The Mothers Circle Guide to Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah, which literally means “head of the year” in Hebrew, celebrates the Jewish New Year. Observance begins on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (usually in September or early October on the Gregorian calendar), and depending on tradition or region, can include a second day as well. The holiday introduces a time for spiritual reflection, assessing our past actions, and committing ourselves to living better lives in the coming year. Additionally, Rosh Hashanah commemorates the anniversary of the creation of the world, when God judges all of His/Her creatures.
Rosh Hashanah also kicks off a period called the “Ten Days of Awe,” when, according to tradition, God determines the fates of all the world’s creatures for the coming year, choosing whether or not to inscribe them in the Book of Life. During these ten days, which also encompass Yom Kippur, Jews apologize to one another for past wrongs, give to charity, and otherwise demonstrate the three principles of “repentance, prayer, and charity.”
How We Observe:
- Rosh Hashanah Dinner: Rosh Hashanah, like all Jewish holidays, begins at sundown the day before, which is called Erev Rosh Hashanah. On this evening, we gather as friends and family, say a few blessings (similar to those on Shabbat), and enjoy a long meal. In addition, we eat apples and honey, and other treats like honey cake in hope of bringing a sweet, prosperous new year.
- Blowing the Shofar: Throughout Rosh Hashanah services (and during services throughout the Hebrew month, Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah), we hear the blast of the shofar (the horn of an animal, usually a ram). We blow the shofar as a “wake-up call,” in order to encourage those in the Jewish community to repent and make an effort to change their behavior.
- Tashlikh: In the ritual of tashlikh, we throw bread crumbs into a flowing body of water to symbolize the “casting off” of our sins. This ritual encourages introspection, and prompts us to action to change our behavior for the better in the coming year. While it has a serious undertone, tashlikh can be a fun activity to do with your children, as it attracts ducks and other animals. Your children can help you scatter the bread crumbs, and you can use the activity as an opportunity to have an introductory conversation about good and bad behavior. Most communities organize a group outing to a local body of water, so check your synagogue/community bulletin.
- Doing Teshuvah: Teshuvah, meaning “turning back” or “to return” in Hebrew, is the process of repentance that we commit ourselves to in preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Before we atone to God for our sins on Yom Kippur, we must first ask for forgiveness from those in our own lives who we may have wronged. Therefore, the custom of many Jews is to ask for forgiveness from friends and family members for anything they might have done to unintentionally offend during the course of the year.
What To Expect at Rosh Hashanah Services:
Not only will you hear multiple blasts of the shofar at Rosh Hashanah services, but you will also see some differences in how the synagogue and members conduct and attend the services, as compared to a weekly Shabbat service. Here are a few differences to keep in mind:
- You may need tickets to services.
Because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur boast the highest synagogue attendance rates of the Jewish year, many synagogues require worshippers to reserve seating or purchase tickets. Tickets can range in price, some serving as a fundraising mechanism, some with a “pay-what-you-can” model. If you do not belong to a synagogue, call your local synagogues to find out their Rosh Hashanah policies. Again, some synagogues, as well as many Hillels (Jewish Student Centers on many college campuses) offer seats for a very inexpensive price or for free.
- There is a different prayer book.
The machzor, the Hebrew term for the High Holiday prayer book, is specialized to contain liturgy specific to both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The general Hebrew term for prayer book is siddur, a term used to refer to any prayer book that is used during the rest of the year.
- Rosh Hashanah services are lengthy.
Attending synagogue on the High Holidays means that you can expect to be there much longer (sometimes even all day!) than if you attend a weekly Shabbat service. While the length of the service can provide for a day of meditation and reflection, it can be more taxing for young children. Be sure to contact your local synagogue and ask if they have a children’s service. If not, feel free to come and go as is necessary (respectfully, of course).
- There may be a dress code.
The High Holidays are the most important worship days in the Jewish calendar, and many people take the opportunity to get dressed up. A nice dress, a suit, or slacks and a dress shirt are appropriate attire in most synagogues. Some communities have a less formal dress code, and you can always call and ask your local synagogue what they recommend. In addition, some synagogues will ask worshippers to cover their heads during services. If this is the case, there should be a basket of kippot (ritual head coverings usually worn by men) or lace head coverings (usually worn by women) in the lobby.
- You will hear Rosh Hashanah greetings.
A common greeting on the High Holidays is “shanah tovah,” which is Hebrew for “a good year.” You will also sometimes hear “l’shanah tovah," meaning “for a good year.” The usual reply is: “Shanah tovah” or “Shanah tovah u-metukah,” which means “may it also be sweet.” Depending on your synagogue, you may also hear people using the Yiddish phrase “Gut Yontif,” which means, “Happy Holiday.” Some people also say “gemar tov” or “gemar chatimah tovah” after Rosh Hashanah and before Yom Kippur. This is a wish, literally, that “a good sealing be completed” in the Book of Life.
