What is Rosh Hashanah?

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Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday that is the equivalent to New Year's Day, being the first and second days of the new year in the Jewish calendar, but while New Year's Day is a strictly secular holiday, Rosh Hashanah is a religious celebration.  It is the time of year, though, when Jewish people do take a kind of inventory of their lives, thinking about what they may have done wrong and how they can do better this new year. And because it is a harvest holiday, it is also in some ways like the American Thanksgiving.  The way people celebrate around the world probably varies somewhat, but as an American Jew, I can describe how it is celebrated here. 

There are many religious rituals and wonderful traditions associated with Rosh Hashanah. The prayers for the holiday are special prayers. Candles are lit, and prayers are said over the candles.  As for all Jewish holidays, prayers are said to give thanks for the bread and the wine, "the fruit of the vine," but also there are prayers to give thanks for another year.  Families sit down to an excellent meal, often including a soup course, chicken soup, a fish course, typically a fish called gefilte fish, and then a chicken, turkey, or beef roast.  There is a great emphasis on preparing the foods that have been harvested, as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible.  And the bread, which is a twisted loaf of egg bread, called challoh, is dipped into honey, for a sweet new year.  For dessert, honey cake is always a choice, for the same reason, the sweetness of the honey, as a symbol of a sweet year to come.  People attend synagogue, sometimes the first night or the first day of the holiday, and for very observant Jews, both evenings and days.  There is an entire service devoted especially to the holiday, with a focus on being a better person next year, doing more for one's community, helping to repair the world, and being kind to all.   A ram's horn, called a shofar, is blown, to welcome in the new year, and the sound of this is so primitive and ancient, it always gives me chills.  Jewish people have been using the shofar this way for nearly 6,000 years.  In fact, Rosh Hashanah was recently celebrated, and the year now in the Jewish calendar is 5774!  

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