Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. It marks the beginning of the creation of the world, as well as when the world will be judged for the coming year. It literally means "Head of the Year" and is the first of the High Holy Days, or Days of Awe.

The ten days between Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur are generally a time of reflection, repentance, and asking forgiveness from those you have (or may have) wronged during the previous year in the hope of being inscribed in the Book of Life on Yom Kippur. You can learn about the holiday here and here.

Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first two days of the month of Tishrei. Find out the specific dates in the modern (Gregorian) calendar.

Holiday Foods

Rosh Hashanah foods are replete with symbolism.

Israeli pomegranates

Pomegranates, one of the seven species native to the land of Israel, are a popular choice for the custom of eating a new fruit (pomegranate season begins in September). The wish is to have as many blessings as there are seeds in the pomegranate.

In Judaism there is a longstanding belief that pomegranates contain 613 pomegranate seeds, which reflects the 613 commandments (or mitzvot). Eating pomegranate seeds demonstrates the wish to fulfill the mitzvot in the upcoming year.

Honey, symbolizing the wish for a sweet new year, is used in baked goods such as apple cake and honey cake. At the festive dinner, slices of apple and challah bread are dipped in bowls of honey.

The honey in the Biblical reference to the land of Israel as "the land of milk and honey" was likely a thick syrup-like sweetener made from dates, grapes or figs. In many Israeli families - especially those from Sephardic or Mizrahi background - apple slices and challah bread are dipped in this date honey (silan) which is served with nuts or sesame seeds sprinkled on top.

Instead of the traditional braided challas, round challahs make an appearance. This round shape symbolizes the circular nature of time and the continuity of creation, and often these challahs are studded with sweet raisins.

In Ashkenazi culture, carrot slices represent gold coins and the wish for a prosperous new year. Fish dishes symbolizing fertility and abundance are popular.

Because Rosh Hashanah is the "Head of the Year", in some Jewish communities a whole fish is placed at the table, and it is considered auspicious to eat the head. My father-in-law, who was born in Iraq, explains this as symbolic of the wish to be "at the head" of the year (and not the tail). In Sephardic communities going as far back as the Middle Ages, it was even customary to serve a whole sheep's head!

Celebrating in Israel

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Israel is a very different experience than observing it elsewhere in the world. Because of the religious significance of the month leading up to the High Holidays, and for practical reasons also because stores, institutions, government offices and more are going to be closed during the holiday, you can literally "feel it in the air" when Rosh Hashanah is near. It's always a bit stressful to get your day-to-day errands done in Israel, but as the holidays draw near it's even more so.

Sounds of "Shana Tova u'metuka" (Good and sweet new year) are heard everywhere, from the checkout person at the grocery store to the bus driver and of course friends, colleagues and family. After Rosh Hashanah and before Yom Kippur, people greet each other with wishes for a "Gmar Hatimah tova", or for a wish to be inscribed in the Book of Life (literally: a good final signature).

New clothes for the holiday are often purchased in honor of the New Year, and it is customary to dress in white. If you're invited to someone's house for the holiday meal, it is customary to bring your host a gift of something new for the kitchen.

Many secular Israelis don't attend synagogue, but some will be sure to drop in at some point in order to hear the call of the shofar, or ram's horn, which announces the New Year. In fact, another name for the holiday is "Yom Teruah", or "Day of the Call of the Shofar".

Israeli bees

If you're in Israel during the High Holy Days and are looking for a day trip that ties in to the holiday, you can learn about honey-making at Dvorat HaTabor

Fun Fact:
1,500 tons of honey will be consumed in Israel during the High Holidays, mainly on Rosh Hashanah. Valued at approximately $16.2 million (2011), this represents 40% of the country's annual consumption of honey!

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