Rosh Hashana is the Jewish New Year, commemorating the creation of Adam and Eve, the first human beings.
On Rosh Hashana, the Books of Life and Death are open on the heavenly desk. On this “Day of Judgment,” we each stand before God and offer our best case for being “created anew” — i.e. granted another year of life.
The morning before Rosh Hashana, we perform “Hatarat Nedarim” — annulling all vows. This enables us to enter the new year with a clean slate.
The essential mitzvah of Rosh Hashana is to hear the sounding of the shofar. The shofar blasts represent three distinct themes of the day:
1. It is the sound of the King’s coronation
2. It is the sobbing cry of a Jewish heart
3. It is an alarm clock, arousing us from our spiritual slumber
The shofar is also mindful of the biblical story of Abraham binding his son Isaac, when a ram was caught in the thicket and sacrificed in Isaac’s stead. We blow a ram’s horn to recall the great act of faith in God performed by Abraham and Isaac; tradition records that this event occurred on the day of Rosh Hashana.
The shofar is not blown when Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat.
A central part of Rosh Hashana is the festive meal. During the High Holidays, a round challah is used — symbolizing fullness and completion. We dip the bread into honey, and also an apple into honey, symbolizing our prayer for a sweet new year. On Rosh Hashana, we also eat a series of foods that symbolize good things we hope for in the coming year.
It is customary to greet others with the words: “L’shana Tova — Ketivah vi-chatima Tova.” This means: “For a good year — You should be written and sealed in the good (Book of Life).”
The “Tashlich” prayer is said on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashana by a pool of water that preferably has fish in it. These prayers are symbolic of the casting away of our mistakes. When the first day of Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, it is said on the afternoon of the second day.
While the decision for “another year of life” is handed down on Rosh Hashana, the verdict is not “sealed” unto Yom Kippur. Therefore, the 10 days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur are a crucial period when most peoples’ judgment “hangs in the balance.” During these “Ten Days of Repentance,” we engage in intense introspection, and are particularly careful with our speech, actions, and mitzvah observance.