Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, starts tomorrow at sundown! In anticipation of celebrating like its 5772, we asked our good friend, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, to offer up some unique ways to ring in the New Year.
Read on and be sure to send us stories, tips and pictures tips from your holiday celebrations so we can keep this list running into 5773!
Best wishes for a happy, healthy, sweet and inspiring New Year!
Rosh Hashanah, literally “beginning” or “head” of the year, occurs on the first and second days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. While the holiday has become generally known as the Jewish New Year, the Talmud records that Rosh Hashanah is one of several new year observances. Just as we observe birthdays, anniversaries, fiscal and academic calendars, the Jewish calendar marks various new years, including those for trees (the 15th of Shevat, known as Tu b’Shevat) and the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt (the first of the month of Nisan, during which Passover occurs). Rosh Hashanah is observed as the “birthday of the world,” focusing on the creation of the universe.
Rosh Hashanah is thus the most universalistic of Jewish holidays. While Passover connects Jews to the story of the Israelites in Egypt, and Yom Kippur focuses on the Jewish people’s relationship with God, Rosh Hashanah is understood by the rabbis of the Talmud to be the day when “all the creations of the world pass before God like b’nei maron,” a term variously interpreted by the ancient rabbis to mean sheep (passing before their shepherd) or soldiers (passing before their commander). The emphasis here is on all the creations of the world: Rosh Hashanah is a time for all human beings to review our lives.
While the Torah details the observances and reasons for most other Jewish holidays, it is strikingly quiet when describing Rosh Hashanah. The Torah mentions Rosh Hashanah in two sections (Leviticus 23:23-25 and Numbers 29:1-6), and in both the key distinguishing feature of the holiday is the teruah, the blast of the shofar. Aside from the ancient sacrifices, which were associated with all Biblical holidays, no additional ritual is mentioned besides making the teruah sound. The shofar thus becomes the central symbol of the holiday. The great medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides (1135-1204) explains the shofar as signaling a wake-up call to become more conscious of our lives and actions as we enter the season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
The process of self-reflection, self-correction and renewal meant to take place between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called teshuva, literally translated as “return.” Traditionally this has meant return to the ways of the Torah. Modern thinkers, including Hasidic rabbis of the 18th-20th centuries, understood this to mean discerning and returning to who we are meant to be and what the world—or what we might call God—needs us to be. Teshuva is understood by the Talmud and all subsequent Jewish thought to take place both between human beings and between humans and God. The season of regret, forgiveness and renewal demands that we make amends not only with ourselves, but with those with whom we share the world.
In need of inspiration? Check out the ideas below for how you can celebrate Rosh Hashanah and create a memorable experience for you and your friends.
Like virtually all Jewish holidays (even Yom Kippur!), food plays a central part at Rosh Hashanah. Traditional foods at this time include:
- Round challah, symbolizing renewal
- Apples and honey, signifying our hopes for a sweet new year
- Pomegranate, denoting our prayers for a fruitful year ahead
Individual communities have developed other food traditions, and you can learn more about them at www.myjewishlearning.com.
Ideas for Meals:
- Interactive Menu Planning: Engage your guests in planning the menu. Start an email chain or Facebook discussion among them about what to serve. Challenge them to come up with creative, meaningful recipes.
- Symbolic Potluck: Invite friends for a potluck and ask them to bring a dish that symbolizes something they hope for this year. Encourage them to be creative, to really put thought into what foods they’re preparing. For instance, someone might cook entirely from local organic food, with the intention that they pay greater attention to their relationship with the people and things closest to them this year. Someone else might cook a particularly symbolic dish, either from their family or their tradition. Ask your guests to share why they cooked what they did.
- Visual Renewal: Ask your guests to do a Google image search for a common term, like “repent,” “regret,” “renew,” “improve.” They should each print out their image and bring it to the meal, when they can take turns showing and explaining their images to each other.
- Imaginary Guest List: Ask each of your guests to identify someone from history or culture they would want to bring to the meal. Then ask them to bring a quotation, reading, poem, song, artwork, or other artifact that reflects what inspired them to choose that person. At the meal, invite everyone to share their artifact and talk about their imaginary guest.
Rosh Hashanah is a time for stock-taking and reflection. As Jewish tradition teaches, while individual soul-searching (hitbodedut in Hebrew) is very important, reflecting in and with community is both enriching and ultimately necessary. Take the opportunity to invite a group of friends for an intentional conversation about some of the big questions of Rosh Hashanah. These could include:
- What do you regret from the past year?
- What do you want to do better this year?
- What do you want to be more awake to this year?
- What help do you need to stick to your resolutions?
You might want to ask participants to journal for a few minutes to gather their thoughts. You may also want to create a tone and setting for the conversation by means of a poem, song, text or other “third thing.” Some possibilities include:
- “Accepting This,” by Mark Nepo
- “The Seven of Pentacles,” by Marge Piercy
- “Praying,” by Mary Oliver
- “The Living Years,” by Mike and the Mechanics
- “Who By Fire,” by Leonard Cohen
- Maimonides’s explanation of the shofar
- Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (20th c.), on repentance
Letters to Ourselves
Invite friends to join you for a letter-writing activity. Over snacks or brunch, ask everyone to write a letter to their future selves. You will send the letter to them in six months. The letter should reflect on where they are now and where they want to be in half a year. If they are willing, you might ask them to share parts of their letter with the group. Doing this kind of activity with friends and community can help each individual go deeper.
- www.myjewishlearning.com provides a wide range of information, both practical and more general, about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and all things Jewish.
- 10Q asks a different reflective question each day between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. You can submit your answers and have them sent back to you a year later.
- www.chabad.org is the website of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement an extraordinary online resource.
- A Spiritual Checkup is an easy-to-use guide, developed by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, for facilitating rich conversation about questions of the season.
- Entering the High Holy Days: A Complete Guide to History, Prayers and Themes, by Reuven Hammer
- Dov Peretz Elkins has written many books about the High Holidays, all of which are accessible and engaging, and include readings and stories to prompt reflection.
- Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of the United Kingdom is one of the most eloquent writers in the world today. His introduction to the Rosh Hashanah prayer book, as well as the general commentary, are excellent.
- The Days of Awe, by S.Y. Agnon,is a collection of sources from the long history of Jewish tradition by the Nobel Prize-winning Israeli author, translated to English.