Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of the New Year according to the Hebrew calendar. It is celebrated by millions of Jewish communities worldwide in a variety of ways. This year, Rosh Hashanah 2021 will begin at sundown on Monday, September 6 and end at sundown on Wednesday, September 8.
While a typical secular New Year celebration usually involves balloons, champagne, parties, and watching the ball drop in Times Square, the Jewish New Year has its own rich traditions and rituals, like tossing bread into moving water and putting a fish head on the dinner table!
There are many Rosh Hashanah traditions that have evolved since the holiday was first mentioned in the Torah. Some of these customs may be familiar to you, while others may be from a minhag (set of customs) different from your own. Depending on where your family and ancestors have lived, your customs may vary. For example, the Rosh Hashanah celebrations of a family in Morocco will look very different than the celebrations of a family in Ukraine.
We will cover some of the most widespread Rosh Hashanah customs and explain their origins, meaning, and symbolism so you can understand the Jewish New Year better. Shana tova from Jerusalem!
Customs at Home
Fish Head on Table
On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, many people will put a fish head on their dinner table during the festive meal. Some people choose to eat parts of the head, while for others, it is simply there to symbolize our collective desire to be the “head” and not the “tail” during the upcoming year. It also ties into the literal meaning of Rosh Hashanah – rosh is Hebrew for head, while shana means year.
Using a fish is primarily an Ashkenazi tradition. In Sephardic and Mizrahi communities, it is more common to use a ram or lamb head.
Dipping Apples in Honey
Many Jewish thinkers throughout history have come to the same simple conclusion: eating honey on Rosh Hashanah symbolizes our hope for a sweet new year, and honey has been readily available in Jewish communities for thousands of years. During the time of the Israelites, sugar canes did not exist in the desert or in the Land of Israel. Honey, whether from bees or dates, would’ve been their go-to sweetener.
The specific custom of dipping apples in honey is also an Ashkenazi custom. This minhag was first recorded in 15th century Germany, although many believe the custom began long before that. Why apples? Apples were a common fruit that began to ripen around the same time as Rosh Hashanah in Europe, so it is commonly thought that this is how the tradition began. Read more about the origins of apples and honey here!
While we primarily eat braided loaves of challah during the rest of the year, on Rosh Hashanah, it is most common to eat round challah. There are differing explanations as to why we follow this custom. Some say the roundness represents the cycle of the year and life, while others say it represents a crown and reminds us that God is like a king. Another explanation is that it helps distinguish the challah of Rosh Hashanah from Shabbat, which we celebrate each week.
On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, many people eat a “New Fruit” and say the Shecheyanu blessing over it. The fruit is supposed to be a fruit that has only recently been harvested. Since the pomegranate harvest in the Land of Israel often coincides with the High Holidays, many use a pomegranate as the new fruit. You can also recite this blessing over the pomegranate:
Y’hi ratzon mil’fanecha, Adonai Eloheinu, she-ni-he-yeh m’le’im mitzvot ka-rimon.
May it be Your will, Adonai our God, that we be as full of good deeds as the pomegranate is full of seeds.
One food that is avoided during Rosh Hashanah is nuts. Why? According to gematria (the numerical value of each Hebrew letter), the Hebrew for “nut,” “egoz” (17), is almost equal to the word for “sin,” chet (18). This disparity suggests that on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgement, we don’t want to even come that close to sin, and the foods we eat (or don’t eat) on this day serve as a powerful reminder for where are mindset is to be on this monumental day.
Rosh Hashanah Seder
While many may hear “Seder” and think of Passover, the Rosh Hashanah Seder is mentioned in the Talmud and has been celebrated for at least 2,000 years by Sephardic and Mizrahi (Middle-Eastern) Jewish communities.
The Rosh Hashanah Seder originally included five foods: squash, black eyed pea, leek, Swiss chard and dates. Today, Rosh Hashanah Seders can also include foods that were more common in Europe, like beets, carrots, and apples. Artists even create special Rosh Hashanah Seder plates for those who observe this custom.
Customs at Synagogue/With Community
Hearing the Shofar
During the month of Elul and Rosh Hashanah services, the shofar (or ram’s horn) is sounded as a wake up call.
There are three main types of blasts: Tekiah (תקיעה), Shevarim (שברים), and Teruah (תרועה). You will hear all three of these blasts on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. On Yom Kippur, some communities will utilize all three of these blasts, while others only blow the Tekiah Gedolah. The order of the blasts depends on the day and specific prayer service.
Tekiah is one single long blast of the shofar, while Shevarim is three short blasts that are sounded one right after the other. Teruah is a series of short blasts, also done in quick succession. Tekiah Gedolah is when someone blows the shofar once for as long as they can. Tekiah is meant to bring us to attention, while Shevarim is meant to sound like crying. Read more about the shofar’s origins and history here!
Tashlich in Hebrew literally means “casting off.” It’s a ritual commonly done either on Rosh Hashanah afternoon, or in more traditional communities, in the days following Rosh Hashanah before Yom Kippur. Basically, you throw pieces of bread into any kind of moving water (a river, sea, ocean, or lake) as a way to symbolically “cast away” your sins and transgressions from the previous year.
Many believe the ritual can be traced back to a line in Micah that says, “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” Recorded historical references to Tashlich in Jewish texts go back to the 1st century.
Sending Rosh Hashanah Cards
Many have the custom to send Happy New Year cards to friends and family all over as a way to stay in touch and wish their loved ones a sweet Rosh Hashanah. Shop Rosh Hashanah Greeting Cards from Israel here!
Going to the Mikveh
In more traditional communities, some have the custom of immersing in a mikveh before Rosh Hashanah and/or Yom Kippur. The point of immersing in a mikveh is not physical cleanliness, but the opportunity to elevate and purify our souls, and to mark some sort of change or transition. Even if you are not Orthodox, this is a tradition that is accessible to Jews of all backgrounds and observance levels.
Buying Something New
As Rosh Hashanah marks a new year, many people have the custom of buying themselves something new for the new year. If you’re seeking inspiration, check out our buying guides for jewelry, gifts, Rosh Hashanah décor, and more—all made in Israel!