What Is Rosh HaShanah?

Rosh Hashanah Seder
Deror avi/Wikimedia Commons

Rosh HaShanah (ראש השנה) is the Jewish New Year. It falls once a year during the month of Tishrei and occurs ten days before Yom Kippur. Together, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are known as the Yamim Nora’im, which means the "Days of Awe" in Hebrew. In English, they are often referred to as the High Holy Days.

The Meaning of Rosh HaShanah

In Hebrew, the literal meaning of Rosh HaShanah “Head of the Year.”  It falls in the month of Tishrei—the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar.

This is believed to be the month in which God created the world. The first months of the hear, Nissan, is believed to be the month in which the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt. Hence, another way to think of Rosh HaShanah as the birthday of the world.

Rosh HaShanah is observed on the first two days of Tishrei. Jewish tradition teaches that during the High Holy Days, God decides who will live and who will die during the coming year. As a result, during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (and in the days leading up to them) Jews embark upon the serious task of examining their lives and repenting for any wrongs they have committed during the previous year. This process of repentance is called teshuvah. Jews are encouraged to make amends with anyone they have wronged and to make plans for improving during the coming year. In this way, Rosh HaShanah is all about making peace in the community and striving to be a better person.

Even though the theme of Rosh HaShanah is life and death, it is a holiday filled with hope for the New Year. Jews believe a compassionate and just God who accepts their prayers for forgiveness.

Rosh HaShanah Liturgy

The Rosh HaShanah prayer service is one of the longest of the year—only the Yom Kippur service is longer.

Rosh HaShanah service usually runs from early morning until the afternoon, and it is so unique that it has its own prayer book, called the Makhzor. Two of the most well-known prayers from Rosh HaShanah liturgy are:

  • Unetaneh Tohkef. This prayer is about life and death. Part of it reads: "On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many will leave this world and how many will be born into it, who will live and who will die... But penitence, prayer and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree."
  • Avienu Malkeinu. Another famous prayer is Avienu Malkeinu, which in Hebrew translates as  “Our Father Our King." Usually, the entire congregation sings the last verse of this prayer in unison: "Our Father, our King, answer us as though we have no deed to plead our cause, save us with mercy and loving-kindness."

Customs and Symbols

On Rosh HaShanah, it is customary to greet people with "L'Shanah Tovah," a Hebrew phrase that is usually translated as "for a good year" or "may you have a good year." Some people also say "L'shana tovah tikatev v'etahetem," which means "may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year." (If said to a woman, the greeting is "L'shanah tovah tikatevi v'tahetemi.") This greeting is based on the belief that a person’s fate for the coming year is decided during the High Holy Days.

The shofar is an important symbol of Rosh HaShanah. This instrument, often made of a ram's horn, is blown one hundred times during each of the two days of Rosh HaShanah. The sound of the shofar blast reminds people of the importance of reflection during this important holiday. 

Tashlich is a ceremony that usually takes place during the first day of Rosh HaShanah. Tashlich literally means "casting off" and involves symbolically casting off the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread or another food into a body of flowing water. 

Other significant symbols of Rosh HaShanah include apples, honey, and round loaves of challah. Apple slices dipped in honey represent our hope for a sweet new year and are traditionally accompanied by a short prayer before eating:

"May it by Thy will, O Lord, Our God, to grant us a year that is good and sweet."

Challah, which is usually baked into braids, is shaped into round loaves of bread on Rosh HaShanah. The circular shape symbolizes the continuation of life.

On the second night of Rosh HaShanah, it is customary to eat a fruit that is new to us for the season, reciting the shehechiyanu blessing as we eat it, thanking God for bringing us to this season. Pomegranates are a popular choice because Israel is often praised for its pomegranates, and because, according to legend, pomegranates contain 613 seeds—one for each of the 613 mitzvot. Another reason for eating pomegranates is that it's said to symbolize the hope that our good deeds in the coming year will be as many as the seeds of the fruit.

Some people choose to send New Year’s greeting cards on Rosh HaShanah. Before the advent of modern computers, these were handwritten cards that were mailed weeks in advance, but today it is equall common to send Rosh HaShanah e-cards a few days before the holiday.

2018 - 2025 Rosh HaShanah Dates

  • 2018: sunset  September 8 - nightfall September 10
  • 2019: sunset September 28 - nightfall October 30
  • 2020:  sunset September 17 - nightfall September 19
  • 2021: sunset September 6 - nightfall September 8
  • 2022: sunset September 25 -nightfall September 27
  • 2023: sunset September 15 - nightfall September 17
  • 2024: sunset October 2 - nightfall October 4
  • 2025: sunset September 22 - nightfall September 24
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Pelaia, Ariela. "What Is Rosh HaShanah?" ThoughtCo, Nov. 17, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-rosh-hashanah-2076484. Pelaia, Ariela. (2017, November 17). What Is Rosh HaShanah? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-rosh-hashanah-2076484 Pelaia, Ariela. "What Is Rosh HaShanah?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-rosh-hashanah-2076484 (accessed November 20, 2017).