This week, we come face to face with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is an auspicious time in the Jewish calendar, and is filled with many interesting practices and rituals. Most importantly, it is the time of year when we as Jews take account of where we are in our lives, and I personally have come to love this time of year for the opportunity it forces upon me to reevaluate where I am as a Grahamstonian Jew.
The Jewish calendar is a lunar one, with the first calendar month being ‘Tishrei’. Rosh Hashanah, which is celebrated on the first two days of the month, marks the days God completed creating the world and the start of the new lunar year.
Just as most of the ‘Western’ world when January 1st rolls around, Jews too partake in celebrations to commemorate the turn of the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah celebrations naturally differ from those associated with New Year’s Eve, however, and take place both in the synagogue/within the community and at home.
The prayer services which take place on Rosh Hashanah are longer and more dense than regular services, and are filled with many additional prayers which reflect the themes and importance of the festival.
The overarching themes of Rosh Hashanah are those of repentance, and of new beginnings. Jews believe that, throughout the year, God keeps a tally of sorts of each person’s actions: the good, the bad, the memorable and those we ourselves don’t even remember. Rosh Hashanah is the day, we believe, He sits down to do a proverbial tally of every person’s year. Each individual’s behaviour throughout the year will in turn influence the upcoming year: if a person strove to perform more good deeds than bad in a particular year, this will have a positive impact on his or her year ahead. Alternatively, if a person knowingly went through his or her year doing predominantly ‘bad’ things, this will cast a negative shadow on their life going forward. The ‘verdict’ is a serious one, and is sealed on Yom Kippur, which takes place ten days after Rosh Hashanah begins. Judaism is not an unforgiving religion governed by a relentless God, however, and we place a strong emphasis on a person’s ability to repent for his or her passed misgivings or bad deeds.
Teshuva is the Jewish word for repentance, and can be divided into three general steps:
- Acknowledgment/regret: After a person has committed a sin or a bad deed, he or she has to recognise that they have done something wrong, and has to feel legitimate remorse for his or her actions. It is not possible for one to genuinely repent for a passed action if one does not fully accept the wrongness of what they have done.
- Confession: The second step in Teshuva is to confess one’s actions to the relevant party. Judaism differentiates between two types of sins: sins against man, and sins against God. If a person committed a sin or acted inappropriately towards another person, he or she has to confront the second party on the matter and ask for forgiveness. Examples include humiliating another person (in public), or knowingly deceiving or defrauding someone else. If one acted against God, for example breaking the laws of Kosher or the Sabbath, one has to admit to this through prayer. Obtaining forgiveness for ones transgressions is another important aspect of obtaining teshuva.
- Resolve: Once one has recognised that what he or she did was wrong, he or she must actively resolve not to repeat the same mistake again. According to various sources, namely but not limited to the Torah (written law) and the Mishna (the oral law) a person’s Teshuva is only considered fully complete once he or she finds him- or herself in a similar position to what they were in when they previously committed the transgressions, and they refrain themselves from repeating the action.
At various points throughout the Rosh Hashanah prayer services, we say a prayer known as Vidui (literally meaning ‘confessions’) in which we admit to a list of transgressions which we may or may not have committed during the course of the preceding year. The purpose of this prayer is for each individual to complete the first two major steps of teshuva: acknowledgement and confession. Then only can they work on completing their repentance process.
‘Ashamnu’, the condensed version of Vidui. Source: Chabad.Org
The translation of Vidui reads:
We wish to admit our guilt [but not to fall into excessive guilt which actually prevents us from doing teshuvah]. We have been ungrateful [for all the good done to us and even repaid bad for good]. We have robbed. We have been two-faced and spoken slander [behind others’ backs]. We have caused others to deviate [from the right path]. We have caused others to do wrong. We have acted maliciously. We have acted violently [and fraudulently to get what we want]. We have framed lies and been deceitful [in order to save ourselves and get others in trouble]. We have advised others to do things that were harmful to them. We have spoken falsely and not kept our word. We let our anger get the best of us. We have scoffed [and made light of serious matters]. We have rebelled [against You]. We have compromised Your truth for our own convenience. We have shown contempt [and thereby provoked Your displeasure]. We have committed adultery [and other sexual offenses]. We have been stubborn [and turned our hearts away from You]. We have sinned intentionally [in order to satisfy our lust, and have gotten caught in the web of our own rationalizations]. We have rebelliously committed crimes [which have caused us to become coarse and insensitive, and therefore unworthy of Your forgiveness]. We have damaged [the very things which are most sacred and precious to us]. We have oppressed and harassed. We have caused our parents grief and anguish. We have been stiff-necked [and obstinately ignored all of Your reminders to repent and better our ways]. We have acted wickedly [and become twisted inside]. We have corrupted [and destroyed our innate sense of right and wrong]. We have lost our human dignity [and stooped to the level of animals]. We have completely gone astray [and lost our way in life]. We have misled others to go astray as well.[In sum] we have turned away from Your good commandments and ethical laws—all to no avail. But You are just with regard to any punishment that befalls us, for You have acted truthfully while we have just hardened our hearts and become more enmeshed in our sins. [In sum] we have turned away from Your good commandments and ethical laws—all to no avail. But You are just with regard to any punishment that befalls us, for You have acted truthfully while we have just hardened our hearts and become more enmeshed in our sins.
Another important part of the Rosh Hashanah prayer services is Tashlich, an additional prayer which many Jews say on the afternoon of the first day. Traditionally, Tashlich is said next to a river, stream or any other body of fresh water and Jews will throw breadcrumbs (some use flower petals or other substitutes) from their pockets into the water. The breadcrumbs metaphorically represent our sins, and the act of throwing them into the water represent the process of Teshuva.
On Rosh Hashanah, Jews also blow the shofar: a hollowed out horn, traditionally from a ram. The shofar is blown several times on both days of the festival, as well as traditionally in synagogues every day for a month preceding Rosh Hashanah. The noise made by the shofar when blown is said to resemble wailing, or an alarm clock, and hearing the shofar being blown is meant to resonate deeply with our souls, reminding us to ‘wake up’ and begin preparations for Rosh Hashanah.
The days and weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah are key for people do begin taking account of their actions over the previous year, and to begin doing the required repentance for their action.
In addition to the various communal and synagogue-related activities associated with Rosh Hashanah, there are various additional customs and practices which happen within the home.
Like on any other festival or over the Sabbath, Jews partake in festive meals over Rosh Hashanah. Instead of the normal braided challah’s (kitke’s, special ‘Jewish bread’) which are used at festive meals, cyclical challah’s are used over Rosh Hashanah. Many Jews eat challah filled with raisons, and we traditionally dip our bread in honey over Rosh Hashanah. Apples dipped in honey is another traditional dish over this time, and join with the raison challah to symbolise the ‘sweet new year’ we wish upon ourselves and each other over this time. There are various other traditional foods Jews tend to include in their Rosh Hashanah meals, including fish heads, pomegranates, carrots etc. Each has its own unique symbolism within the Jewish faith.
Traditional greetings over this time include “Shana Tovah uMetuka”, meaning “[May you have a] Happy and Sweet New Year”.
While filled with various (and often long-winded) practices and additions to the everyday routine, Rosh Hashanah is most importantly a time for self-reflection and growth.
Bellow is a short video from a couple of years ago explaining a bit about Rosh Hashana. I know that it is aimed at kindergarten aged children, but it is nonetheless a great resource for learning about Rosh Hashanah in a short and visual manner.
I will be uploading another post about Yom Kippur, which you will be able to find here.
For now, I wish everyone a wonderful week and a Shana Tova!