*Editor’s note: G-d represents the word “God” by some members in the Jewish community.
As we enter the fall season, the global Jewish community likewise prepares to enter the High Holy Days season. This season consists of three holidays – Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year, and Jews celebrate the holiday over two days. This year, the holiday ushers in year 5,781 on the Hebrew calendar. You can read more about the Hebrew calendar here.
A Day of Remembrance and New Beginnings
On Rosh Hashanah, Jews wish each other a happy new year in Hebrew by saying, “Shana Tovah.” In Judaism, Rosh Hashanah is traditionally the day that G-d created the world and humanity. Rosh Hashanah is a time of remembrance and looking back at one’s past and also that of the Jewish people as a whole. Though the holiday is today known as Rosh Hashanah and is the Jewish new year, it did not originate in that way. It is also known as Yom Hadin or the Day of Judgment, which ushers in the Ten Days of Awe that end with Yom Kippur. Over time, it came to be known as the Jewish new year as well.
In Jewish tradition, the Book of Life and Death is opened on Rosh Hashanah and remains open for the Ten Days of Awe. The book is then closed on Yom Kippur. During the Ten Days of Awe, religious Jews will seek to reflect on their past year. They often will seek to confront any sins they have committed and seek to make amends for them with God and others. The Ten Days of Awe begins with the Day of Judgment with the obligation to settle past sins. The Ten Days find their completion with the Day of Atonement, where the slate is wiped clean for another year.
The Hebrew day begins and ends at sundown, so this year Rosh Hashanah begins on September 18 at sundown and ends on September 20 at sundown. Rosh Hashanah always lands on the first and second days of the month of Tishrei. The Hebrew calendar does not align with the Gregorian calendar we use in the modern era. Jewish holidays will always occur on a different date on your calendar, even though they are on the same day every year on the Hebrew calendar.
How Jews Celebrate Rosh Hashanah
Religious Jews do not work on Rosh Hashanah and often will spend a part of the day in prayer and Synagogue services. Jews usually eat apples dipped in honey and challah bread. Rosh Hashanah emphasizes the sovereignty of God, so the challah bread is made in a circle to represent God’s royalty and rule over creation.
Judaism, like Christianity, has a wide variety of groups and denominations. Other practices may depend on a particular Jew’s denomination, cultural background, or family, so there are plenty of variances of tradition.
The Significance of Rosh Hashanah for Christians
The Jewish holidays have a lot to offer Christians that most Western holidays lack. Western holidays tend to focus on more positive themes – happiness, gratitude, family, and abundance. The Jewish holidays do contain these themes, but they also do not shy away from the darker themes of life. The Hebrew Bible says that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4), and the Jewish holidays follow suit.
In July, the Jewish community celebrated Tisha B’Av, where Jews mourned the loss of the first and second temples, the past sacking of Jerusalem, and the many persecutions of Jews throughout history. The Jewish holidays – like the book of Psalms – are an invitation to bring all our emotional experience to G-d. Whether we are joyful, angry, sad, or depressed, G-d wants us to wrestle through all our emotions with Him. Rosh Hashanah – similarly – begins as a time of somber reflection but ends in the day of atonement, which represents the remission and forgiveness offered by G-d.
Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Awe, and Yom Kippur can loosely be compared to the Christian season of Lent. Christians can participate with the Jewish community by confronting sins, struggles, and pains of the past year and wrestling through with a G-d who truly cares. Rosh Hashanah is a time to put the past to rest and move into a New Year filled with new blessing and trial, knowing G-d is present through it all.
If you are looking to observe the High Holy Days, then please contact a local Synagogue. Most areas also have a Jewish Federation that is committed to fostering Jewish community. Many congregations love to have visitors on holidays and are excited to teach others about Judaism and Jewish holidays.
You can find a list of online services here.