Rosh Hashana : What Is It ?

Rosh Hashana, in its most well-known definition, refers to the Jewish New Year, the day when the year number increases in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar. However, there are many other reasons why Rosh Hashana is considered a "new year".

Tractate Rosh Hashana in the Mishnah of the Talmud, specifically Rosh Hashana 1:1, describes four different "new years" in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar: 1st of Tishri or Tishrei: New Year For Years; 15th day of Shevat (originally, two dates were mentioned by two different rabbis: the 1st day of Shevat by Rabbi Shammai and the 15th of Shevat by Rabbi Hillel; the 15th of Shevat won out in the end): New Year For Trees (tithing of fruits from trees to be given to the Hebrew priests and Hebrew assistants to the priests who did not own land unlike the other Hebrew tribes, as well as the planting of trees); 1st day of Nissan or Nisan: New Year For Kings, Festivals, and Months (the kings of Israel and kings of Judah counted the years of their reign from this date; the cycle of yearly festivals began on this date; and the months in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar were counted beginning with the month of Nissan or Nisan); and the 1st day of Elul: New Year For Animal Tithing (specifically, the tithing or donating of cattle and flocks, to be given to the Hebrew priests and assistants to the priests). Tractate Rosh Hashana 1:1 also lists the many reasons why Rosh Hashana is considered a "new year":

  • Rosh Hashana - Jewish New Year Fact #1: New Year For Years : the day of the creation of the world and of Adam and therefore, the day when the year number increases in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashana literally means "Head of the Year" in Hebrew, not "New Year". In terms of time, this day is the "head" in relation to the rest of time in the year, which follows the "head", just as the rest of the human body follows the brain within the head.
  • Rosh Hashana - Jewish New Year Fact #2: New Year For Sabbatical Years - the Shemittah year or Sabbatical year in Hebrew was the 7th year in a 49-year cycle which was practised by the biblical Kingdom of Israel and Kingdom of Judah. There were specific land laws and debt laws that were in place regarding the 7th year in this cycle.
  • Rosh Hashana - Jewish New Year Fact #3: New Year For Jubilee Years - the Yovel year or Jubilee year in Hebrew was the year after the final year in the 49-year cycle, in other words, the 50th year. The land laws that were in place in the Sabbatical year were continued in the Jubilee year but the debt laws for the Sabbatical year were not continued into the Jubilee year. Laws regarding the freeing of slaves applied to the Jubilee year.
  • Rosh Hashana - Jewish New Year Fact #4: New Year For Planting Trees - Rosh Hashana marked the day when one planted seeds to grow new trees.
  • Rosh Hashana - Jewish New Year Fact #5: New Year For Tithing Vegetables - Rosh Hashana marked the day when a portion of each Hebrew families' vegetable produce reaped from the land was tithed or donated to the priests and assistants to the priests, who were consecrated to serve in the service of G-d and unlike the other Hebrew tribes, did not own any land.

How is Rosh Hashana commemorated?

Rosh Hashana is commemorated with a festive meal which opens the holiday of Rosh Hashana. The foods used in a Rosh Hashana festival meal contain a plethora of symbolic meanings that relate to one or more of the themes of Rosh Hashana: the theme of being judged by G-d based on one's deeds and motivations over the past year, the theme of remembering this day as the day of the creation of the world and of the sovereignty and kingship of G-d, the theme of sounding or blowing the shofar or ram's horn as a wake-up call to all humanity to undergo a thorough self-examination in order to repent for transgressions made during the past year between oneself and G-d and between oneself and other people as well as to seek ways to help repair these relationships, and the theme of a fresh start and hence, of purity, as this is the day when the year number increases in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar and is therefore symbolic of a new start for the Jewish people. The hope is that this fresh new start will bring peace, prosperity, health, and happiness and so all these themes are interwoven into the rituals performed during the Rosh Hashana festive meal.

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