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What is Rosh Hashanah and how is it celebrated?

A table set for Rosh Hashanah with a round challah, cupcakes, candles, flowers and place settings.

There are so many reasons to look forward to the fall: PSLs, Halloween and apple picking, to name a few. But, in addition to all that fun and cozy stuff, many Jews look forward to fall for another reason: it is when the Jewish year commences with Rosh Hashanah and loved ones gather in observance of this meaningful holiday.

What is Rosh Hashanah and how is it celebrated?

Rosh Hashanah, which translates to “Head of the Year” in Hebrew, is the celebration of the Jewish new year. Joyous and meaningful, it’s a time to reflect, prepare for the year ahead and enjoy sweet treats like apples dipped in honey. 

Rosh Hashanah: The Jewish New Year

Falling on the first two days of the month of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah holds deep spiritual and cultural importance for many Jews around the world as it marks the start of the High Holy Days, a 10-day period ending with Yom Kippur. 

While it is a celebration of the new year, you aren’t likely to see fireworks lighting up the sky as the sun sets and Rosh Hashanah begins. Instead, many observe Rosh Hashanah by attending synagogue services, gathering with loved ones for festive meals and engaging in various traditions like tashlich and blowing the shofar.

Overall, Rosh Hashanah is a meaningful opportunity to mend broken relationships, reconcile with loved ones, engage in self-reflection, embrace a sense of unity and enter the new year with intention. 

How Rosh Hashanah is celebrated

The observance of Rosh Hashanah varies from region to region and among different Jewish communities, but some customs are widely practiced across the globe. Here are some key elements of Rosh Hashanah celebrations:

Synagogue services: Families attend synagogue services that focus on themes of repentance and reflection. The Hebrew word selichot translates to “forgivenesses” and is an important word and concept in Rosh Hashanah services.

Tashlich: On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, individuals and congregations alike engage in the symbolic tradition tashlich. Translating to “casting off” or “throwing off” in Hebrew, tashlich is an ancient Jewish custom whereby one tosses bread or pebbles into a body of water to symbolize casting away ones sins. 

Blowing of the shofar: Made from the horn of a ram or another kosher animal, the trumpet-like shofar is blown during Rosh Hashanah services as well as throughout the month of Elul—aka the month that comes before Rosh Hashanah! Its unique sound serves as a wake-up call to the soul and is laden with symbolism and meaning.

Enjoying symbolic foods: Families come together for festive meals which often include symbolic foods. To represent the hope for a sweet new year, sweet foods like honey cakes and apples dipped in honey are eaten. Round challah is another Rosh Hashanah staple; the circular shape represents the cyclical nature of years and seasons, though there are many different interpretations of its symbolism!

Wearing white: Though it is not required, many people choose to wear white at Rosh Hashanah services as a symbol of purity and new beginnings. 

Visiting loved ones and mending broken relationships: Rosh Hashanah is a time to spend with family and friends and express good wishes for the year to come. It’s also a great time to reach out to old friends to catch up, offer an apology or extend forgiveness.

Wish family and friends a happy new year: Shana tova is the transliteration of “happy new year” in Hebrew! Let your friends and family know you’ll be wishing them a sweet new new year. If you have loved ones who live far away, consider making a phone call or sending an eCard to say “Shana tova!

A Rosh Hashanah card featuring an apple and a pomegranate.
A Rosh Hashanah card featuring an apple and a jar of honey.
A Rosh Hashanah card featuring pomegranates.

Planning your Rosh Hashanah celebration

Whether you’re planning your first Rosh Hashanah gathering or you’re an experienced High Holy Days host, here are some helpful tips for planning your celebration:

1 month in advance: 

Create a guest list and send your invitations

Decide which day of Rosh Hashanah you want to host your gathering, figure out how many people you can accommodate and put together a guest list. Send out your Rosh Hashanah invitations well in advance to give your guests ample time to plan and RSVP.

Prepare for (and engage in!) reflection

Depending on your level of observance, you may want to include blessings or spiritual discussion at your gathering. Give yourself enough time to thoughtfully plan any spiritual components you plan on incorporating into your gathering.

The month leading up to Rosh Hashanah is also a time to reflect and take steps towards any changes you hope to make in the new year. Cleaning up around the house, talking to friends about your goals, reading books that inspire you—these are just a few ways you can try entering the new year with more mindfulness and intentionality!

2–3 weeks in advance: 

Plan the menu and prep for prayers

Create a menu that feels meaningful to you and your guests! Apples and honey are a staple, as is round challah. Decide whether you’ll want to bake your own or buy one from a local bakery. 

As for main dishes, brisket is of course a holiday classic. If you’re all brisket-ed out, consider serving stuffed cabbage, honey-glazed salmon, pomegranate chicken or something else that seems festive and exciting to you!

And don’t forget to prep apps and snacks to give your guests something to nosh on before the main dish is served! Consider serving a tomato and cucumber salad, beet and pomegranate seed salad, butternut squash and saffron soup or apple, honey and goat cheese pastries.

Not all Rosh Hashanah dinners look the same, so depending on which prayers will be a part of yours, ensure you have everything you will need such as a challah cover, candles, wine, a kiddush cup etc.

1 week in advance:

Gather ingredients and decor

Head to the market to make sure you have all the ingredients you’ll need for your dinner. Start any dishes that can be made ahead of time in the days before to mitigate stress on the day of your gathering. Make sure you have any decor items you’ll need like flowers, tablecloths and place settings.

Pro tip: Make sure you have more than enough seats and food for all your guests. That way, you won’t have to stress about running out of anything and you’ll feel more equipped to accommodate any surprise or last-minute additions to your guest list.

Day of and beyond:

Cook, prep, relax!

Prepare any foods that need to be made day of, heat up any foods you made ahead of time and plate any of the other dishes you’ll be serving. Set the table, decorate your space and then give yourself time to breathe before welcoming your guests.

Charity and giving

The Jewish concept of tzedakah (which, from Hebrew, translates to “righteousness”) refers to the moral obligation to give, help others and engage in charity. In the spirit of new beginnings and self-reflection, consider any acts of tzedakah you might engage in during the High Holy Days and throughout the new year.

Ready to plan your Rosh Hashanah celebration? Here are some of our favorite invitations:

A Rosh Hashanah invitation featuring apples, pomegranates, and honey.
A Rosh Hashanah invitation with bold typography that says "Shana tova."
A Rosh Hashanah invitation with pomegranates and leaves.

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