Rosh Hashanah, literally “Head of the Year,” is the Jewish New Year celebration. In modern Israel, it takes place over a two-day period, the first and second days of the Jewish month of Tishrei, though in Biblical times, it took place on the first day of the month of Nissan.
Rosh Hashanah generally comes in early fall. The Biblical Rosh Hashanah, still held as the beginning of the religious year in Judaism, begins in the spring.
In the Torah, or Old Testament, Rosh Hashanah is called “Yom Teruah,” meaning “Day of Blasting,” due to the blasting of rams’ horn trumpets on this day. These trumpets are still a big part of celebrating Rosh Hashanah today in Israel and are referred to as “shofars.”
Rabbinic tradition says that the new date of Rosh Hashanah is due to its being the time Adam and Eve were created by God, while others credit the timing to fall being the beginning of the “economic year” in the Ancient Near East. Whatever the reason for the change, the “new first month” has taken firm hold in Jewish culture.
The shofar is blasted in a series of short and long bursts according to a traditional pattern. It is heard a total of 100 times throughout the day. Meanwhile, Israeli Jews will attend synagogue services, meditate on the preceding year, repent and pray for forgiveness of sins, listen to Torah verses being recited, and greet each other with “Shana Tova!” (Good year!).
Families will also gather together at home and eat festive dinners. It is traditional to eat apples dipped in honey, symbolising the desire for a “sweet” year just ahead. Pomegranates, leeks, fish heads, and a braided bread called “challah” are also traditionally consumed.
It is also common for short poems, called “piyyuttim” to be recited and for a special prayer box, called a “mahzor” to be used during Rosh Hashanah. The “Ten Days of Repentance” take place from Rosh Hashanah all the way to Yom Kippur, on the tenth day of Tishrei. Some Jews drop bread crumbs into moving water at this time to symbolise their sins being carried away.
Should you travel Israel during Rosh Hashanah, some ideas on what to do include:
- Attend a traditional Jewish New Year dinner in a synagogue or in the home of a friend. The Tel Aviv International Synagogue holds such a dinner each year, but there are many other places to take part in one. Also be sure to buy some challah bread at a local bakery.
- Be sure to find a synagogue service that will welcome guests curious about Jewish culture and hear the shofar, listen to the sermon, and note all of the traditions. Bring an interpreter, if possible, to Hebrew-only synagogues.
- Tour Jerusalem and learn of Israel’s long history in the land. There are tours that start from the Tower of David Museum and take you down the Old City’s narrow lanes. You can learn of Medieval Jerusalem at the Ein Yael Active Museum.