Attention to detail is crucial to keeping traditions intact for the Jewish New Year.
By Chani Rosenblum
The high holidays are approaching. It’s a time for personal reflection, introspection and positive resolutions, as well as celebration and joy, for we are sure that G-d will grant us a good year. Rosh Hashanah means “the head of the year.” This festival is observed for two days, though it is considered by the sages to be one long day. The anniversary of creation of Adam and Eve, Rosh Hashanah is the day that makes us realize the relationship between G-d and humanity. It is the day that G-d decrees what kind of year each one of us will have, as is so poignantly described in the famous unetaneh tokef prayer, “Who shall live, and who shall die…who shall be impoverished, and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise.” It is a day that clearly reminds us that we are absolutely dependent on G-d. It is also the day that we proclaim G-d’s kingship over the universe, which demonstrates that, in a way, G-d is also dependent on us, so to speak.
This two-way relationship is revealed in the main mitzvah performed on this day: The sounding of the shofar. It is a profound cry from the depths of our hearts and an alarm to remind us to repent and reconnect to G-d. It is also the trumpet blast of a nation’s coronation of their king, aside from its many other significant and deep explanations. We listen to a total of one hundred sounds and many even add an extra thirty, divided into three categories Tekiah, a long blast; Shevarim, three medium blasts; and Teruah, at least nine short blasts.
On Rosh Hashanah we wish each other, “Leshanah tovah tikatev vetechatem” (“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year”). There is also a special prayer, which is called Tashlich, said near a body of water. We call upon G-d’s mercy, begging forgiveness for any wrongdoing we might have done, and symbolically cast our sins to the fish. This alludes to the verse, “And You shall cast their sins into the depths of the sea.” In preparation for Rosh Hashanah, we ask forgiveness from those whom we may have hurt and forgive those who might have done us any harm; we reflect upon our actions and improve on them, thus beginning the year with a clean slate. Many go to the cemetery to pray by the gravesides of ancestors and righteous people, as well as immerse in the mikveh prior to the holiday.
Rosh Hashanah marks not only the beginning of the year, but also the beginning of ten days of repentance, which end on Yom Kippur. By bettering ourselves on these ten days, we intensify our connection to G-d and to those around us. This is our last chance to beg forgiveness from whomever we might have wronged; we give extra charity and perform the kaparot ceremony, in which we take a live chicken or money, and while slinging it above our head three times we ask that G-d accept this gift to the poor and grant us a good year.
As with every holiday, we invite the holiness in by lighting the candles at the appropriate time: The first day, 18 minutes before sunset the second day, after the stars have come out, from a preexisting flame. We make a special Kiddush, or blessing, over wine and wash our hands in the prescribed formula for blessing the two challot (plural of challah), which on Rosh Hashanah are usually round, symbolizing fullness and completion as well as the cycle of life. It is dipped in honey instead of salt, just like the apple is dipped in the honey. We tend to make meals that are primarily sweet, hoping for a sweet good year. We also avoid using nuts which have the numerical value of averot (sins). Many also put a head on the table at the beginning of the first meal, whereas on the second night we eat a new fruit, and a pomegranate. If we have not eaten a pomegranate during the year, it can serve as a pomegranate and as the new fruit. There are many other different customs of foods put on the table depending on the origin of the family. The synagogue is decked in white.
We change the Torah covers and cover on the bimah, (the table upon which the Torah is read), recalling the verse “may our sins which are red be whitened like snow” due to G-d’s forgiveness. A special prayer book is used, called the machzor. Famous amongst the prayers is the avinu malkeinu. The amida of the musaf prayer is composed of three main themes: Malchuyot (praises to G-d, our King), Zichronot (asking G-d to remember the merits of our Ancestors), and Shofrot (the significance of the shofar).