- The words Rosh HaShanah mean “Head of the Year,” Jewish New Year.
- The number of the year changes on Rosh HaShanah. This year, we change from 5774 to 5775.
- Rosh HaShanah is the first of the month of Tishri in the Jewish calendar.
- Rosh HaShanah is the first of the ten “Days of Awe” that culminate with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
- Rosh HaShanah, with Yom Kippur ten days later, are often referred to as the High Holy Days.
- On Rosh HaShanah, we remember the Creation of the world and we look ahead to the Judgment of God.
- Traditionally we eat sweet things on Rosh HaShanah: apples, honey and such to express our desire for a sweet year ahead.
- We prepare for Rosh HaShanah during the month of Elul.
- Rosh HaShanah is marked by feasting and solemnity.
- Many if not most Jews try to be in synagogue on Rosh HaShanah.
- One of the themes of Rosh HaShanah is the “Book of Life.” It is an ancient metaphor expressing the idea that we don’t know what lies ahead of us, but that God knows all.
- The traditional greeting for Rosh HaShanah is L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu (l’sha-NAH toe-VAH tee-ka-TAY-vu) which means “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year.”
- A shorter form of the greeting is Shanah Tovah which means “[Have a] Good Year”
- A very short greeting for the day is “Goot yom tov!” Yiddish for “Good holiday!”
- On Rosh HaShanah we hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.]
- On Rosh HaShanah, we make a special effort to make teshuvah, to repent old sins and to forge new ways of living.
- Many Jews around the world celebrate two days of Rosh HaShanah.
- This year, Rosh HaShanah starts at sundown on September 24, 2014.
There are three days of the year when synagogues are weird. Services are not typical. The crowd attending the synagogue is not typical. Even the clergy may not be their usual selves.
In other words, those are bad days to “shul-shop,” to visit a prospective synagogue. Here they are:
Purim is fun, if you are a member of the community. But it is an evening when people wear masks, get rowdy, and may be a little tipsy. There may be a play, a “Purim Shpiel,” with lots of inside jokes that won’t make any sense to you. In the daytime, there will be a children’s carnival, with hordes of sugar-crazed little ones. Don’t visit for the first time on Purim – it could be the nicest shul in the world but you will want to flee screaming.
2. Rosh HaShanah
Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year) services are beautiful. However, they are also very long.The rabbi’s sermon will be longer, too. Like a church at Easter, every member is there and more dressed up than usual. The service, and the music, are different from regular services. Tickets are usually required. Don’t visit for the first time on Rosh HaShanah – it may be pretty, but it just isn’t typical.
and now, for the VERY WORST DAY TO VISIT A SYNAGOGUE:
1. Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur is the worst possible day to visit a new synagogue. Nothing is normal. The evening service, Kol Nidre, is much like Rosh HaShanah: everyone dressed up, solemn music, lengthy sermon, a huge crowd. And in the morning service, it is all that but even more so: no one has had any coffee. If you are already part of the community, then misery has company. We do the work of the day (praying), we kvetch about our caffeine headaches, services go on and on and on. The music is still beautiful. But it is no place or time to take the temperature of a synagogue, because the singers are hired, the clergy is tired, and no one has had any coffee.
When is a good time to shop for a shul? Any day but those three days!
This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.
Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 24, 2014. Here are the basic facts to know about the holiday season:
Happy Jewish New Year!
Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”]
Days of Awe
Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.
Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance
The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”]
The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Work is forbidden. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.
In the Synagogue
Very important, for newcomers: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time. The services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.
Tickets for Prayer?
Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.
There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to make a referral, and there are synagogues who offer free High Holy Day services as a form of outreach. Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.
Another option, almost always free, is to attend Selichot services which are usually on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah. You will hear the High Holy Days music, often the clergy will be wearing their High Holy Day robes, but it is an evening penitential service that is so little known that only regulars attend. Call your local synagogue for information.
Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days
To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.
There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many things in synagogue start immediately after the holidays.
L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5775!
Feeling downbeat after a week of soul-searching? Feeling discouraged, knowing that there are three more weeks to Rosh HaShanah? Here’s a video that both celebrates the joy of the coming new year and speaks to the task of making ourselves new in time for it:
It’s a classic from the Maccabeats. Enjoy!
