What is Rosh Hashanah ?

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. In Jewish tradition, it is the day of the creation of the world and of Adam and thus the day when the year number increases in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar.

Does Rosh Hashanah mean "Jewish New Year" or "New Year" ?

Nope. Rosh Hashanah literally means "Head" ("Rosh" in Hebrew) "of the" ("Ha" in Hebrew) "Year" ("Shanah" or "Shana" in Hebrew). So Rosh Hashanah literally means "Head of the Year" in Hebrew.

Why is Rosh Hashanah known as the "Head of the Year" and not simply the "New Year"?

Just as the body of a human being depends on the brain in the head for functioning correctly, so too does time have a "head" which determines the course of future events. On Rosh Hashanah, the "Head of the Year", G-d judges us based on our motivations and deeds over the course of the past year which determines our course over the new year. On Rosh Hashanah, while G-d judges us based on our motivations and deeds over the past year, one can change a negative decision by G-d on Rosh Hashanah by reaching a wholehearted level of self-examination and sincere repentance for past transgressions and harmful motivations made during the course of the past year between oneself and G-d and between oneself and others by praying for guidance to find ways to correct these wrongs through the process of teshuvah or teshuva, which is the return, renewal, or repentance that each Jewish person is called to do. In other words, the theme of teshuvah or teshuva is forgiveness and forgiving others. The days of teshuvah or teshuva begin exactly one month prior to Rosh Hashanah, on the 1st day of the sixth month of Elul in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar, and continue up to and including Yom Kippur, since the rabbis knew that this process could not be a one-day process and hence stated that it was to be a 40-day process.

How long is Rosh Hashanah celebrated?

Rosh Hashanah is celebrated for two days or for one day. Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, and some Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews will celebrate Rosh Hashanah for two days while other Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews will celebrate Rosh Hashanah for one day.

Why is Rosh Hashanah celebrated for either one day or two days?

Originally, the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, stated that there was a major Hebrew festival on the first day of Tishri or Tishrei, however, from the description of the festival, it did not appear to indicate that it was to commemorate a new year. In Vayikra 23:23-25 or Leviticus 23:23-25 and in Bamidbar 29:1-6 or Numbers 29:1-6, the verses command that this day be a day of complete rest ("shabbaton" in Hebrew) to be celebrated on the first day of Tishri or Tishrei, ten days before the Day of Atonement ("Yom Kippur" in Hebrew). This was a day of remembrance characterized by a cessation from labor and by the sounding of trumpet (shofar) blasts. As to how this day was associated with the beginning of the Jewish New Year, this question was not fully answered until the development of rabbinical institutions of learning in Babylonia and Israel around the beginning of the Common Era and the compilation of the Talmud by about 200 C.E. or 220 C.E. In the Mishnah of the Talmud, an authoritative compilation of rabbinical discussions as well as legal and non-legal literature, in Tractate Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1, it states that there are four different "new years", Rosh Hashanah being one of them, to be commemorated on the first day of the seventh Hebrew/Jewish month, the month of Tishri or Tishrei. Thus, Rosh Hashanah was connected to a one-day celebration on the first day of Tishri or Tishrei. However, in the late Second Temple period, that is, near the end of the time when the Second Temple stood in Jerusalem, about 1 C.E. until 70 C.E., when it was destroyed by the Romans, Rosh Hashanah became a two-day holiday. This is because the methods used by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish "Supreme Court" and legislative body that was based in Jerusalem, to determine when a new month began resulted in two possibilities for when Rosh Hashanah could begin: on the 30th day and final day of the sixth month in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar, or on the following day, the first day of the seventh month of the Hebrew/Jewish calendar, the first day of Tishri or Tishrei. To ensure that all Jews both inside and outside Israel would celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the rabbis decreed that Rosh Hashanah would be extended to a second day, from either from the 30th day of Elul through the end of the 1st day of Tishri or Tishrei or from the 1st day of Tishri or Tishrei through to the end of the 2nd day of Tishri or Tishrei. Eventually, the established custom became for Rosh Hashanah to begin on the first day of Tishri or Tishrei and last until the end of the second day of Tishri or Tishrei, meaning Rosh Hashanah was now a two-day holiday that began on the first day of Tishri or Tishrei. Today, Orthodox Jews, Conservative Jews, some Reform Jews and some Reconstructionist Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah for two days while other Reform Jews and Reconstructionst Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah for one day.

