish liturgy Rosh Hashanah is described as "the day of judgment" (Yom ha-Din) and "the day of remembrance" (Yom ha-Zikkaron). Some midrashic descriptions depict God as sitting upon a throne, while books containing the deeds of all humanity are opened for review, and each person passing in front of Him for evaluation of his or her deeds.

The Talmud provides three central ideas behind the day:

"The Holy One said, 'on Rosh Hashanah recite before Me [verses of] Sovereignty, Rememberance, and Shofar blasts (malchuyot, zichronot, shofrot): Sovereignty so that you should make Me your King; Remembrance so that your remembrance should rise up before Me. And through what? Through the Shofar.' (Rosh Hashanah 16a, 34b)" This is reflected in the prayers composed by the classical rabbinic sages for Rosh Hashanah found in all machzorim where the theme of the prayers is the strongest theme is the "coronation" of God as King of the universe in preparation for the acceptance of judgments that will follow on that day, symbolized as "written" into a Divine book of judgments, that then hang in the balance for ten days waiting for all to repent, then they will be "sealed" on Yom Kippur. The assumption is that everyone was sealed for life and therefore the next festival is Sukkot (Tabernacles) that is referred to as "the time of our joy" (z'man simchateinu).

In the earliest times the Hebrew year began in autumn with the opening of the economic year. There followed in regular succession the seasons of seed-sowing, growth and ripening of the corn (here meaning any grain) under the influence of the former and the latter rains, harvest and ingathering of the fruits. In harmony with this was the order of the great agricultural festivals, according to the oldest legislation, namely, the feast of unleavened bread at the beginning of the barley harvest, in the month of Aviv; the feast of harvest, seven weeks later; and the feast of ingathering at the going out or turn of the year. "Aviv" literally means "Spring". (See Exodus 23:14-17; Deuteronomy 16:1-16). It is likely that the new year was celebrated from ancient times in some special way. The earliest reference to such a custom is, probably, in the account of the vision of Ezekiel (Ezek 40:1). This took place at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month (Tishri). On the same day the beginning of the year of jubilee was to be proclaimed by the blowing of trumpets (Lev 25:9). According to the Septuagint rendering of Ezek 44:20, special sacrifices were to be offered on the first day of the seventh month as well as on the first day of the first month. This first day of the seventh month was appointed by the Law to be "a day of blowing of trumpets". There was to be a holy convocation; no servile work was to be done; and special sacrifices were to be offered (Lev 23:23-25; Num 29:1-6). This day was not expressly called New-Year's Day, but it was evidently so regarded by the Jews at a very early period.

Rosh Hashanah is observed as a day of rest (Leviticus 23:24) like most Jewish holidays. When not on Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah is characterized by the blowing of the shofar (in ancient times it was also sounded on the Sabbath in the Temple), a trumpet made from a ram's horn or the horn of a goat or various types of antelope or gazelle (although not from a cow), intended to symbolically awaken the listeners from their "slumbers" and alert them to the coming judgment. There are a number of additions to the regular Jewish service, most notably an extended repetition of the Amidah prayer for both Shacharit and the longest Mussaf of any holiday. The traditional Hebrew greeting on Rosh Hashanah is שנה טובה shana tova [ʃaˈna toˈva] for "[a] good year", or shana tova umetukah for "[a] good and sweet year." Because Jewish people and the world are being judged by God for the coming year, a longer greeting translates as "may you be written and sealed for a good year" (ketiva ve-chatima tovah). It is customary that during the afternoon of the first day (second day if the first coincides with Shabbat) the practice of tashlikh is observed, in which prayers are recited near natural flowing water, and one's sins are symbolically cast into the water. Many also have the custom to throw bread or pebbles into the water, to symbolize the "casting off" of sins.

The term "Rosh Hashanah" does not appear in the Torah. Leviticus 23:24 refers to the festival of the first day of the seventh month as "Zicaron Terua" ("a memorial with the blowing of horns"). Numbers 29:1 calls the festival Yom Terua, ("Day [of] blowing [the horn]") and symbolizes a number of subjects, such as the Binding of Isaac and the animal sacrifices that were to be performed. (In Ezekiel 40:1 there is a general reference to the time of Yom Kippur as the "beginning of the year", but it is not referring specifically to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.)

