Basic Customs of Rosh HaShanah

    September, 1998 - New Year Edition            
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The Jewish tradition and customs of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year and of Yom Kippur, the day of Attonement..
The Jewish tradition and customs of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year and of Yom Kippur, the day of Attonement.


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Guide to Traditions of Rosh Hashanah

By Lieb Katzman

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. It is celebrated for two days both in Israel and abroad. This year, 1998, Rosh HaShanah falls on Monday, September 21, and Tuesday, September 22. Like all Jewish holidays, the observance begins at night fall on the day before; hence the first day of Rosh HaShanah will begin on Sunday evening, September 20. Rosh HaShanah will end at nightfall Tuesday evening.

Although Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgement and reckoning, we prepare for the day like all festivals by bathing and cutting out hair prior to the holiday. We wear our good clothing to show that we are certain of a good judgement because we trust in G-d's mercy.

It is a good practice to obtain a holiday prayer book, since the prayers on Rosh HaShanah (and Yom Kippur) are long and different from those of the Sabbath. Some of the more familiar prayer have subtle changes in them.

After the Evening Prayer, it is customary to wish each other a Good New Year. In Hebrew, we say, "Leshanah tovah tikatev vetichatam." For a woman or a girl, the Hebrew phrase is in the feminine gender, "leshanah tovah tiktavi vetichtami." In many places the custom is to say simply, "a gut yoar" which is the Yiddish equivilent.

After the Evening Prayers, we return to the home for the festive meal. In addition to the traditional wine and challah (a special bread) other special dishes are prepared and used as 'signs' for a good omen. The first is honey. Instead of dipping our bread in salt, as we normally do, we dip the bread in honey. At the beginning of the meal, we take an apple and dip it into honey also, as we make a request to G-d that we be renewed for a sweet year.

Various other foods are served to be used as good omens. The very meticulous will bring the head of an animal onto their table to request that we be a 'head' and not a 'tail.' We also try to use foods whose names lend toward signs and omens. Carrots (gezer in Hebrew) are a popular item since in Hebrew, gezer, is the same word for carrot and a decree. So we request that G-d will with hold any evil gezar (decree). The same principle can be applied on words in the English language. As an example, some people have been know to take a stalk of celery and some raisins and prior to eating them, they request G-d to help them get a raise in their salary. Certainly, you can come up with something better than that!

Just like we try to eat special dishes on Rosh HaShanah, we refrain from other foods. Nuts are avoided because 1) they have a tendency to lodge in the throat, thus making proper prayer difficult and 2) because they have the same numerical equivalent (in Hebrew) as sin, which we are trying to avoid.

On Rosh Hashanah day, we hurry to the synagogue to hear the special event of the day: the blowing of the shofar. The blowing of the shofar is a special mitzvah (commandment) which is written in the Torah. We stand and listen to the sounds as they are blown. The shofar is generally the horn of a ram. This is to remind us of the patriarch Issac, who was bound up by his father, Abraham, on Mount Moriah (now the Temple mount in Jerusalem). This recalls his merit of being willing to be a sacrifice to G-d. We do not talk during the many different shofar sounds.

After the Morning Services, we return home to have another festive meal. We try not to take a nap during the first day. After the meal, there is a custom to walk to a river or lake where there are fish to say a prayer called "Tashlich." In communities where rivers or ponds are not with in walking distance, we can go to any body or collection of water to say this prayer. It is best to spend as much of the day saying Psalms.

The second day of Rosh HaShanah is similar to the first. However many do not eat the special foods used for good omens. Honey, however, is still used. Tashlich is not recited on the second day if it was recited on the first day. Candles are lit on the first day prior to sunset, but on the second day they are lit after it is clearly night.

Traditions and Customs of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur atones for many types of sins. Sins between man and G-d are forgiven, however, sins between man and man, can not be forgiven until the wrong has been corrected or one party forgives the other. For this reason, many have the habit to request forgiveness from their friends on this day. It is considered a poor characteristic to with hold forgiveness when one is asked.

The day before Yom Kippur is considered almost as a festival. We are bidden to eat and drink more on this day then we normally do. A large meal is eaten prior to sunset when the fast will begin. Many have the custom of dipping the bread into honey, as a sign of a good year. Two candles are lit prior to the start of the holiday. Many people have the custom of wearing white clothing, symbolizing purity. Many women refrain from wearing fancy jewelry on this day. It is the custom of parents to bless their children before going to the synagogue.

We are to afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur. This does not mean that we actively afflict ourselves, but rather we allow ourselves to suffer by refraining from those pleasureful activities that we enjoy. From the evening through the next day until the stars come out, it is forbidden to eat, drink, anoint with oil, wash or have marital relations. In addition, leather shoes are not worn. Washing is permitted only to remove dirt, but not to make one feel refreshed. We also refrain from embracing those whom we normally embrace.

In the synagogue, the men wear the customary talit, prayer shawl, the entire evening and also the next day. Special prayers with ancient melodies are chanted on this special evening. One of the most moving prayers is that called Kol Nidre, which is a request to annul our vows. Some pious people stand the entire service. Many congregations have the custom to pass around pleasant and fragrant smelling plants and herbs to be inhaled. Many people spend the entire day in the synagogue, going home only to rest. Psalms are read through out the day and night.


from the September, 1998 - New Year Edition Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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