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Rosh Hashanah

Home > Holidays > Rosh Hashanah's Guide to Rosh Hashanah
The Month of Elul
Ten Days of Repentance

Rosh Hashanah: Observance

Rosh Hashanah begins like Shabbat, with candle lighting, usually performed by women, adding the shehechiyanu blessing for the holiday. Two main differences between Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat are the ability to cook and to carry on Rosh Hashanah. Most people still prepare ahead of time for the festive meals, however, because Rosh Hashanah days are pretty full.

For dinner, special round challot are used instead of the traditional braided challot used on Shabbat. The round challot, often with raisins inside for added sweetness, signify a well-rounded year. The challah is dipped in honey to signify sweetness for the coming year.

A famous Rosh Hashanah custom is dipping an apple in honey. Since Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of God's creation of the world, the apple signifies man's first sin and that people are always striving to be better. Another common food served is the head of a fish, symbolizing fertility and the hope that God decrees the year to be like a head rather than a tail.

In synagogue, the special prayer book for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the machzor, is used. All of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services have special tunes, niggunim, used only on these days. The solemn tunes convey the seriousness of the day.

Morning services for Rosh Hashanah are long; most congregations conduct special services for children at some point during the morning. During the service Avinu Malkenu ("Our Father, Our King"), a direct plea for God's saving grace, is recited.

The Torah reading recalls how God remembered Sarah and gave her a son, Isaac. It also tells the story of how Abraham sent away Hagar and his son with her, Ishmael. Both stories deal with God's judgment. The haftorah tells the story of Hannah, who was barren and prayed to conceive, and later had a son, Samuel.

The shofar is blown next. (When Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, the shofar is not blown.) Over the course of the service, 100 blasts are blown, in three forms: tekiah, a solid blast lasting a few seconds; shevarim, three shorter blasts, signifying a broken heart; and teruah, nine quick, short blasts, signifying a weeping heart.

The most important part of the service, musaf, is next. This is where many of the prayers for forgiveness are recited. The most powerful of these is the Un'taneh Tokef, which tells of God's judgment. Jews don't believe that God is cruel or vengeful, but rather, that he seeks repentance. The Un'taneh Tokef states that "It is not the death of sinners that God seeks but that they should repent…Repentance, prayer, and charity cancel the severe decree."

Later in the afternoon of the first day-unless the first day is Shabbat-people recite the tashlich prayer near a body of water that contains living fish. This is an opportunity to figuratively cast away any final sins. Some people use bits of bread to symbolically cast away their sins after reciting the prayer. Water purifies, and the hope is that the sins won't be brought to the surface. The fish, with their eyes forever open, symbolize God's constant watching of us, and that they don't gossip.

The second day of Rosh Hashanah is much like the first. Candle lighting, services, and meals all ensue. It is common to eat a new fruit on the second night-since Rosh Hashanah is considered one long day, the Shehechiyanu blessing, recited over something new or a new holiday, should technically not be recited; eating a new fruit legitimizes the Shehechiyanu blessing made earlier in the evening. Pomegranates are often used for this.

The Torah reading on the second day tells the story of Isaac's binding to be sacrificed and how in his place, God tells Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead (the reason the shofar is made from a ram's horn); Jews hope God will spare them the same way.

No tashlich service is recited unless the first day was on Shabbat. Rosh Hashanah concludes with a Havdala service, the same service that concludes Shabbat.

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