Rosh Hashana (The Jewish New Year), meaning “the Head of the Year” or “the Beginning of the Year” in Hebrew, is the start of the year according to the Jewish calendar. Unlike the Christian calendar, the Jewish year begins on the first day of the month of Tishri which usually falls in September or October. The festival symbolises the creation of man, Adam and Eve, and the start of the link between God and man. Consequently, the year 2016, according to the Jewish calendar, will be the year 5,777 for the Jews. This year, the Jewish New Year falls on 2 October. Like the Christian New Year, the Jewish New Year serves for many as the starting point for a new beginning, a time to review the previous year and to set aims and dreams for the year to come.
Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, is a wonderful time to be in Israel since it is a festival with a special, magical atmosphere. All businesses close and everyone wears white and spends the day in synagogue in prayer and then at family meals. The preparations for the festival begin with the custom of Hatarat nedarim – the cancellation of vows – which takes place in the morning of the New Year, which is also the half-day New Year’s Eve before the brand new beginning starts in that evening. With the “Hatarat nedarim,” Jews revoke the oaths they swore during the year. Judaism attributes a great deal of importance to each word that comes out of the mouth so that even simple words are liable to be interpreted as a vow. Consequently, on New Year’s Eve, Jews withdraw these vows, whether uttered knowingly or unknowingly. The festival continues with the New Year’s evening meal, the central family meal, after everyone has returned from the synagogue. This is usually a hearty repast full of delicious foods that are symbolic of the New Year, and they include the eating of apple and honey, the purpose of which is to symbolise the hope and expectation of a sweet year; the head of a deer or ram or the head of a fish is eaten, in order to be at the head and not the tail; pomegranates are eaten, so as to encourage people to fill our lives with as many good deeds as there are seeds in the pomegranate.
One of the most important good deeds on the New Year is listening to the sound of the ram’s horn, the shofar, in synagogue. During the course of Rosh Hashana, the ram’s horn is blown in synagogue some hundred times throughout the day and the sounds made change according to their style and purpose. Each sound has a name, there are short sounds (teruah) and a very long one at the end of the series of blasts (tekiah-teruah). The sound of the shofar is an alert and a call to repent since the New Year is also the day of year on which the first sin was committed by man (eating from the Tree of Knowledge) and also the first day of the beginning of the Ten Days of Penitence on which people ask for forgiveness. The ten days end with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
In addition to the blowing of the shofar, the Jewish New Year is characterised by additional customs. Jews are in the habit of greeting each other with “shana tova umetuka” (good and sweet new year) and “leshana tova tikhtav vetakhtom” (may a good year be written and signed off for you). The meaning of this is a hope that God will grant you a good year. An additional custom is that of tashlikh, casting bread upon the waters, an action symbolising the “casting away” of sins of the previous year in preparation for a good year ahead. Tashlikh occurs on the first day of the New Year and is performed beside flowing water, such as the sea, a stream or river. Here you will see Jews standing beside the water and emptying their pockets to symbolise cleansing themselves of sin.