About Rosh Hashanah
In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath, a zikh’ron teru’ah,
a holy gathering. (Lev. 23:24)
And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation: You shall not
do any labor of work; it shall be a yom teru’ah to you. (Num. 29:1)
What’s Rosh Hashanah about? Nowhere in the Torah are we informed about the exact
nature of the fall holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In fact, the description of
them is so sparse that one could think that they are fairly minor holidays. Compare the
extensive descriptions of Sukkot, or especially Pesach, to that of Rosh Hashanah, and you
could conclude that those two holidays far surpassed Rosh Hashanah in importance and
sanctity. And you’d be correct—originally, they did.
My, the Holidays are (early; late—take your pick) this year. In terms of our civil calendar,
the earliest date on which Rosh Hashanah can occur is September 5; this will happen next
in 2013. And the latest Rosh Hashanah can fall is on October 5, which will occur in 2043.
But after 2089, the differences between the Hebrew calendar and the civil calendar will
result in Rosh Hashanah occurring no earlier than September 6.
What’s in a name? Rosh Hashanah doesn’t even get its most common name from the
Torah. Is it even in the Tanakh? —No, the only reference to a rosh hashanah in the
Tanakh can be found in Ezekiel 40:1, where it doesn’t even appear to refer to the first of
Tishrei. In the first century CE, Philo referred to the holiday as the “Festival of the Shofar.” A
midrash that dates from the second century used the same name for the holiday (Tadshe 6).
Rosh Hashanah didn’t receive its name until talmudic times—the name first appears
in the Mishnah, which was completed in the second century CE. Actually, the Torah
doesn’t give Rosh Hashanah any particular name, it simply refers to the day as a Sabbath
of zikaron teru’ah (remembering a signal or a trumpet-sounding), or yom teru’ah (day of
trumpet-sounding). From these terms we have the Torah names for the holiday: Yom ha-Zikaron and
Yom Teru’ah. In later rabbinic writings the holiday is called Yom ha-Din,
“day of judgment,” and finally, in the Talmud, Rosh ha-Shanah, “head of the year.”
One of the lesser known names attributed to Rosh Hashanah is Yom haKeseh, the “day of
concealment” (b. Betzah 16a). This name is from Psalms 81:4-5, two verses that are
recited as part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy:
4 Sound the shofar at the new moon, at the keseh of our feast day.
5 For this is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
The usual translation of keseh is “full moon,” but if it’s vocalized kasah (same
consonants), it becomes the verb “to cover, conceal.” Since the original Hebrew was
written without vowels, such a translation is possible, and verse 4 could be read “Sound
the shofar at the new moon, at the concealed [time of] our feast day.” Unlike all other
major Jewish festivals which occur mid-month—on the fifteenth of the month when the
moon is full—Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of the month of Tishrei, when the new
moon may not yet have appeared. The new moon of Rosh Hashanah could therefore be
said to be “concealed.”
A possible key to the holiday’s importance is that it must have been considered to be the
shabbat of the rosh chodeshim—the seventh new moon of the year, and like the Shabbat
(seventh day), the sabbatical year (seventh year) and jubilee year (seven x seven years), it had
special importance. More on this later when we discuss the shofar.
Rosh Hashanah begins the ten-day period culminating in Yom Kippur known as Yamim
Nora’im, the Days of Awe or Aseret Yemei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Penitence—far better
terms that express the sanctity and solemnity of the period than the secular-sounding
“High Holidays” or even “High Holydays.”
New year? What new year? Rosh Hashanah is not the only “new year” in the Jewish
tradition. Why is Rosh Hashanah considered to be a new year, anyway? It occurs in the
seventh month, after all. Nisan is the first month:
The rabbis taught:
The first of Nisan is the new year for (arranging the) months, for (appointing)
leap years.... Whence do we know (that it is the new year) for months? From the passage where it is
written: “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the
year to you” [Ex. 12:2].... [however,] the sages do not find (the rule of calling Nisan the first month)
in the Torah, but in the Book of Esther, where it is clearly stated [Es. 3:7], “In the first month, that
is, the month Nisan.” (b. Rosh Hashanah 16)
The new years include the first of Nisan, which is the new year of months and of kings
(the number of years a king reigns); the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of
animals; the fifteenth of Shevat (Tu b’Shevat), the new year for trees (for the
determination of the age of trees); and the first of Tishrei, the new year for years for
counting to the sabbatical year (every seventh year) and the jubilee year (every fiftieth
It’s a festival too? It’s clear that Rosh Hashanah is described in the Torah as a festival, but
it’s unclear just what kind of festival it’s supposed to be. Since the Torah doesn’t give very
much information about the reasons for celebrating Rosh Hashanah as a new year, or even
as a day for recalling the sounding of the horn, how did the day become so central to
Judaism’s liturgy? The reasons are all conjecture, but are based upon religious practices in
the cultures of the ancient near east. In antiquity many divine coronation festivals seem to
have occurred in the fall corresponding to the fall harvest season. Based on this, it is likely
that Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot may have originally been a single holiday
marking the fall harvest. The fall harvest yield was essential for the community’s survival
through the winter months, so the period leading up to the fall harvest would have been a
time of fear and awe, viewed as a time of the deity’s judgment of the community.
