You don't have to be Jewish to know that every once in a while you need to make some changes in your life. The only difference is that we've actually got a day when we make these changes happen.
In America, people usually refer to the festival of Rosh HaShanah as “Jewish New Year,” but in reality it is everybody’s birthday. It marks the day when G-d created Man in the Garden of Eden. Thus it is appropriate that what Jews call “the head of the year” is celebrated on this special day.
When Rosh HaShanah does not fall on a Shabbat, it is celebrated like other Jewish holidays. Shofars are sounded to awaken humankind from its slumber. On the first evening, following prayer services, we utter a special greeting that is unique to this night: “Leshana Tova Tikoseiv Veseichoseim Le'Alter LeChaim Tovim U'Leshalom”: “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”
Genesis records that Man was created on the sixth day. In Leviticus 23:24 G-d says: “Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation.” Rosh HaShanah is not only a day of rest, but also a transition point, the beginning of a new year for human beings, their animals, and their legal contracts. It is also a day when the book of our deeds is opened before G-d and can be viewed by all who pass by. We ourselves are asked to imagine that we shall pass before G-d like sheep before the shepherd. This is thus the day when G-d decides whether we have earned another year of earthly existence. And yet his judgment is signed but not yet sealed. We still have another ten days to change our ways and bring about a different judgment. G-d does not seal his book until Yom Kippur.
How can we then change our ways and ensure a better life? Jews say that “repentance, prayer, and charity can remove a bad decree.” Three areas are of particular importance during the critical Ten Days of Repentence between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. If we do t’shuvah (repentance), pray faithfully, and extend charity to others with a generous spirit, we can wash away our ill deeds and improve the judgment to come. But those who do not pass judgment are “blotted out of the book of the living.”
The holiday lasts for two days, a forty-eight hour period that is regarded as a single long day of celebration. The shofar or ram’s horn is blown one hundred times on each of the two days, and it is blown again at Yom Kippur. As Leviticus 25 states: "Then you shall transmit a blast on the horn; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, the day of Yom Kippur, you shall have the horn sounded throughout the land...And proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."
On the afternoon of the first day of this festival we practice tashlikh, a ceremony that takes place near flowing water where we symbolically cast our sins into the water. If we have a stream or river handy, we can physically throw bread or stones into it. In this way we rid ourselves of the many shortcomings and emotional burdens we have accumulated over the past year. As Rabbi Moses Isserles said, “The deeps of the sea saw the genesis of Creation; therefore to throw bread into the sea on New Year's Day, the anniversary of Creation, is an appropriate tribute to the Creator.”
My favorite Rosh HaShanah greeting is: Shana Tova Umetukah: “A Good and Sweet Year.” Thus it is only natural that the new year should begin with sweet dishes, such as apple slices dipped in honey, that also symbolize blessing and abundance. Other foods in the Ashkenazi tradition include beef tongue (to represent “the head of the year”), gourds, dates, spinach, black-eyed peas, challah bread, fish heads, matzo balls, gefilte fish, carrots and pomegranates, along with lekach (honey bread). Favorite dishes in our family were chicken soup, kreplach (meat-filled dumplings), and apple strudel.
This probably all sounds pretty solemn, but I remember it as a normal family holiday, with lots of good food and socializing. Still, wondrous things can happen on this day. On Rosh HaShanah we recite Psalm 24, where it is written: “Who shall ascend into the mountain of the LORD? and who shall stand in His holy place?” Clearly this represents a challenge to climb new peaks, to make both old and new dreams a reality. What better time than Rosh HaShanah to begin new projects and make new commitments for the betterment of life on this planet?
The first day of Rosh HaShanah begins at sundown on September 18 of this year. Here’s wishing everyone a happy holiday and excellent new beginnings to all your heartfelt endeavors. Mazal tov!