The Torah defines Rosh Hashanah as a one day celebration, and since days in the Hebrew calendar begin at sundown, the beginning of Rosh Hashanah is at sundown at the end of 29 Elul. The rules of the Hebrew calendar are designed such that the first day of Rosh Hashanah will never occur on the first, fourth, or sixth day of the Jewish week (i.e., Sunday, Wednesday, or Friday). Since the time of the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the time of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, normative Jewish law appears to be that Rosh Hashanah is to be celebrated for two days, due to the difficulty of determining the date of the new moon. Nonetheless, there is some evidence that Rosh Hashanah was celebrated on a single day in Israel as late as the thirteenth century AD. Orthodox, and Conservative Judaism now generally observe Rosh Hashanah for the first two days of Tishrei, even in Israel where all other Jewish holidays dated from the new moon last only one day. The two days of Rosh Hashanah are said to constitute "Yoma Arichtah" (Aramaic: "one long day"). The observance of a second day is a later addition and does not follow from the literal reading of Leviticus. In Reform Judaism, some communities only observe the first day of Rosh Hashanah, while others observe two days. Karaite Jews, who do not recognize Rabbinic Jewish oral law and rely on their own understanding of the Torah, observe only one day on the first of Tishrei, since the second day is not mentioned in the Torah.

Laws on the form and use of the shofar and laws related to the religious services during the festival of Rosh Hashanah are described in Rabbinic literature such as the Mishnah that formed the basis of the tractate "Rosh HaShana" in both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud. This also contains the most important rules concerning the calendar year.

There are three different sounds that the Shofar makes:
  1. Tekiah (one long sound) for assembly (spiritually - agreement) Numbers 10:3
  2. Shevarim (3 broken sounds) for march (spiritually - repentance) Numbers 10:5
  3. Teruah (9 short sounds) for battle (spiritually - ministry) Numbers 10:9
In addition to the three sounds there are two variations:
  1. Tekiah Gedolah (a very long sound, used at the end of the Ashkenazi rite prayer services) Exodus 19:16,19
  2. Shevarim Teruah (3 broken sounds followed by 9 short sounds) because the word sevarim does not appear in Torah, shevarim in used as the name of the call for march to distinguish it from the call for battle because in Torah both are called teruah.
Rosh Hashanah occurs 163 days after the first day of Passover (Pesach). In terms of the Gregorian calendar, the earliest date on which Rosh Hashanah can fall is September 5, as happened in 1899 and will happen again in 2013. The latest Rosh Hashanah can occur relative to the Gregorian dates is on October 5, as happened in 1967 and will happen again in 2043. After 2089, the differences between the Hebrew calendar and the Gregorian calendar will result in Rosh Hashanah falling no earlier than September 6.[13]

Rosh Hashanah will occur on the following days of the Gregorian calendar:
  • Jewish Year 5771: sunset September 8, 2010 - nightfall September 10, 2010
  • Jewish Year 5772: sunset September 28, 2011 - nightfall September 30, 2011
  • Jewish Year 5773: sunset September 16, 2012 - nightfall September 18, 2012
The Yamim Noraim are preceded by the month of Elul, during which Jews are supposed to begin a self-examination and repentance, a process that culminates in the ten days of the Yamim Noraim known as beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with the holiday of Yom Kippur.

The shofar is traditionally blown each morning for the entire month of Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. The sound of the shofar is intended to awaken the listeners from their "slumbers" and alert them to the coming judgment.

In the period leading up to the Yamim Noraim (Hebrew, "days of awe") penitential prayers, called selichot, are recited.

