Backgrounder: Rosh Hashanah

This is a background file, designed to assist you in determining which elements you wish to emphasize in your programming and to enhance the activities in subsequent files. These materials were adapted from "New Year and Day of Atonement: Program Material for Youth and Adults", published by the Jewish Center Division, National Jewish Welfare Board, New York, 1952.


Rosh Hashanah (literally, "head of the year"), one of the few solemn days in the Jewish calendar, is also referred to as:

  • Yom Teruah - the Day of the Blowing (of the trumpets);
  • Yom Hazikaron - The Day of Remembrance;
  • Zihron Teruah - Tribute to the Blowing (of the trumpets); and
  • Yom Hadin - The Day of Judgment.

Rosh Hashanah is observed in the beginning of the seventh Hebrew month, Tishri, for two days by Orthodox and Conservative Jews, and for one by Reform Jews.

While Nissan is declared in the Bible to be the first month of the year, Tishrei has come to be regarded as the beginning of the civil year, for this was the month of Creation and it was in this month that the jubilee year commenced, when slaves were freed and all property was restored to its original owners.


Rosh Hashanah is fixed in the following biblical verse:

"In the seventh month, in the first day of the month shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation...."

In contrast to the other festivals, Rosh Hashanah has a basis in neither history nor agriculture.

The concept of the New Year as "Yom Hadin" or "the Day of Judgment," when all mankind is judged by its Creator and the fate of each individual finds his place in the Book of Life, is of rabbinic origin, based upon the following verses:

Blow the horn at the new moon, At the full moon of our feast-day. For it is a statute of Israel, A (day of) judgment of the God of Jacob.

(Psalm 81:4,5)


Throughout the month of Elul that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah, many Jews engage in various spiritual preparations for the High Holy Days.
- The Shofar is blown every weekday at the morning service to arouse worshippers to serious contemplation.
- From the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah, penitential prayers (Selihot) are recited daily sometime between midnight and dawn. When the New Year occurs on a Monday or Tuesday, Selihot are begun on the Sunday of the previous week.

New Year's cards, expressing wishes for a good and sweet year, are sent to relatives and friends. It is also customary for worshippers to greet each other after the service on the eve of Rosh Hashanah with the Hebrew expression, "Leshanah Tovah Tikatev Vetihatem" (literally, "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year"), the person addressed responding "Gam Atah" (The same to you").

At Home:

The customs and ceremonies of the home also reflect concern over the auspiciousness of the coming year:

  • In addition to the recitation of Kiddush (the sanctification prayer said over wine) and the kindling of the festive lights on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a piece of apple is dipped in honey. The person performing this symbolic act implores, "May it be God's will to grant us a good and sweet year."
  • The person dips bread in the honey as well in the hopes that just as the bread is sweet, so may the experiences of the coming year be only the most pleasant.
  • On the second night, a fruit that has not yet been eaten during the year is tasted and an appropriate benediction is recited.
  • Sefardic Jews have a complete Seder of Rosh Hashana, reminiscent of the Passover Seder and of the Tu Bishvat Seder.


On Rosh Hashanah, Jews generally refrain from their daily occupations and activities and instead participate in communal worship.

The prayer service primarily concerns itself with the lives and general wellfare of individuals and the peace of all mankind. Unetane Tokef ("We will celebrate the holiness of this awesome day") is one of the day's most important prayers. It discusses the themes of this Day of Judgment, and concludes with the well-known phrase, "But penitence, prayer and charity avert the evil decree."

Malhiot, Zihronot and Shofrot are prayers implying the acceptance of God's kingship: (Malhiot), a plea for Divine providence by remembering (Zihronot) the merits of our ancestors, and the hope that life and peace will descend upon the entire world as proclaimed by the SHOFAR - - ram's horn (Shofrot).

The Shofar blasts that call the congregants to repent occur before, during as well as following the Additional (Mussaf) Service, except when Rosh Hashanah falls on the Sabbath. The Shofar is sounded a hundred times, at specific intervals in the service, to complete silence in the standing congregation.

The sounds are of three kinds:
  • Tekiah - A long, deep note that ends abruptly;
  • Shevarim - Three short blasts;
  • and Teruah - nine short blasts.
  • The last sound, a prolonged Tekiah, is called "Tekiah Gedolah."

Private Meditation

In the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, many Jews go to the banks of a river and recite verses from the prophets and other appropriate sources. This ceremony is symbolic of a person's casting (TASHLICH) his sins into the water's depths.

The Ten Days of Penitence

Rosh Hashanah inaugurates the Ten Days of Penitence (Asseret Yemey Teshuvah), the most solemn period of the Jewish calendar, a time set aside for sincere contemplation and repentance.

The Sabbath that falls out during these ten days is called "the Sabbath of Repentance" (Shabbat Shuvah), because the prophetic portion (Haftorah) read at the morning service opens with the word, "Shuvah" (literally, "Return")--an exhortation for Israel to return to God.



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07 Jun 2005 / 29 Iyar 5765 0