Despite the extension of Rosh Hashanah from one day to two days, some Jewish communities in the Middle East continued to commemorate just one day of Rosh Hashanah. In the case of the Jewish community in Jerusalem, celebrating Rosh Hashanah for one day may have continued until well into the 13th century. Other evidence states that Rosh Hashanah was observed as a one-day holiday in Israel from the 4th century C.E. when the modern Hebrew/Jewish calendar was established (358 C.E. or 359 C.E.) until into the 12th century, based on a statement from Rabbi Zerachiah Ha-Levi of Gerondi (1125-1186, born in Gerona, a small city in Catalonia, Spain, hence the name Gerondi), which states that all the Jewish festivals in Israel, including Rosh Hashanah, were celebrated for just one day. There is also evidence that Rashi, the great medieval biblical and Talmudic commentator, was also aware of this (Rashi is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki or Rabbi Shlomo Yarchi, he lived from 1040 C.E. until 1105 C.E., born in Troyes, northern France).

Is Rosh Hashanah just for commemorating the Jewish New Year?

Well, in short, nope. The earliest biblical reference to a name for this day was in Bamidbar 29:1 or Numbers 29:1, where it refers to this day as "Yom Teruah" ["the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar" or "the Day of the Blowing (of the trumpets or horn)" in Hebrew]. Another biblical reference, in Vayikra 23:24 or Leviticus 23:24 refers to this day as "Yom Zikaron Teruah" or "Yom Zikkaron Teruah" ["the Day of Remembering the Sounding of the Shofar" or "the Day of Remembering the Blowing (of the Trumpets or Horn)" in Hebrew]. These two themes gave a feeling of solemnity to this day. The theme of remembrance, in particular of G-d's sovereignty and kingship, also gave rise to another name for this day: the "Day of Remembrance" ("Yom Ha-Zikkaron" or "Yom Ha-Zikaron" in Hebrew), however, this theme and name are not explicitly mentioned in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, the Mishnah of the Talmud refers to Rosh Hashanah as the day upon which all creatures stand in judgment before G-d (Babylonian Talmud, Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2). The Gemara, a commentary on the Mishnah that was compiled around 500 C.E. and together with the Mishnah make up the Talmud, explains the theme of judgment on Rosh Hashanah: on Rosh Hashanah, G-d opens three books on Rosh Hashanah (Babylonian Talmud, Gemara, Rosh Hashanah 16b). In the first, the righteous are inscribed for life in the coming year. In the second, the wicked are inscribed for death. And in the third, the names of those who are not easily classified - in other words, most people - are temporarily inscribed, while their behavior during the coming Ten Days of Repentance culminating on Yom Kippur will decide their fates during the coming year. For this reason, Rosh Hashanah is also referred to as "Yom Hadin" or "Yom Ha-Din", meaning "the Day of Judgment" in Hebrew. This additional theme added more solemnity to Rosh Hashanah. However, the fact that Rosh Hashanah is also the day to commemorate the Jewish New Year, a festive atmosphere was compulsory as well, and so the dual themes of solemnity and joy are evident in Rosh Hashanah. In addition, some rabbis have viewed Rosh Hashanah as the day of the creation of the world and of Adam, known as "Yom Harat Olam" or "Yom Harat Ha-Olam" in Hebrew, as well as the day of other significant events in biblical history (Babylonian Talmud, Gemara, Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a).

Why do we sound or blow the shofar and also remember the sounding or blowing of the shofar?

Since we are not permitted to sound or blow the shofar or ram's horn on Shabbat, or the Sabbath, if Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat or the Sabbath, in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, wherever the words "Yom Teruah" (the day of the sounding of the shofar or the day of the blowing of the trumpets or horn) are written or mentioned, we substitute those words with the words "Zikkaron Teruah" or "Zikaron Teruah" (remembering the sounding of the shofar or remembering the blowing of the trumpets or horn).

Is it mandatory to celebrate Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah is a mitzvah ("commandment" in Hebrew, as in a commandment from G-d) as stated in the Torah, in the biblical book of Leviticus ("Vayikra" in Hebrew), in Leviticus 23:23-25. Thus, it is mandatory for each Jewish person to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

Is there any biblical reference to a Rosh Hashanah?

The only biblical reference to a "Rosh Hashanah" is in the 6th century B.C.E. book of Ezekiel, in Ezekiel 40:1, however, in the context of the verse, it is not a direct reference to Rosh Hashanah or to a holiday in general but to a season of the year, that is, the beginning of the year. This means that this verse could refer to the beginning of the months in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar, the month of Nissan or Nisan, rather than to the beginning of the year, since the Jewish New Year actually begins on the first day of the seventh month in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar rather than the first day of the first month in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar, which again is the month of Nissan or Nisan.

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