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Observing Rosh Hashanah

A close-up shot of a shofar, or ram's horn, sitting on top of a worn book. In the background is a jar of honey with a wooden honey dipper on top.
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Here on the CultureReady blog, we've looked at numerous new year celebrations from different cultures and religions around the world. Today we are looking at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. This year, the holiday starts the evening of September 18th and will run through the evening of the 20th. The dates of Rosh Hashanah are determined by the lunisolar Hebrew calendar.

Rosh Hashanah means “head of the year” in Hebrew, and has numerous traditions associated with its observance. The standard greeting for Rosh Hashanah is “shana tova” (“good year”) or “l’shana tova” (“for a good year”). Here are some of the other practices typically followed for Rosh Hashanah:

  • Blowing the shofar: The shofar is a horn, made from a ram’s horn, used to mark the holiday. lists a variety of reasons for this practice: a call to awakening from a “spiritual slumber,” a rededication to studying the Torah, and recalling the prophets, to name a few. The shofar is blown over the course of both days, traditionally during morning services and other additional services.
  • Traditions involving food: Many of the foods eaten during the Rosh Hashanah meal have symbolic meaning. According to The Spruce Eats, a few of those foods and their meanings include:
    • honey, for “a good and sweet new year,” and often accompanied by a fruit, such as apples
    • fish heads, marking the intention to “move forward and make progress in the coming year"
    • pomegranates, in “celebration of new and unusual experiences”
  • Tashlich: this tradition involves reciting verses by a body of water on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, in order to cast off sins into the sea, followed by shaking out one’s clothes in order to “[shake] sins from our soul.” 

Of course, people in different countries and of different denominations will choose to celebrate differently, depending on the traditions of their own communities and families. It is unlikely that any two celebrations look exactly the same, even if they follow the same traditions. 

Rosh Hashanah is a time spent with family, friends, and other members of one’s community, just like many other new year celebrations in other cultures and religions. This year, however, Rosh Hashanah looks a little different, as observers will largely have to observe at home instead of in synagogues. Many services will likely be offered virtually, which may not sound ideal but can actually offer flexibility for different times of day depending on different observers’ needs, and allow for celebrants to attend services at synagogues around the world. According to the New York Times, “many Jews have been tapping into Shabbat services in Israel during the pandemic or tuning in to a temple in whatever time zone better fits the time of day they want to pray.”

While this past year has been difficult for many, a new year offers a chance to reflect on the past year and look to the future with hope, no matter how it is celebrated. Want to read more about other new year celebrations around the world? Check out our other blogs on the Islamic new year, the Chinese lunar new year, and the Hindu festival of lights.

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Townscape of Uchisar, Cappadocia, Turkey