Rosh Hashanah, meaning “the head of the year” in Hebrew, marks the beginning of the spiritual new year in Judaism. The Jewish New Year is part of the High Holidays, or Days of Awe, along with Yom Kippur, which begins 10 days later.
Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset on the first day of the seventh Hebrew month, Tishrei, which usually falls in September. During this time, you can wish Jewish people “Shanah Tovah” (pronounced shaNAH toe-VAH), which means “a good year.”
Leading up to the High Holidays, a shofar (an instrument made from a ram’s horn) blast is sounded every day in the synagogue for the month of Elul, before Tishrei. Then, on Rosh Hashanah, specific blasts are sounded during the service 100 times each day.
Like most Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown the night before the day of the holiday. It is celebrated for two days among Conservative and Orthodox Jews, and often just one day for Reform Jews. This holiday commemorates the beginning of the creation of the world.
People may attend late services at the synagogue on the night before Rosh Hashanah and, on both days, they follow a prayer book called the Makhzor. No work may be done during the entire holiday. On the first afternoon, participants go to a body of water for the tachlich ceremony, which includes emptying pockets to represent letting go of sin.
Families traditionally enjoy a large dinner for two nights to celebrate the holiday. Sweet foods are served for a pleasant year ahead. Other symbolic foods include:
Round challah: Challah is a braided wheat bread made with eggs and honey. For Rosh Hashanah, it is often made with raisins for extra sweetness and braided in a circle to represent the eternal nature of life. In Ukraine, the challah may be shaped like a bird to send prayers heavenward.
Whole fish with the head: A whole fish with the head may be served to represent the “head of the year” and the hope “that God makes you as the head and not the tail,” which is from the Torah.
Gefilte fish: These patties are made with carp or other white fish, matzo meal, carrots and celery, and are often served as an appetizer.
Carrot tzimmes (pronounced sim-miss): Stewed carrot slices with onions, prunes, honey, fruit juice and warm spices, such as cinnamon and ginger, are a favorite combination. The Yiddish word for carrots, meiren, means to multiply, which corresponds to “go forth and multiply” in Genesis.
New fruit: A fruit that has not been consumed since last year (or the last time it was in season) might be served such as apples or pears.
Pomegranate: The fruit is supposed to have 613 seeds, the same number of commandments in the Torah and mitzvot, or good deeds, that the Jewish people are encouraged to do throughout the year.
Yehi Ratzones: In the Sephardic (originally from Spain) tradition, several appetizers are served — for example, leeks, dates, spinach, black-eyed peas, fish head or cow’s cheek, pumpkin or other squash — and may be prepared in a variety of ways. Each appetizer is blessed with a yehi ratzones (“may it be God’s will”) blessing before eating.
Kugel (noodle pudding): Egg noodles are baked with cottage cheese, sour cream and eggs, sugar and fruit like cherries, apples, or raisins for a sweet version.
Lekach (honey cake): A popular Rosh Hashanah dessert from Eastern Europe, lekach means “portion” — by eating the cake, you hope to be blessed with a “goodly portion.”
Favorite recipes and sweet foods are popular choices for families on the first and second nights of Rosh Hashanah. Sour foods are usually avoided. Some people avoid nuts during Rosh Hashanah since the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in the word “nut” add up to the same number as the word “sin.”
During dinner, blessings are said over candles, wine and challah. The first bite of food traditionally eaten is a chunk of challah dipped in honey, followed by apple slices dipped in honey.
Common Ashkenazic (Eastern European) menu items include vegetable soup with short ribs or matzo ball soup, beef brisket, roasted turkey or chicken, sweet kugel, apples with honey, round challah, potatoes, vegetables and desserts such as honey cake and Jewish apple cake. If people adhere to Kosher dietary laws, meats including poultry and dairy foods may not be served at the same meal. Because of this, some people may choose “pareve” kugel, which means it was made without dairy. Sephardic, Mizrahi (Middle East) and Indian celebrations may include leek patties, ballahat (ground fish balls), eggplant dishes, stewed okra with meats and vegetables, and kheer (rice pudding made with coconut milk and fruit).
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