What To Eat:
- Apples and Honey: In accordance with the tradition of wishing each other a happy and sweet New Year, we eat apples and honey (and plenty of other sweet foods like honey cake) to symbolize this sweetness and create hope for a good year.
- Round Challah: Challah, the braided egg-based bread we eat on Shabbat, is traditionally baked in a round shape on Rosh Hashanah. The rounded challah symbolizes the cyclical nature of the year. Sometimes the baker will also include raisins or chocolate chips to make the challah sweeter for the New Year. Here is a good recipe for a challah, if you would like to try making it yourself. Baking can be another fun way to involve your children in preparation for the holiday.
- Seasonal Fruits: Some Jews have a custom of eating new ripened fruit – fruit that has just come back into season such as pomegranates and figs. In this way, Jews celebrate the renewal of the earth along with the New Year.
- A Whole Fish: Some families eat a fish with its head intact on Rosh Hashanah in order to honor the day as the “head of the year.”
Activities To Do with Your Children:
- Make New Year Cards: Rosh Hashanah is a wonderful time to send cards to friends and family. You can use this as an opportunity to teach your children the symbols of Rosh Hashanah (like the shofar or apples and honey), as well as to give your children a chance to be creative. Encourage your children to write to Jewish and non-Jewish friends and family, wishing them a “Happy and Sweet New Year” or “shanah tovah."
- Do Tashlikh in Your Backyard: This activity is more appropriate for school-aged children, but even relatively young kids can think about this ritual in meaningful ways. If you do not live near a flowing body of water, fill a “kiddie” pool or a bucket with water, and have family members throw in little bread crumbs into the pool/bucket. Throughout the activity, you can encourage each family member to explain their “Jewish New Year’s Resolutions.” This is also a good opportunity to ask your children to think about how they can behave better with their family (“I will not to fight with my brother as much”), their community (“I resolve to do something nice for my teacher or babysitter”), or the world (“I resolve to recycle”).
- Go Apple Picking: Rosh Hashanah takes places in autumn – the season for apple picking. If you live in a region where you can find apple orchards, consider making an outing with your children. Afterward, you can serve your apples at your Rosh Hashanah meal, bring them to your hosts if you are eating elsewhere, or have fun in the kitchen making apple honey cupcakes or apple and raisin kugel.
Books for You:
Shimon Apisdorf, Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit,
Leviathan Press, 2008.
In Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit, Apisdorf explains the meaning and beauty of the holidays with humor and accessibility.
Reuven Hammer, Entering the High Holy Days: A Complete Guide to the History, Prayers, and Themes, Jewish Publication Society of America, 2005.
Providing background to the history and liturgy, Entering the High Holy Days gives thorough context to the High Holidays and the development of its associated rituals.
Kerry Olitzky and Daniel Judson , Jewish Holidays: A Brief Introduction for Christians, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006.
This book takes a fascinating journey through the Jewish Holidays, pointing out what each one shares with the Christian tradition. This is a great book to help anyone of a Christian background gain an understanding of what their tradition shares with Judaism.
Paul Steinberg, Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Fall Holidays—Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Jewish Publication Society of America, 2007.
Steinberg’s book takes an encompassing look at the Jewish fall holidays by tracing the holidays from their biblical origins through modern observance with commentary throughout the ages.
Books to Read with Your Kids:
Cathy Goldberg Fishman, On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Aladdin, 2000.
Written through the child’s perspective, On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur describes the traditions of the High Holidays. With rich watercolor illustration and its simple narrative, your young children will gain a new appreciation for the rituals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Rachel Musleah, Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah, Kar-Ben Publishing, 2004.
With an international approach, Musleah provides a guidebook to serve Ashkenazic (Eastern European) and Sephardic (Spanish-North African) Jewish foods at a Rosh Hashanah seder (an ordered meal). Through the book, you and your older children can learn how to prepare the foods of the Jewish New Year, their historical background, as well as how to bless them.
Slyvia A. Rouss, Sammy Spider’s First Rosh Hashanah, Kar-Ben Publishing, 1996.
With wonderful, colorful illustrations, Rouss presents Mother Spider and Sammy Spider in a book perfect for children aged 4-8 years old. With each page, Mother Spider explains the major symbols of Rosh Hashanah to her curious son Sammy.
Rosh Hashanah Online Resources:
www.myjewishlearning.com: You can find very thorough historical explanations regarding the Jewish New Year, as well as an in-depth exploration of the liturgy, and tips for celebrating the holiday at home.
www.urj.org: The URJ website offers a variety of High Holiday Resources, including activities for children, ideas for celebrating at home, and articles about the spiritual and cultural meanings of the holiday.
www.jewelsofelul.com: This website features personal reflections by Jewish writers on themes of forgiveness and self-renewal.
www.ritualwell.org: Ritualwell offers female-centered meditations, poetry, and inventive ideas for observing Rosh Hashanah.