Originally, the Hebrews were a nomadic people and relied upon the appearance in the
spring of wild herbal foods and the spring lambing for much of their sustenance. This
spring appearance of plant growth and the birth of domesticated animals was likely the
reason that the spring month of Nisan was celebrated as the first month throughout the
entire near east, from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Later, as the Hebrews became more settled
and developed agriculture, the economic emphasis shifted to the fall and its major harvest
season. Also, at harvest time, one of the major concerns of the community was for rain
during the winter months to ensure that the following year would be fruitful. This led to
the rise of another kind of new year’s observance in the fall; observing the completion of a
cycle of agricultural production and the beginning of a new growing season—the renewal
of the land, or a new creation, so to speak. Coupling this idea with the fall pagan
coronation festivals of the harvest season, we can project the themes of Rosh
Hashanah—God is King and the creation of the world—onto the fall harvest celebration,
and this is almost certainly how Rosh Hashanah evolved from an indefinite kind of festival
described in the Torah into something close to today’s observance.
Another creation story? The idea that Rosh Hashanah marks the creation of the world isn’t
seen until it is mentioned in early rabbinic writings. But it’s not entirely clear exactly
where this idea comes from. In the machzor we read this prayer: “This day is the beginning
of Your works, the commemoration of the first day.” The Talmud tells us, in Rosh
Hashanah 27a, that the reason for reciting this verse is the opinion of R. Eliezer, who said
that the world was created in Tishrei. According to R. Eliezer, the creation began on 25
Elul, and on 1 Tishrei, the sixth day, Adam was created (Leviticus Rabbah 29:1). But the
Talmud also records a differing opinion: According to R. Joshua, “In Nisan the world was
created” (b. Rosh Hashanah 10b–11a). What do we make of this contradiction? Rabbeinu
Tam, a renowned medieval commentator, saw no contradiction at all. According to R. Tam,
These and these are
the words of the living God, and one may say that the thought to create was
formed in Tishrei, while the actual creation did not take place until Nisan. (Tosafot Rosh Hashanah
R. Tam points out that creation must be viewed as a process. So which part of the process
does Rosh Hashanah commemorate—the conception or the action? Tradition has given the
nod to Tishrei for the “time” of the creation, and the creation of the world is marked by
celebrating the purpose of the creation of the world: the creation of Adam, the free-willed
human. Of course there are other stories about how the rabbis determined that Rosh
Hashanah fell on the new moon of Tishrei. One story shows how they determined the date
by rearranging the Hebrew letters of the first word of the Torah:
Getting ready. Preparation for Rosh Hashanah begins in Elul, the month preceding Tishrei.
The shofar is sounded at the weekday morning services; special haftarot with themes of
consolation are read at each Shabbat service during the month. At the end of Elul, special
prayers of penitence—s’lichot—are recited, and on the Shabbat immediately preceding
Rosh Hashanah many synagogues hold a special s’lichot service. On the Shabbat
immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah, at the time in the service when the new month
(Rosh Chodesh) is customarily announced, the new month is not announced. Why? The
“reason” given is that by now, with all of the preparations of Elul just about completed,
one would have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to know when the new month with Rosh
Hashanah was coming. But the likely reason is rooted in superstition—by not announcing
the new moon, hasatan, the “adversary,” would be confused and wouldn’t know when to
intercede with God when God began judging the people.
