Basic Guide to Understanding some of the Customs of Rosh Hashanah



   
    September 2009            
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Rosh Hashanah Guide

By Larry Fine

The Jewish New Year is not at all a holiday like that of the prevailing revelry that is seen through out the Western world. It is a solemn day of prayer and introspection. On this day G-d remembers all of His creations and judges them according to their merits.

Although it is a solemn day, it should be also awe inspiring as we contemplate that the Supreme Judge of the universe who sits in judgment at this time is kind and merciful. We know that he does not desire to punish anyone, but rather desires to see them return to Him in love. Therefore this is also a day of forgiveness and mercy.

We utilize the month before Rosh Hashanah to prepare for the New Year. Like a person who was issued a subpoena to appear before the civil courts and will certainly utilize the time to look into his court case and arrange all manners in the best possible way, we, too, know that in a few days we shall appear before the Judge of all Judges, a judge who can see only the truth. During this time we check ourselves: have we prayed to Him properly? Have we really been charitable? Have we observed the mitzvoth properly? Each day the shofar is sounded in the synagogue so that we may take to heart the Day of Judgment that approaches. During this time a Jew must take upon himself a resolve to improve in those areas which he finds himself deficient.

As we return from the synagogue we greet our friends and relatives with the traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting: "L'shana Tovah tikotaivu" (May you be inscribed in the Book of Life) and some people add the following words: "L'alter L'chaim" (immediately for life). This is because on Rosh Hashanah, G-d sits with three books open before Him: the book of the righteous, the book of the wicked, and the book of the average.

The truly righteous are immediately written into the book of the righteous just as the very wicked are inscribed into the book of the wicked. The vast majority of people, such as we are, are inscribed in the book of the average where our merits are balanced against our short comings. For the average people, we must make an active exertion to get a positive judgment for the new year.

In the home kiddush is recited and the hands are washed to eat the bread of the festive meal, for unlike a person who must appear before a human judge who may or may not find a merit in his favor, we are confident in G-d's mercy that He will help us in our time of need. After we eat of the bread, we partake of the special custom which is dipping the bread not in salt as we do all year around, but in honey. Afterwards, we take an apple and cut it and dip it into the honey and say this little prayer: "May it be Your will to renew us for a good and sweet year." Various other foods are eaten at this point in the meal to symbolical bring down blessings, such as eating pomegranates, and asking G-d that we be multiply like the seeds of the pomegranate. On carrots (Hebrew: gezer which also means decree) we use the double meaning of the word to uproot any gezar din (any decrees) that may be against us. Others use different fruits and vegetables as symbols and they vary from community to community.

On the second night of Rosh Hashanah we always have a fruit that we have not eaten before so that we may make the blessing shehechiyanu that we have been delighted that we have been able to live to reach this holiday.

The Morning Prayer service normally starts earlier than that of the Shabbat since there are many more prayers and poems to recite. Plus there is the most important blowing of the Shofar. When Rosh Hashanah falls on the Shabbat, we do not blow the shofar but rather only on the second day. The Shofar is not sounded at night. The Shofar blowing is so important that if a person has a choice of two synagogues, one with an outstanding cantor and the other with an expert shofar blower, it is recommended that he go to the synagogue with the outstanding shofar blower, since that is the big mitzvah of the day.

The Shofar is not blown at the beginning of the services, but rather later in the morning service after the morning prayers and the Torah reading. In many synagogues it is blown again during the Musaf (additional) service and then again after all services are complete. Often the man who blows the shofar wears a special white garment and in many synagogues he will immerse himself in a ritual mikvah to achieve a high level of spiritual purity as a preparation for this great mitzvah.

The day after the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the fast of Gedalia. It is a public fast and also heralds the intermediate days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Special prayers are said every day until Yom Kippur that we may be still inscribed in the book of life.

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from the September 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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