If your best frame of reference for Rosh Hashanah is the “High Holy days” lyric in the hit Broadway musical Rent’s song La Vie Boheme, you probably have a few questions. Since Judaism is practiced in cultures around the world, there’s a big chance you’ll come across a Rosh Hashanah celebration. And if you’re counting down the days ‘til your very first one, there are so many Rosh Hashanah traditions (and delectable foods) to look forward to.
Rosh Hashanah Celebrates the Jewish New Year
For centuries, the western calendar was based on one specific person's life — Christ. In the past few decades, there’s been an academic movement to change the B.C. and A.D. of it all to B.C.E. (before the common era) and C.E. (common era). But Jewish folks have been following a separate calendar long before scholastics got wise to the narrow definition, and this Hebrew calendar is what their sacred celebrations are based on.
Rosh Hashanah celebrates the start of the new calendar year. And since it doesn’t match up to the Gregorian calendar months, it usually happens in either September or October. Rosh Hashanah also marks the beginning of the High Holy Days, which stretch from the New Year to Yom Kippur.
How Can You Greet Someone on Rosh Hashanah?
One of the beautiful things about living in such an interconnected world is being able to participate in holidays and celebrations outside of those in your immediate culture or religion. If you’ve been invited to a Rosh Hashanah dinner or you want to honor your friends and coworkers’ holiday, you’re probably wracking your brain for what to say and how to say it.
Never fear! It’s as easy as a phrase or two. While there are many expressions you can use — and varying ones for different branches of Judaism — the most common is “Shanah Tova” or “l’Shanah Tova” which means “a good year.”
Many People Ring in Rosh Hashanah With the Shofar
There are a handful of distinct religious sounds that carry the weight of thousands of years of worship with them. The resonant adhan calling people to prayer, organ chords leading people in worship, and booming shofar sounds marking Elul and the coming holidays.
Over the two days of Rosh Hashanah, many religious Jews will head to the synagogue for service, where they'll hear the shofar (a trumpet of sorts made out of a ram's horn) sounded multiple times. As an important symbol, hearing the many shofar blows carries a lot of religious significance.
People Avoid Working During the Two-Day Celebration
Work is where religious customs and cultural shifts intersect in such an interesting way. The Torah does dictate that you shouldn’t be working during Rosh Hashanah. But getting time off — even for religious reasons — can come with a lot of capitalism-induced guilt.
If you’re used to the go-go-go of being in the 21st century workforce and you or your friends find it hard to take a breather to celebrate, shift that workaholic fervor into other pursuits. Try a recipe from scratch or challenge your family and friends to some shout-inducing board games.
They Manifest a Sweet Year With Apples & Honey
Instead of boozing yourself into a blackout as is pretty typical at a secular American New Year’s celebration, manifest an enriching and fulfilled year on Rosh Hashanah with apples and honey. These two ancient ingredients have been served on Rosh Hashanah for centuries, being used to represent the sweetness of the coming year.
Don’t feel like you have to stick with bringing the same Honeycrisp or Fuji and plain honey combo to the party this year. Instead, explore flavor combinations you’ve never dreamed of with flavored or non-clover honey and unique apple strains. From lemonade apples to acacia honey, there’s so many interesting ways you can toe that traditional line.
Combine Challah & the Sweet Treats for a Twist on Tradition
Even if you’re not religiously or culturally Jewish, you’ve probably seen the beautifully braided challah loaves that’re baked to perfection during holidays and celebrations. During Rosh Hashanah, challah is customarily baked into circular shapes for a variety of reasons, including how the enclosed circle calls for the coming year to have endless blessings and merriment.
While challah and the apples and honey are traditionally eaten separately, you could switch things up a bit this year and mix the two. Think of apple danishes and honey butter loaves, but better. Food and culture writer Tori Avery has a popular apple & honey challah recipe you can follow.
It's Not a Celebration Without a Scrumptious Spread
Of course, you can’t ring in the new year without a delicious meal. It’s sacrilegious no matter your religion. On top of the customary apples and honey and challah, you can also expect a lot of savory dishes that’ll sop up any of those tempting adult beverages. For example, some families will pop in a chicken or brisket to bring hot to the table, and most everyone will start with their best family matzoh ball soup. Either way, break out the drawstring pants, because you won’t leave Rosh Hashanah without a full tummy.
Some Participate in Tashlikh to Start the Year Off Fresh
If you think about it, water has deeply symbolic roots for many religions around the world. Thanks to western imperialism, people are pretty familiar with baptism in water to cleanse your sins. But you might not know that flowing water serves a really similar purpose in Judaism.
On Rosh Hashanah, many people gather to waterways and toss the contents of their pockets (don’t worry, most people come with pockets full of stuff to feed the wildlife) into them as a way of ‘casting off’ their sins. Tashlikh (or Tashlich), as it’s called, is more of a cultural tradition than one rooted in religious text, but can be a great way to spend the afternoon.
Most Importantly - It's a Time to Gather With Family & Friends
While Rosh Hashanah is fundamentally a religious holiday, it’s not only a religious commemoration. It’s a time to bring your family and friends together for two days/evenings of catching up, having fun, enjoying each other’s company, and wishing each other well for the next 354 days of the year.
The Jewish calendar is 353 to 355 days, depending on the positions of the moon and the sun.
But Not Every Rosh Hashanah Celebration Looks the Same
In Judaism, there are multiple different branches/sects that each have varying degrees of traditions and expectations surrounding their holidays. An evening Rosh Hashanah get-together at a reform household will certainly look different from one at, say, an Orthodox house. All these celebrations are beautiful in their own right, but if you’re curious about what to expect at the ones you'll be attending, don’t be afraid to ask the host.
Ring in Rosh Hashanah With Your Own Traditions
Rosh Hashanah is just like every major holiday. There can be a ton of fun in giving traditional customs a modern flair. There’s no proper ratio to customizing your celebration, and you can Frankenstein your grandmother’s recipes with gusto. So, here’s to exploring New Year's customs with friends and family in a different way.