A brief history of Rosh Hashanah, the kickoff to the Jewish New Year
Food, sound, prayer, reflection, celebration. Jewish people around the world will soon wish one another “Shanah tovah” (Hebrew for “good year”) during Rosh Hashanah, the observance of the Jewish New Year.
The holiday, which takes place this year between sundown on September 25 and sundown on September 27, kicks off the Jewish high holy days. This is what you need to know about the holiday and the history of the traditional blowing the Shofar Horn.
Origins and meaning of Rosh Hashanah
Jewish people welcome the new year in September or October, not January, in observance of the lunisolar Hebrew calendar. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the first day Tishri, which is the first month in the civil year and the seventh month in the religious year. Given that the Hebrew calendar is more than a week shorter than the Gregorian calendar and, according to tradition, originated with the biblical creation of the universe, this holiday will mark the beginning of the year 5783 for Jews worldwide.
Hebrew for “head of the year,” Rosh Hashanah is a chance not just to celebrate and look ahead, but to consider the past and review one’s relationship with God. It also marks the first day of a period known as the Ten Days of Awe, or Days of Repentance, during which a person’s actions are thought to be able to influence both God’s judgment and God’s plan for that person. These holy days culminate with Yom Kippur which is the holiest day in the year.
Though the holiday has been celebrated for thousands of years, its origins are murky. Jewish scripture lays out the month and days of a similar festival but does not call it Rosh Hashanah. In the biblical passage Leviticus 23: 24-25, God tells Moses that the people of Israel should observe the first day of the seventh month as a day of rest and mark it with the blast of horns.
At some point, the horn-blowing holiday became associated with the new year. The earliest reference to Rosh Hashanah in a rabbinic text comes from the Mishnah, a Jewish legal text that dates from A.D. 200.
How Rosh Hashanah is celebrated
In the leadup to Rosh Hashanah, the shofar–a trumpet made from a ram or kosher animal’s horn–is regularly sounded in synagogues. The holiday itself is marked with more shofar blasts, usually around 100 during the services on both days. Many Jews interpret the sound as a call to repent of sins and seek forgiveness from God.
Work is prohibited on Rosh Hashanah, and many Jewish people spend the holiday attending special services at their synagogues and then celebrating with festive meals.
Rosh Hashanah has its own symbolic foods: round challah, apples, and honey. Symbolizing God, the cycles of the year, and the sustenance that lies ahead, a rounded challah loaf, often studded with raisins, is usually dipped in honey and eaten in a celebratory meal. Apples are a symbol of hope for a sweet new year. The tradition of eating apples for Rosh Hashanah is thought to have originated with Ashkenazi Jews in Europe who used the fall fruit in their new year’s meals. (See nine breads from around the world. )
So how will the beginning of the year 5783 be celebrated? Many synagogue attendance is currently impossible because of the pandemic. However, whether they are on Zoom or gathering in person with their family and friends, Jewish people all over the world will be enjoying a healthy meal and displaying new year’s dedication.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on September 18, 2020. It has been updated.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.