How many days? Virtually everyone knows that most Jewish festivals are celebrated for
two days in the diaspora (because of uncertainty about the calendar before the calendar
laws were settled), but for only one day in Israel. Rosh Hashanah is the exception: it is also
celebrated for two days in Israel—for the same reason about calendar uncertainty! The
uncertainty about when holidays began arose from the way the new moon needed to be
witnessed and reported to the authorities. The final decision about the arrival of the new
moon was made by a priestly, and later, rabbinic court in Jerusalem, and then the new
month’s arrival was proclaimed in Israel and messages were sent to communities outside
the country. Since receiving the proclamation could be delayed in outlying areas, festivals
had an additional day added to ensure that they were observed on the proper day.
However, Rosh Hashanah has the distinction of coinciding with the new moon, so the
announcement of the new moon of Tishrei might not reach everyone in Israel, let alone
Jerusalem, in time for its proper celebration. For this reason, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated
in Israel for two days. But just to complicate matters, the festival is not simply viewed as
lasting two days. In the rabbinic view, the two days of Rosh Hashanah are seen as one
long, 48-hour day—a yoma arikhta.
Shofar Facts You Might Not Know
The Torah tells us we must listen to the teru’ah (signal) on Rosh Hashanah (Lev. 23:24;
also see Num. 29:1). Later, in Leviticus 25:9, we learn that the teru’ah is sounded using a
shofar (ram’s horn). Actually, the word shofar is seldom used in the Torah—it’s only
found five times: three in Exodus during the theophany at Mt. Sinai, and twice in Leviticus
in connection with the announcement of the jubilee year (25:9). The sounding of a horn (or trumpet) is not unique
to Rosh Hashanah; it was actually required for every Rosh Chodesh, although the
instruments mentioned in this connection are the chatzo’tzerot, the two silver trumpets (Num.
10:10). Rosh Chodesh, the festival of the new month, was observed in biblical times in a
far more festive fashion than it is today and sounding the shofar on Rosh Chodesh was “a
statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob” (Ps. 81:4). As we saw above, Rosh Hashanah
could be viewed as the “shabbat of the Rosh Chodeshim,” and thus sounding the
shofar would have been obligatory. The observance of Rosh Chodesh has virtually disappeared, and the only
vestige of the shofar’s use is now found during Rosh Hashanah and in the weekday morning services of
the month preceding the holiday.
The shofar is not sounded on Shabbat, not because of the prohibition against the use of
musical instruments on Shabbat, nor even because of the prohibition against carrying
items on Shabbat. The prohibition was made to avoid the possibility of causing a carrying
infraction should one forget and carry his shofar outside the synagogue! The Gemara
explains that the Torah permits blowing the shofar on Shabbat, but the Sages forbade it,
lest someone come to carry a shofar in the street. According to the Talmud Yerushalemi,
when Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat, they would blow the shofar in the Temple but not
anywhere else (Rosh Hashanah 4:1).
Why do we have such a complicated Rosh Hashanah ritual of sounding the shofar? The reason is, in
a nutshell, "two Jews, three opinions." The ritual took over 150 years to evolve. There was even
disagreement over whether the mitzvah of the shofar was to blow it personally or to just hear
it sounded; the latter custom was the one that was adopted. Then there is the question of where
the number and variations of shofar sounds that are prescribed in the machzor came from. The
answer is not in the Torah—it is silent about the number and kind of blasts needed to fulfill the
mitzvah of hearing the shofar. The rabbis of the Talmud, after considering the passages where
the sounding of trumpets is mentioned in connection with ritual practice (Num. 10:1–10), derived
the pattern of blasts that is used to this day. But it took over 150 years, as mentioned above, to
evolve. The rabbis had to be a little imaginative in determining the nature of the shofar sounds, since
in the passages in Numbers the Torah only mentions two sounds, a long blast (tekiah) and a
shorter one (teru'ah).
The rabbis of the Talmud had to decide not only the nature of the shofar blasts to be sounded in the
Rosh Hashanah service, but also the number of shofar blasts to be used and the order that they were to
be sounded. The earliest ruling provided that each teru'ah blast must be bracketed by tekiah
blasts (b. Rosh Hashanah 34a), and there were to be three blasts at each of three points in the
service, a total of nine blasts. Over time, the rabbis realized that no one really knew what kind of
sound the teru'ah was—two possibilities were derived through a complicated exegesis of
the text in Numbers 10—so at some point during the third century CE, to accommodate the two versions
of the teru'ah, a third shofar sound, shevarim, was added.
The three shofar sounds that the rabbis determined, then, are the
(one long blast);
(three short blasts); and
(nine staccato blasts). When the sequences are all
completed, the final tekiah note is held for as long as the ba'al tekiah (shofar blower)
has the breath. This note is called tekiah gadolah
, the great tekiah. This last blast
recalls the verse from Isaiah: “And on that day a great ram's horn shall be sounded” (27:13).
