Next week, Jewish families will celebrate the holiday Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah means “Head of the Year” in Hebrew. The holiday represents the beginning of the Jewish New Year, similar to the way Advent, the period before Christmas, marks the beginning of a new year for Christians. On Rosh Hashanah, everyone wishes family and friends a happy new year with the Hebrew words shanah tovah, which mean “a good year.”
Rosh Hashanah begins with the setting of the sun and ends the following evening. When the sun sets, Jewish people go to their synagogue for a prayer service. They think about what they have done during the past year, including mistakes they’ve made and good things they have accomplished.
Depending on their traditions, the family will eat together either before or after the evening synagogue services. After thanking God for allowing them to live another year, it’s time to enjoy the food. A plate of apple slices surrounding a bowl of honey is an important part of the meal. Each person takes an apple slice and dips it into the honey. The apples and honey symbolize their hope for a sweet new year, one in which people will be kind and family members will be happy and healthy. Round Challah bread is also served. The round shape reminds everyone that the year always starts over again.
The biggest dish on the table is often a whole fish with the head on a separate plate. A family member might say a prayer hoping that people will be more like the head of the fish than the tail. This means that people should be leaders rather than followers.
The next morning, Jewish families go to the synagogue again to read from the Torah and wait for the blowing of the shofar. A shofar is an animal horn, often from a ram, but any kosher animal’s horn can be used except for a cow or ox. Though it is one of the most memorable parts of the holiday, there is no single reason for blowing the shofar. Some Jewish traditions say the sound is meant to remind people of stories from the past, like the story of Abraham. Abraham was originally asked to sacrifice his son to God, but when God saw the strength of Abraham’s faith, he told Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. Others say the shofar is used to call people back to God so they will figure out what they did wrong over the past year and try to do better in the new one.
After the service, some people participate in a ritual called tashlikh. They gather near a stream or river and throw bread crumbs in the water. The crumbs symbolize the sins of the past year. By tossing them in water, people show their desire to avoid making the same mistakes in the new year.