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Celebrating Rosh Hashanah: The Jewish New Year Explained

Judaism is a religion that has around 14 – 15 million members and is one the oldest organized religion in the world. Like many religions, Judaism divides itself into three branches: Conservative Judaism, Orthodox Judaism, and Reform Judaism. 

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All of these branches share the same set of beliefs and holidays, the only difference is the interpretation each branch has of the common beliefs they practice. However, all the Jewish communities share the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. 

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, which is different from the universal New Year. It’s one of the most important holidays of Judaism. Rosh Hashanah means “first of the year,” commemorating the creation of the world. 

Here you’ll learn about Rosh Hashanah’s importance and how Jewish people go about its celebration. Let’s take a closer look.  

What Is Rosh Hashanah? 

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. This holiday starts on the first day of Tishrei, which is month number seven in the Hebrew calendar. Tishrei falls during September or October of the common calendar. 

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The Jewish New Year celebrates the creation of the world, marking the beginning of the Days of Awe, which is a period of ten days when one should practice introspection and repentance. This period finishes on the Day of Atonement.  

Origins of Rosh Hashanah 

honey in a jar

The Torah, Judaism’s holy book, doesn’t mention Rosh Hashanah directly. However, the Torah does mention that on the first day of the seventh month there’s an important sacred occasion, which is around the time Rosh Hashanah occurs each year. 

Rosh Hashanah probably became a holiday during the sixth century B.C.E., but Jewish people didn’t use the name “Rosh Hashanah” until 200 A.D. when it appeared in the Mishna for the first time. 

Despite the fact that the Hebrew calendar starts with the month of Nisan, Rosh Hashanah happens when Tishrei starts. This is because there’s the belief that God created the world at this time. So, they consider this holiday as the birthday of the world rather than an actual New Year. 

Aside from this, the Mishna mentions three other occasions that Jewish people could consider “New Year.” These are the first day of Nisan, the first day of Elul, and the first day of Shevat. 

The first day of Nisan is a reference to resume the cycle of a king’s reign, and also the cycle of months. Elul 1st is a reference to the start of the fiscal year. And Shevat 15th is what helps calculate the cycle of the trees that people harvest for fruits. 

Symbolism of Rosh Hashanah  

placemat design
Rosh Hashanah placemats showing symbols of the new year. See this here.

Most of the symbols and ways in which Rosh Hashanah is celebrated refer to prosperity, sweetness, and good things for the future. As in many other religions and cultures, the new year represents new opportunities.  

Rosh Hashanah symbolizes the beginning of something new and hopefully of something better. Sweetness, prosperity, and the chance to start the year without sins provides the perfect scenario for the Jewish people. 

These symbols include: 

1. Apples dipped in honey

This symbolizes hope for a sweet New Year that all Jews hope is around the corner. These two items are among the most important symbols of Rosh Hashanah. 

2. Challah bread

This round loaf of bread symbolizes the circular nature of life and of the year. Challahs are typically studded with raisins to represent sweetness for the new year.  

3. Pomegranate

The seeds represent the commandments that Jews are supposed to uphold. It’s believed that each pomegranate holds 613 seeds, which corresponds to the number of commandments.  

challah cover
Challah cover for Rosh Hashanah. See this here.

There is also a tradition in which people throw pieces of bread into a flowing body of water. The bread symbolizes sins, and since they are being washed away, the person who throws the bread can start the new year with a clean slate. 

This ritual is called Tashlich, which means casting off. While throwing the pieces of bread, the tradition includes prayers to cleanse all of the sins. 

Of course, the religious part of the celebration is paramount. None of these symbols, rituals and good wishes happen before the religious service.  

How Do Jewish People Celebrate Rosh Hashanah? 

Rosh Hashanah is one of the holiest days of Judaism. During any holiday, there’s a set of traditions that those who celebrate it will go through to honor them. Rosh Hashanah is no different! 

1. When is Rosh Hashanah Celebrated? 

Rosh Hashanah is celebrated at the start of the month of Tishrei. This happens between September and October of the universal calendar. In 2022, the Jewish community celebrated Rosh Hashanah from September 25th, 2022 to September 27th, 2022. 

Interestingly enough, the date of Rosh Hashanah may vary each year when it comes to the universal calendar because Jewish people use the Hebrew calendar to set the event. In 2024, Rosh Hashanah will occur from sunset of Wed, Oct 2, to nightfall of Fri, Oct 4, 2024. 

2. What Customs Are Followed? 

A shofar – ram’s horn – used throughout the service. See this here.

One of the most important things Jewish people have to do during Rosh Hashanah is hearing of the shofar on the two days of the holiday. The shofar is an instrument that according to tradition has to be made from a ram’s horn. It will be heard around one hundred times during and after the morning service. 

The shofar is the representation of the trumpet blast from a king’s coronation, aside from being the representation of a call to repentance. This instrument also portrays the Binding of Isaac, which is an event that occurred during Rosh Hashanah when a ram became an offering to God instead of Isaac. 

On another note, during Rosh Hashanah, people will wish others with the words“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year” on the first day.  After this, people may wish others “a good inscription and sealing” to wish them a good start to the Jewish New Year. 

Aside from this, women will light candles during the evenings to recite the blessings during Rosh Hashanah. There’s also the fact that on the second night, people will make sure to think of a fruit or a garment while they recite a blessing. 

Another fascinating tradition is that during the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah Jewish people will go to a beach, pond, or river to perform the Tashlich ceremony. They will perform this ceremony to cast their sins away into the water.  

3. Special Foods at Rosh Hashanah  

rosh hashanah food and customs

During Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people will eat traditional meals every day of the festival. They have bread dipped in honey, which represents the desire to have a good year. Aside from bread, they’ll also eat apples dipped in honey to begin the first dinner of Rosh Hashanah after doing the traditional blessing. 

Aside from the sweet food, many people will also eat cuts from the head of a ram or a fish to represent the desire of being a head and not a tail. Following the idea of eating certain foods to represent wishes for the new year, many will eat a sweet carrot dish called tzimmes to wish for a year of abundance. 

Aside from this, it’s a tradition to avoid sharp foods, nuts, and vinegar-based meals to avoid having a bitter year. 

Wrapping Up 

Judaism has many instances that Jewish people may call “new year,” but Rosh Hashanah is the one that marks the creation of the world. This holiday is an occasion for the Jewish communities to make their wishes and repent for their sins.

Affiliate Disclosures
Juan Salazar Sanchez
Juan Salazar Sanchez

Juan Sanchez has been a freelance writer for years, with a particular focus on Mythology and History, especially Greek mythology. He has been a part of the Symbol Sage team for several years, and has contributed immensely to the team. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling and reading.