The day before Rosh Hashanah is known as Erev Rosh Hashanah in Hebrew ("Rosh Hashanah eve"). It falls on the 29th day of the Hebrew month of Elul, the day before the 1st of Tishrei. Some communities have the customs to perform Hatarat nedarim (a nullification of vows) after the morning prayer services during the morning of Erev Rosh Hashanah. The mood becomes festive but serious in anticipation of the new year and the synagogue services. Many Orthodox men have the custom to immerse in a mikveh in honor of the coming day

On Rosh Hashanah itself, religious poems, called piyyuttim, are added to the regular services. Special prayer books for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, called the mahzor (plural mahzorim), have developed over the years. Many poems refer to Psalms 81:4: "Blow the shofar on the [first day of the] month, when the [moon] is covered for our holiday".

Rosh Hashanah has a number of additions to the regular service, most notably an extended repetition of the Amidah prayer for both Shacharit and Mussaf. The Shofar is blown during Mussaf at several intervals. (In many synagogues, even little children come and hear the Shofar being blown.) Biblical verses are recited at each point. According to the Mishnah, 10 verses (each) are said regarding kingship, remembrance, and the shofar itself, each accompanied by the blowing of the shofar. A variety of piyyutim, medieval penitential prayers, are recited regarding themes of repentance. The Alenu prayer is recited during the repetition of the Mussaf Amidah.

Rosh Hashanah meals usually include apples and honey, to symbolize a sweet new year. Various other foods with a symbolic meaning may be served, depending on local minhag ("custom"), such as cooked tongue or other meat from the head of an animal or fish (to symbolize the "head" of the year).

Foods consumed with the Yehi Ratzons vary depending on the community. Some of the symbolic foods eaten are dates, black-eyed beans, leek, spinach and gourd, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud. Pomegranates are used in many traditions. The use of apples and honey is a late medieval Ashkenazi addition, though it is now almost universally accepted. Typically, round challah bread is served, to symbolize the cycle of the year. Gefilte fish and Lekach are commonly served by Ashkenazic Jews on this holiday. On the second night, new fruits are served to warrant inclusion of the shehecheyanu blessing, the saying of which would otherwise be doubtful (as the second day is part of the "long day" mentioned above).

Other symbolic foods are eaten in a special Rosha Hashana Seder, particularly in the Sephardic and Mizrahi communities. Symbolic foods are eaten in a ceremony called the Yehi Rasones or Yehi Ratzones.

Yehi Ratzon means "May it be Your will", and is the name of the ceremony because it is traditional to eat foods symbolic of a good year and to recite a short prayer beginning with the Hebrew words "Yehi Ratson" ("May it be Your will") over each one, with the name of the food in Hebrew or Aramaic often presenting a play on words or pun in Hebrew or Aramaic. The foods eaten at this time have thus become known as "yehi ratsones". Typical foods, often served on a large platter called a Yehi Ratson platter, eaten by modern Sephardic Jews include apples dipped in honey, or baked or sometimes in the form of a compote called mansanada; dates; pomegranates, or black eyed peas; pumpkin in the form of savory pumpkin-filled pastries called rodanchas; leeks in the form of fritters called keftedes de prasa; beets usually baked and peeled; and the head of a fish: usually a fish course with a whole fish, head intact. It is also common to symbolize a year filled with blessings by eating foods with stuffing on Rosh Hashana such as a stuffed, roast bird or a variety of stuffed vegetables called legumbres yaprakes.

The ritual of tashlikh is performed on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Prayers are recited near natural flowing water, and one's sins are symbolically cast into the water. Many also have the custom to throw bread or pebbles into the water, to symbolize the "casting off" of sins. In some communities, if the first day of Rosh Hashanah occurs on Shabbat, tashlikh is postponed until the second day. The traditional service for tashlikh is recited individually and includes the prayer "Who is like unto you, O God...And You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea", and Biblical passages including Isaiah 11:9 ("They will not injure nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea") and Psalms 118:5-9, 121 and 130, as well as personal prayers.

The ritual of tashlikh is performed on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Prayers are recited near natural flowing water, and one's sins are symbolically cast into the water. Many also have the custom to throw bread or pebbles into the water, to symbolize the "casting off" of sins. In some communities, if the first day of Rosh Hashanah occurs on Shabbat, tashlikh is postponed until the second day. The traditional service for tashlikh is recited individually and includes the prayer "Who is like unto you, O God...And You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea", and Biblical passages including Isaiah 11:9 ("They will not injure nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea") and Psalms 118:5-9, 121 and 130, as well as personal prayers.