How was this new shofar sound to be incorporated in the service? R. Abbahu of Caesarea called for a
new sequence: tekiah, shevarim, teru'ah, tekiah (b. Rosh Hashanah 34a). But a problem
with this sequence emerged. Which was the true teru'ah sound—the shevarim or the
original teru'ah? Debate continued on this question into the fifth century, and finally, to
to accommodate the various rabbinical opinions, they specified the sequences that included all of the
possible sounding orders. The number of times the shofar is sounded during the service was also amended
several times until it reached the current number of 100 blasts, and the sequences of the shofar blasts
follow the final order set in the fifth century (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shofar 3:3).
tekiah shevarim-teru’ah tekiah
tekiah shevarim tekiah
tekiah teru’ah tekiah
The shofar may be made from the horn of any kosher animal, with the ram being the most
popular as the ram was Isaac’s substitute when he was about to be sacrificed. Other
popular shofars are made from the horns of the antelope, gazelle, kudu, and ibex.
However, the horns of cattle are not used, as we don’t want to remind God of the golden
Rosh Hashanah is very infrequently called Yom haKeseh, the Day of Concealment, and
this name has a connection to the shofar. A story is told about one Don Fernando Aguilar,
who, during the Spanish Inquisition, was a conductor of the Royal Orchestra in Barcelona.
Aguilar, himself a Marrano, a forced convert to Christianity, organized a concert that
would present the instrumental music of diverse cultures to be held on Rosh Hashanah
which would include the “music” of the shofar. Word of this concert spread to the
Marrano community, and during the concert the notes of the shofar, the tekiah, shevarim,
and teru’ah, were blown as part of the performance. Officials of the Inquisition were
present but only the Marranos were able to truly recognize what was happening and
appreciate Aguilar’s courage.
Jewish mystics believe that the shofar has the power to confound hasatan, the “adversary.”
They point to a verse in Nevi’im (Prophets) that reads, Ayn satan v’ayn pega’ ra’, which
means “There is neither adversary nor evil happening” (1 Kings 5:18). The initial letters of
this passage, after ayn: shin, vav, peh/feh, raysh, spell “shofar.” And the
gematria (study of the mystical relationship
of words and numbers) of the verse is 910, which is the same as the gematria for Tishrei,
leading the mystics to the belief that when the shofar is sounded it confounds hasatan.
Customs of Rosh Hashanah
A number of Rosh Hashanah traditions exist, some quite ancient, that reflect
a belief that Rosh Hashanah can presage characteristics of the year to come as well as present an opportunity
for a fresh beginning:
- Hatarat nedarim (“untying the vows”). On erev Rosh Hashanah in some
communities, one gathers a mini-court of three witnesses and declares to them the
desire to be free of all personal vows undertaken during the previous year.
- Napping on Rosh Hashanah. According to the Talmud Yerushalmi, “If one sleeps
at the year’s beginning, his mazel (good fortune) likewise sleeps.” Thus the custom
arose not to take a daytime nap during the holiday, because sleeping during the day
might determine how alert you might be during the rest of the year.
- Dressing for services. Traditionally, Ashkenazi Jews (those of east European
descent) dress in kittels (Yiddish = white robe-like smock) for Rosh Hashanah and
Yom Kippur services. White is symbolic of purity and renewal, and recalls the
verse, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall become as white as snow” (Isa.
- Dressing the Torah, aron, and bimah. Using similar symbolism, on Rosh Hashanah
and Yom Kippur the Torah scroll is dressed in a white cover, the curtains of the
aron (ark) are replaced with white ones and the bimah (pulpit) cover is changed to
One unique custom.
There’s one custom that is observed on the afternoon of the first day of
Rosh Hashanah (second day if the first falls on Shabbat) that is absolutely unique—there’s
nothing at all like it in any other holiday. It’s called tashlich, from the root word meaning “to cast
away.” Jews go to a body of water—one that could support fish—and symbolically cast away their
sins. The custom seems to be based upon a verse from the prophet Micah, “And You will cast
[ve-tashlich] all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Mic. 7:19). There doesn’t have to be fish in
the water; the water has to be flowing somehow so it could support fish. Why fish? According to
tradition, the fish in the water could witness the symbolic casting of one’s sins, using bread
crumbs, for example. Since fish never close their eyes, we are supposed to be reminded of the
ever-watchfulness of God who sees everyone’s actions. The mystics had another interpretation for
the need for fish for a “kosher” tashlich: Fish, according to the mystics, are immune to the “evil
eye” and the symbolism here is protection from the world’s evils.
