What Jewish Year Is It?

  • Rosh HaShana is on the first of Tishrei. This year, that will start on the evening of September 13, 2015.
  • This next Jewish new year will be תשע''ו . Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value. The most well-known example is likely the word "life"- חי / chai life being 18. (we include a peula / activity on this, by the way - see Let's Get Busy).

    Alphabetic numerals aside, to calculate the year – just remember 3760. From January 1st until Rosh HaShana, add 3760 to the current secular year. From Rosh HaShana until the next January 1st, add 3760 + 1. So this next Jewish year will be 3760 + 1 + 2015 = 5776.
  • In Hebrew, one would write the date of the start of Rosh HaShana as א' בתשרי / alef betishrei . It has been noted that this also happens to be an anagram of the very first word in the Torah, which starts off with G-d's creation of the world - בראשית / bereshit – "in the beginning". As in - "In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth / bereshit bara elohim et hashamayim ve-et ha-aretz".
  • Some visit the graves of relatives and teachers around this time, or during the month period leading up to it. Out of respect, and also as it is worthwhile to remember and feel motivated by a whole life lived that we care about, and what was good and useful to model and learn from it (and even what mistakes to perhaps avoid).
  • In Israel, people do tend to give Rosh HaShana gifts – to employees, special people, a host, etc.

Foods and Blessings

  • On ערב ראש השנה / erev Rosh HaShana – Rosh HaShana eve:
    light and recite the blessing over the candles Shehechiyanu prayer, which is recited at the start of all festivals Kiddush - the blessing over the wine Hamotzi – blessing over the challah Blessing over a new seasonal tree fruit, usually using a piece of apple, which is then dipped in honey with hopes of being inscribed for a good, sweet coming year.
    The use of an apple started as an Ashkenazic custom which then became more widespread. It also happens to be a symbol of the Shechina, or Divine Presence (the reference comes from Kabbalistc literature, with the Shechinasometimes being described as an apple orchard).
  • The blessing over a tree fruit :
    ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם בורא פרי העץ
    baruch ata adonai elohenu melech ha-olam borey pri ha-etz
    Blessed are you Lord our God king of the universe who creates the fruit of the tree.   And when you dip the apple in the honey : יהי רצון מלפניך, יי אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו (ואמהותינו), שתחדש עלינו שנה טובה ומתוקה yehi ratzon milfanech, adonai elohenu velohe avotenu (ve-imatohenu), shetichadesh alenu shana tova umetuka May it be your will, our Lord our God and God of our fathers (and mothers) to renew us for a year that is good and sweet. 
  • On the second night, it is customary to eat another 'new' fruit of the season - for example, a pomegranate or fresh fig. This thereby provides the desired opportunity to say another Shehechiyanu. By the way, there's an added positive association with the pomegranate as proverbially said to have 613 seeds, like the number of mitzvot.
  • Some people prefer not to eat nuts / egozim at this time. The reason given is that the numerical value for the word egoz adds up to the same number minus one as the word chet for sin (one presumes there is some hedging-one's-bets factored in this, given that minus one fact).
  • Challah as art: It is often customary to use a challah that is round, representative of a crown for God and/or for hopes of being a worthy people. Other variations include spiral rounds to represent ongoing creation, bird shapes such as to carry one's prayers upward and/or peace on Jerusalem, ladder shapes with the same ascending prayers concept, book shapes, etc. Instead of salting the bread as you normally would, you dip it in honey. This is also obviously a good time to go with the sweeter kind of challah, or one with raisins.
  • Some follow a Sefardi custom of including a little seder for Rosh HaShana. For but one example of this , see http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/905170/jewish/Rosh-Hashanah-Seder.htm
    The seder starts off with the line yehi ratzon / "may it be Your will", and it involves saying blessings over a platter of symbolic foods and usually making puns on the names. While this has been traditionally done playing with words in Hebrew or Aramaic, there's no reason not to try it for example with some first seasonal fruits and vegetables even in English :) .
    Note that some symbol ideas involve using a "head" of something (like as opposed the tail or bottom)- since this is the "head" of the year. For a vegetarian alternative regarding this, you could use the top part of some fruit or vegetable that has a definite top or bottom, or maybe even play on the pun of e.g. "a head of lettuce", etc. Likewise, to satisfy symbolism for fertility and abundance, perhaps use a food that has many seeds (and/or that propagates and grows easily).
    In fact, many have been adopting variations of this custom anew. For some, it is less what you eat this time and more what you either creatively or punningly turn it into to represent as part of hopes and wishes for the coming year. This may have to do with the name, shape, construction, taste, or color of the food. The point is, this can be a very fun challenge and new tradition to build on every year :) . Yes, silly is ok. And if you really want to play further with this, challenge each person a few days ahead of the meal to come up with one symbol and present or act them out for others to guess (we see someone raising a stalk of celery for a salary raise, another holding a banana to their ear for improved communication, a string bean for a string of good grades…).