“People assume that the Ashkenazi way of doing food is the crux of what Jewish food means. The reality is that Jewish food is a text, and there’s different types of text. Oral and written, of course. And then you have the text of the land of Israel. Then comes the diaspora itself. In other words, it’s your personal identity with the text, the idea of Israel, and where we live.” – Michael Twitty, in an interview for Chow, 4/10/2014
Michael Twitty teaches remarkable Torah. He is Jewish, African American, a food historian and chef, and he has a way with words. The interview above (click that link!) is chock-full of interesting insights about Jewish food.
If I ask a random American what “Jewish Food” is, likely they’ll say something about deli food, or bagels. However, Jewish food is much more varied than that. There’s Sephardic food, replete with rice and rich flavors, and the food of the Israeli street (falafel, anyone?) Digging deeper, there’s the food in every Jewish home, which is as individual as Mom’s best recipes and Dad’s skill with the grill. Jewish food is any food Jews eat around the Jewish table, which over time becomes infused with Jewish meaning.
An example: I grew up in the American South, and on holidays we had something called chess pie. Every slice is a sliver of gooey sweetness. The first few years I was a Jew, I made the typical Ashkenazi things for Rosh Hashanah, but eventually I switched over to making my chess pie, because I don’t know of any sweeter dish on earth. For me and my family, it’s a Rosh Hashanah dish now, and every bite includes not only sugar, butter, and spices, but the hope for a sweet year. I swear it made the pie taste even better.
Another example, this one for Passover: A friend gave me her mother’s recipe for brisket, a very elaborate and wonderful old Hungarian recipe. I made it, and tinkered with it, and fiddled with it, and a few years ago I realized that it had morphed into something entirely different, a brisket that was a mix of the original recipe and the techniques I learned from my grandmother. Here it is, and unlike the chess pie, it can be made kosher for Passover:
beef brisket, approximately 1/2 lb per person
2 cans tomatoes, with liquid
1/2 potato per person, carrots, and onions to cover the bottom of your roasting pan
fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon mustard
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Buy brisket for the number of people you have coming. I normally figure 1/2 pound per person.
In a deep roasting pan, put a layer of cut up potatoes, carrots, and onions.
Cut the brisket into as many pieces as you need to to handle it easily.
Brown the brisket on all sides on the stovetop over high heat. Brown the fatty side first, then brown the other sides of the meat in the fat.
Put the browned pieces of brisket in the roasting pan on top of the vegetables.
Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of paprika, and 1/2 teaspoon of ground mustard.
Deglaze the browning pan with a cup of wine (I use red, white is OK, do not use a sweet wine.)
Add 2 large cans of whole tomatoes, cut up, to the browning pan and bring it to a near-boil.
Pour the liquid over the meat and veggies, cover the pan (either with a lid or foil, but get a good seal) then put in the oven.
After 15 min, reduce heat to 300.
Allow it to cook until the meat is falling apart. Normally I cook it for 8 hours or even more.
Remove the brisket to a carving board and allow it to rest for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice perpendicular to the grain.
Strain out veggies, reserving liquid, and put them in a separate bowl.
Put the liquid in a saucepan on the stove and heat to reduce it for a gravy.
Are there any foods that have taken on Jewish meaning in your Jewish home? Share recipes if you are willing!
Image: Chess Pie, by Kristen Taylor. Some rights reserved.
Wasn’t one enough?
In the Diaspora (outside of the land of Israel) many Jewish holidays are celebrated for two days. That’s because in ancient times, the Jewish calendar was originally based on the observation of the moon from the Temple Mount. It took a long time to get the announcement of the New Moon to Diaspora communities, so there was uncertainty about holiday dates.
But Rosh Hashanah is observed for two days even in Israel! The reason for this is that the the moon’s cycle is 29 1/2 days. Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, might have had 30 or 31 days, depending on exactly what the moon was doing that year. So there were two days of Rosh Hashanah, just to be sure to get it right.
Now, you may be wondering why it is that we do this even though we have calendars that know the exact dates years, even centuries, in advance. The answer is that the custom became established very early, at least before the year 70 of the Common Era and perhaps much earlier. Many Jews are reluctant to alter a custom that is so old, and refer to the two days of Rosh Hashanah as a Yoma Arichta, Aramaic for “one long day.”
However, as with many things in Jewish life, there is another custom, in some Reform communities, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah only on one day, now that we can calculate the New Moon accurately. They argue that the Torah prescribes one day of Rosh Hashanah, so they celebrate for one day.
By the way, if you need a Jewish calendar, there is a good one at the Hebrew Jewish Calendar website.