In a Nutshell
Rosh Hashanah, Hebrew for “head of the year,” is celebrated annually on the first of Tishrei, the beginning of the Jewish year. On this day, Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, were created, sinned, and were expelled from the Garden of Eden. On the day they were created, Adam and Even learned about their role on earth, and for this reason, on Rosh Hashanah we celebrate our relationship with G-d. We acknowledge both our dependence on him as our creator and sustainer as well as his “dependence,” so to speak, on us, as the ones who proclaim him King of the universe and make His presence known.
Our sages tell us that on this day, every year, “every single person on earth passes before G-d like a flock of sheep” in preparation for the verdict of “who shall live and who shall die…who shall be poor and who shall be rich…who shall fall and who shall rise.” In addition our souls awaiting the heavenly verdict, on Rosh Hashanah we also proclaim G-d as the single King of the universe.
Some of the central observances on Rosh Hashanah include a festive meal, prayers, the sounding of the Shofar, and tashlich.
Upon proclaiming G-d King, we blow the Shofar. The shofar makes the acceptance of G-d’s kingship physical as well as spiritual, something in which not only the heart and soul partake, but man in his entirety. There are two types of ways the shofar is sounded at the synagogue: tki’a and tru’a. The former is a continuous, resounding sound that announces G-d’s sovereignty. The latter is a broken sound that goes up and down; this, in a way, is a bit alarming and calls for everyone to do soul-searching. The blowing of the shofar, then, is partially meant to make us stop being indifferent and nonchalant and to engage in deep, sincere self-contemplation.
In summary, the sounding of the Shofar plays multiple roles:
Since Rosh Hashanah was the day Adam and Eve were created, and the day G-d became King, every year we re-crown G-d as the ultimate King.
Rosh Hashanah is the first of Aseret Yemei Teshuva, Ten Days of Repentance, the shofar is blown to remind of the ensuing, critical, days.
The shofar reminds us of the day we received the Torah at Mount Sainai, when a shofar was blown.
The shofar reminds us of the prophets, who were likened to shofars, “and if anyone hears the shofar and does not take warning…” Ezekiel: 33,4.
We are reminded of the destruction of the Holy Temple.
We are made to think about the binding of Isaac and how he was willing to sacrifice his life for G-d.
The shofar makes us repent.
The shofar reminds us of the great Judgment Day.
The shofar reminds us that all Jews need to be united and dwelling in the Holy Land.
The sounding of the shofar reminds us of the future resurrection of the dead.
The sounding of the shofar is the “moment of truth,” and is the biggest mitzvah or the holiday.
The Festive Meal
During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we take a round challah, symbolic of wholeness and completion, dip it in honey and recite a blessing. The honey symbolizes our hope for a sweet new year. After the bread has been blessed on and eaten, we take apple, dip it into honey as well, and recite another blessing: “May it be your will, our G-d, that you will renew this year and make it good and sweet.” Why both “good” and “sweet”? Good seems to encompass sweet. The answer to this question lies in the definition of “good:” we acknowledge the fact that everything that comes from G-d is ultimately good, even if it seems “bad” from our parochial perspective. So, we ask G-d to not only make this year a good year, but that we will be able to actually “taste” its goodness, that it will be apparently and obviously good.
On Rosh Hashanah we eat and bless over a number of foods that have extra significance for us:
After eating leek or cabbage, we say: “May it be Your will, G-d, that our enemies will be cut off.”
After eating beet, we say: “May it be Your will, G-d, that our foes will be eliminated.”
After eating dates, we say: “May it be Your will, G-d, that our enemies will be finished.”
After eating gourd, we say: “May it be Your will, G-d, that the decree of our sentence should be torn, and may our merits be proclaimed before You.”
After eating pomegranate, we say: “May it be Your will, G-d, that our merits increase as the seeds of a pomegranate.”
Over a head of a sheep or fish, we say: “May it be Your will, G-d, that we be as the head and not as the tail.”
The Tashlich ceremony is performed on on Rosh Hashanah. It is customary on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in the afternoon to go to a pool of water, preferably one that has fish in it, and recite the “tashlich,” or casting away, blessing. This prayer is symbolic of our casting our sins away. The reason we need to perform this ceremony by a pool water with fish in it is as follows: the Torah is likened to water, and just as fish cannot live without water, so a Jew cannot live without Torah. Additionally,
If Rosh Hashana falls out on Shabbat, Tashlich is recited on the second day. If for some reason it was not said on Rosh Hashana itself, it may be said anytime during the Ten Days of Repentance.