More Rosh HaShana Customs

  • Traditionally one would wear white to represent purity. It also can be seen as symbolizing the approach of a simple, direct relationship with God. It has been noted that there may also be in this the symbolized hope is that our past failings mistakes are whited out. Some observant men wear a white robe to synagogue, called a "kittel". Likewise, the curtain on the ark and covers for the Torah would be switched to white.
  • The shofar: From the start of Elul, the shofar is blown once a day, each morning (except, of course, on Shabbat), to start awaking us from complacency and alert us to the coming time of judgment. The shofar is also associated with revelation at Sinai, our resultant covenant with God and acts of faith within parts of the Rosh HaShana service.
    During the actual chag / holiday, the shofar will likely be blown around a total of 100 times. There are set patterns with names for the types of blasts:
    Tekia
    = one long sound.
    Shevarim
    = three short broken up sounds.
    Terua
    = nine very short staccato sounds.
    Tekia gedola = one very long sound.
    Shevarim terua = three short broken up sounds followed by nine very short staccato sounds.
  • Tashlich means "casting off". This is a tradition where one symbolically casts off one's sins into some kind of naturally flowing water like a river or stream. Some throw pebbles or bread crumbs. One typically would go do this on the afternoon of the first day of the chag, unless it falls on Shabbat (then do this on the second day). The background and key line in this ceremony is "The Eternal will have compassion upon us, the Eternal will subdue our iniquities. And You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea." [Micah 7:19] (For more possible material to use, see for example also Isaiah 11:9 and Psalms 118, 121 and 130). Performing tashlich either individually or as a family is fine. (See related activities in Let's Get Busy).
  • Some greetings:
    (You can respond to these with "to you as well", for example –
    Singular=
    גם לך / gam lecha [masculine], גם לך / gam lach [feminine]
    Plural=
    גם לכם / gam lachem , גם לכן / gam lachen
    -
    שנה טובה / shana tova – Have a good year.
    -
    שנה טובה ומתוקה / shana tova umetuka – Have a good and sweet year.
    -
    לשנה טובה ומתוקה תכתבו / leshana tova umetuka tikatevu – May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year.
    -
    כתיבה וחתימה טובה / ketiva vechatima tova – May you be written and sealed for a good year.
    -
    תזכו לשנים רבות / tizku leshanim rabot – May you merit many year [Sefardic roots]. The response is נעימות וטובות / ne-imot vetovot – pleasant and good ones, or לשנים רבות / leshanim rabot – many years.

Key Points in Readings and Liturgy

  • The first day's Torah portion is Genesis 21 = The years of Isaac' birth and growing up.
  • The first day's Haftorah portion actually works in tandem - 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10 = the birth of Samuel.
  • The second day's Torah portion is Genesis 22 = Akedat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac.
  • סליחות / Selichot = penitential prayers before the chag (see more in Overview).
  • אבינו מלכינו / Avinu Malkenu = "Our Father, Our King" – a prayer in which we view God as both a loving parent and strict ruler. In this well-known piece which dates back to Talmudic times, we ask for forgiveness, for protection and for blessings from God. It runs through 44 requests in total, each starting off with "Our Father, Our King".
  • הנני / Hineni = "here I am" – a powerful prayer delivered by the Rabbi, both speaking for his congregation's welfare and asking for enough strength to lead it well. This is said early in the service, in front of the open ark, and starts off with "Behold me, of little merit, trembling and afraid as I stand before You to plead for Your people… Let them not be put to shame because of me, nor I because of them."
  • ונתנה תוקף / Unetane Tokef = "let me recount the power" - a poetic prayer supposedly uttered by Rabbi Amnon before being martyred, but likely written in the 11th century by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Meshulam. It discusses the holiness and power of the nearing day of judgment.
  • The Amida of the Musaf [additional] service is different for Rosh HaShana. It has three main blessings instead of the typical one related to a festival, and it also includes the blowing of the shofar. The three central themes and parts specific to Rosh HaShana:
    1.
    מלכויות / Malchuyot = "Kingship" - God as king over all the world's creatures.
    2.
    זכרונות / Zichronot = "Remembrances" – speaks of historical experiences of our people and God's part.
    3.
    שופרות / Shofarot = Plural for shofar – accompanied by the blowing of the shofar, Shofarot recalls God revealing himself to us at Sinai, and looking forward to the future- the messianic end of days.
    Note the threads of relationship with and acceptance of God, having faith in that relationship and contract, and being reminded that God remembers – as should we - and that there is punishment for evil and reward for good.