In rabbinic literature, The Mishnah, the core text of Judaism's oral Torah, contains the first known reference to the "day of judgment". It says: "Four times in the year the world is judged: On Passover a decree is passed on the produce of the soil; on Shavuot, on the fruits of the trees; on Rosh Hashanah all men pass before Him ("God"); and on the Feast of Tabernacles a decree is passed on the rain of the year.

Philo, in his treatise on the festivals, calls Rosh Hashanah the festival of the sacred moon and feast of the trumpets, and explains the blowing of the trumpets as being a memorial of the giving of the Torah and a reminder of God's benefits to mankind in general ("De Septennario," § 22).

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky explains that in earlier generations it was considered preferable not to reveal that it was a "day of judgment" so as not to mix any other feeling into "the day of the coronation of G-d". In later generations as people lost touch with the significance of the day it was necessary to reveal that it was also "the day of judgment" so that people would approach the holiday with proper awe and respect. (B'Mechitzot Rabbenu)

According to rabbinic tradition, the creation of the world was completed on 1 Tishrei.

The observance of the 1 Tishrei as Rosh Hashanah is based principally on the mention of "zikkaron" ("memorial [day]"; Lev 23:24) and the reference of Ezra to the day as one "holy to the Lord" (Neh 8:9) seem to point. The passage in Psalms 81:5 referring to the solemn feast which is held on New Moon Day, when the shofar is sounded, as a day of "mishpat" (judgment) of "the God of Jacob" is taken to indicate the character of Rosh Hashanah .

In Jewish thought, Rosh Hashanah is the most important judgment day, on which all the inhabitants of the world pass for judgment before the Creator, as sheep pass for examination before the shepherd. The Talmud states, in tractate on Rosh Hashanah that three books of account are opened on Rosh Hashanah, wherein the fate of the wicked, the righteous, and those of an intermediate class are recorded. The names of the righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life, and they are sealed "to live." The middle class are allowed a respite of ten days till Yom Kippur, to repent and become righteous; the wicked are "blotted out of the book of the living." (Psalms 69:29)

The zodiac sign of the balance for Tishrei is claimed to indicate the scales of judgment, balancing the meritorious against the wicked acts of the person judged. The taking of an annual inventory of accounts on Rosh Hashanah is adduced by Rabbi Nahman ben Isaac from the passage in Deut 11:12, which says that the care of God is directed from "the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year". 1 Tishrei was considered as the beginning of Creation.

It is said in the Talmud that on Rosh Hashanah the means of sustenance of every person are apportioned for the ensuing year; so also are his destined losses.

The Zohar, a medieval work of Kabbalah, lays stress on the universal observance of two days, and states that the two passages in Job 1:6 and Job 2:1, "when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord," refer to the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah, observed by the Heavenly Court before the Almighty.
  • On the first night of Rosh Hashanah after the evening prayer, it is the Ashkenazi and Hasidic custom to wish Leshana Tova Tikoseiv Vesichoseim (Le'Alter LeChaim Tovim U'Leshalom) which is Hebrew for "May you (immediately) be inscribed and sealed for a Good Year (and for a Good and Peaceful Life)" 
  • Shana Tova (pronounced [ʃaˈna toˈva]) is the traditional greeting on Rosh Hashanah which in Hebrew means "A Good Year." (שנה טובה)
  • Shana Tova Umetukah is Hebrew for "A Good and Sweet Year." (שנה טובה ומתוקה)
  • Ketiva ve-chatima tovah which translates as "May You Be Written and Sealed for a Good Year."
  • The formal Sephardic greeting is Tizku leshanim rabbot ("may you merit many years"), to which the answer is ne'imot ve-tovot ("pleasant and good ones"). Less formally, people wish each other "many years" in the local language.
  • Among German speakers, the New Year's greeting "Guten Rutsch" is derived from the Yiddish version of "Rosh (Hashanah)".
  • In Yiddish, it is common to wish someone גוט־יאָר (gut-yor) or "Good Year" on and around Rosh Hashanah.
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