Of course, there are even some odd customs involving this unique custom!
Among certain oriental Jews, tashlich is done in the synagogue using a basin of water that contains
live fish. In many European communities from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the custom was to
perform tashlich at a body of water on the outskirts of town to avoid accusations by the gentiles of
their poisoning the water. And the Jews of nineteenth-century Kurdistan were said to observe
tashlich by going to a flowing body of water and casting themselves in!
There are no special prayers needed to do tashlich. One can read from
Micah, and include readings that incorporate the themes of contrition, teshuvah, and mercy.
For a humorous viewpoint of this custom, go to this page.
What’s a Jewish holiday without customs about food? Rosh Hashanah has so
many of these that they are discussed on another page; go
here for the food.
Greetings for the season.
While it’s always perfectly appropriate to greet others at Rosh Hashanah by wishing them a chag
sameach, “happy holiday” or gut yontoff, a Yiddish greeting meaning “a good holiday,” a
number of other greetings have long been used that more closely express the nature of the holiday
The most common greeting, beginning in the month of Elul, is the simple
shana tova, “a good year”; this greeting is a shortened form of l’shanah tovah tikatev
v’techatem (when speaking to a man), l’shanah tovah tikatevi v’techatemi (when speaking to
a woman), or l’shanah tovah tikatevu v’techatemu (for a mixed group). These greetings mean
“May you be inscribed and sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good year,” and appear to have been first
used in medieval Germany among Jews leaving the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah night (Orach Chaim 582).
Beginning in the fifteenth century, Jews began using this greeting during the entire month of Elul. Other
variants of this greeting exist; one popular variant is l’shanah tovah umetukah, meaning “a
good and sweet year.” Another one, somewhat less common, is ketivah tovah, “a good inscription
[in the Book of Life].” The appropriate response to these greetings, as well as any other greeting,
is gam le-mar or gam lekha (fem. lakh) meaning “same to you.”
Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a different greeting formula is used. God has
presumably made his entries in the Book of Life, so it might be considered indelicate to imply that
the person you’re greeting hasn’t already been inscribed—so the typical greeting becomes
chatimah tovah, “a good sealing [in the Book of Life],” for on Yom Kippur the Book of Life,
which has been open since Rosh Hashanah, is closed. After Yom Kippur and until Shemini
Atzeret, one says g’mar chatimah tovah, “a good final sealing,” since the Book of Life isn’t fully
closed until the last day of Sukkot, so you get a really final last chance to wish the person you’re
greeting the best year possible. (If you’re in a hurry, that last greeting can be shortened to g’mar
tov, “finish well,” but it seems to me that greeting is best used in an athletic context....)
Observance and Ritual
I explained earlier about how the two days of Rosh Hashanah are seen as one long, 48-hour day.
This complicates matters when we express our thanks for reaching a milestone event such as a
festival in the shehechiyanu blessing. We say the shehechiyanu for all festivals and new events,
but not for the second day of a holiday, because that second day was a result of calendar
uncertainty, and we never want to say a blessing when it’s not needed; that would be saying the
blessing in vain. But this isn’t the case for Rosh Hashanah. What to do? A difference of opinion
arose about whether the shehechiyanu prayer should be said on the second day, since this really
wasn’t a second day—it still was the first day—or was it really? The solution to the problem gave
rise to the custom of wearing a new item of clothing or eating a new fruit on the second day to
ensure that there would be a valid reason for reciting the shehechiyanu.
The amidah (standing) prayer of the Rosh Hashanah musaf
(additional) service is unique; this
amidah is unlike any other Shabbat or festival amidah. All amidah prayers have one central
berakhah (blessing) that is related to the day or holiday. In the Rosh Hashanah musaf amidah
there are three central berakhot: malkhuyot (God’s kingship); zikhronot (God’s recalling the past);
and shofarot (connecting the shofar with significant events of the past).
Unlike all other festivals, there is no hallel (prayers of praise)
on Rosh Hashanah. This is unusual;
the hallel prayers are an important part of festival observance. The reason most commonly given
for omitting hallel is found in a midrash. The ministering angels, observing that on Rosh
Hashanah the people were not reciting hallel, asked God for the reason. In the midrash, God
answered, “Is it possible that a king sits on the judgment seat with the book of life and death open
before him and Israel will sing praise?”