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How Rosh Hashanah Works

How is Rosh Hashanah Celebrated?
The shofar is blown in the synagogue during Rosh Hashanah services.
The shofar is blown in the synagogue during Rosh Hashanah services.

Rosh Hashanah is celebrated in lots of different ways, and even in different ways by different kinds of Jews (see "Divisions of Judaism" below). There are, however, certain methods and traditions that are basic to the observance of Rosh Hashanah, and so are part of almost any celebration of the holiday.

In the Synagogue

As for the more formal aspects of Rosh Hashanah, what goes on in the synagogue during this holidays is a departure from the "standard" Friday-night and Saturday-morning services of the weekly Sabbath (Shabbat). High Holiday services are longer than Sabbath services, often starting earlier in the morning and lasting well into the afternoon. Also, Jews use a special prayer book -- called the Machhzor -- in Rosh Hashanah (and Yom Kippur) services. The Machzor contains the specific prayers of the high holidays and further sets this time apart as especially important.

There is a special holiday service held in the days or weeks before Rosh Hashanah, called Slichot, which is Hebrew for forgiveness. Slichot consists of a series of prayers that ask for the gift of God's forgiveness. This is meant to prepare the worshipper for Rosh Hashanah, for repentance and a fresh start. These prayers are especially recited the night before Rosh Hashanah, usually beginning at midnight.

There are several prayers that are central to the observance of Rosh Hashanah:

Avinu Malkaynu

  • "Our Father, Our King"
  • Consists of 44 admissions of guilt, asking God's forgiveness for each sin

Unetaneh Tokef

  • "On Rosh Hashanah our destiny is written; at the end of Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire and who by water?"

Musef Amidah

  • The prayers that accompany the blowing of the shofar
  • Three blessings: recognizing God's power over all of creation, remembering Jewish history, and relating the blowing of the shofar to events in the past and the future of Judaism

The shofar is blown with accompanying prayers (see this page from Torah Tots and scroll down to "The Shofar.") There are specific ways of blowing the shofar, meant to awaken Jews to God's judgement and affirm God's position as judge and king.

The Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah relate both the birth of Isaac -- to Abraham and Sarah, who was believed to be barren until one day, at the age of 100, God blessed her with a child -- and Isaac's near-sacrifice, when God spared his life because Abraham proved his absolute faith is God's word.

Other Prayers and Customs

In another Rosh Hashanah practice, known as Tashlich, Jews say particular prayers as they toss breadcrumbs (or something similar) into a moving body of water. The breadcrumbs are meant to symbolize a person's sins, which are then washed away.

The practices of candle lighting and saying kiddush -- a blessing over wine -- are holy acts in Judaism for "bringing in" the Sabbath and any other holy days. For Rosh Hashanah, the candles (usually two) are lit with special prayers or prayer melodies to signify the specialness of the holiday. The Challah, a special bread that also accompanies the celebration of Shabbat, on Rosh Hashanah is round instead of twisted. This symbolizes both the unending circle of life and the crown of God's kingship over man. Some people brush the Challah with honey when it is baking, instead of salt; this change signifies the Rosh Hashanah wish for a "sweet New Year," also present is the custom of dipping apples in honey. In fact, all sorts of especially sweet foods are eaten on Rosh Hashanah.

It is customary on Rosh Hashanah to set the dinner table with one's finest linens and china, and to wear new, special clothing to express the importance of the occasion. In Sephardic tradition, many people place covered baskets of fruit on the table -- covered so that no one knows exactly which fruits are inside, much like one never knows just what the coming year will bring.

For more information on Rosh Hashanah and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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