According to Jewish tradition, the beginning of the year is not brought in by a countdown at midnight on January 1st. No, for the Jewish people the New Year is brought in by a series of high holidays all with specific rituals used to mark this special time. These holidays are Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. There are also additional holiday traditions during this time of year. Rituals like saying Selichot prayers or hearing the shofar blast during the feast of the tabernacles. The Jewish Near Year clears the air for the community. It grounds the Jewish people in their history, dealing with the mistakes of their past, and looking ahead towards a better future.
Apples and Honey for a Sweet Rosh Hashanah
The holiest month of the Jewish calendar begins with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, literally translated as “Head of the Year.” For two days the Jewish people honour and acknowledge God as the creator of the universe. The holiday also pays homage to God’s first human creations, Adam and Eve. In preparation for the holiday, the shofar is blown every weekday morning a month before and through the two days.
Other than sounds, Rosh Hashanah is a high holiday with tons of rituals and symbols that focus on food. The food eaten during these days usually follows a sweet theme. These can be things like honey cakes, challah with raisins, and dates. However the most well known of these food traditions is dipping apples in honey. This is one of Judaism’s oldest eating rituals. Some scholars believe that the practice dates back hundreds of years. Eating the two sweet foods together acts as a wishful prayer for the sweetness in the coming year.
Divine Prayers of Forgiveness for the Jewish People
After flattering God as the king of the universe, the Jewish New Year continues with asking for God’s divine forgiveness. The main day to ask for this forgiveness is on Yom Kippur. However, in the days leading up to Yom Kippur (for some communities even before Rosh Hashanah) it is customary to recite selichot.
Selichot are prayers for forgiveness that are recited by the Jewish people together in large gatherings. While they are usually said on fast days they can be used to bring in significant events. The prayers are taken from well-known biblical verses but are given a poetic edge. If you are in Jerusalem during the High Holiday season take a trip down to the Kotel on September 12th. You’ll see hundreds reciting selichot prayers in the plaza. There are seventeen different selichot events happening at the Kotel. They start around midnight so be sure to take a disco nap beforehand and bring a facemask!
The Worst/Best Day of the Jewish New Year
In order, the next official Jewish Holiday on the calendar after Rosh HaShanah is Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement is celebrated through fasting. The night before what is known as Erev Yom Kippur, Jews around the world have their last meal. They will not eat again until the end of the following day. In between meals, Jewish people around the world crowd into their local synagogue for an entire day of prayer. They directly ask God for the forgiveness of their sins or directly apologize to those they have wronged.
At the end of the day the shofar blasts signal that it is time to eat, and oh, what a feast is prepared. It is traditional for many Jewish communities to serve a lot of dairy dishes for the break fast meal. Dishes like bagels with cream cheese and lox, blintzes, kugel, and tons and tons of cakes, especially cheesecake. After a day of fasting for the sins of an entire year people reward their stomachs and start the year off right with their families.
The Jewish Holiday That Requires Camping
The family time only gets more intense from here on out. After Rosh Hashanah, Selichot, and Yom Kippur finally comes Sukkot. This Jewish Holiday is celebrated to remember the Israelites’ time in the desert after they fled Egypt. It is during the seven days of Sukkot that the Jewish people remember God’s kindness during those forty years in the desert. Christians also mark this time with an event known as the Feast of Tabernacles. Thousands of Christians flock to the Kotel every fall to hear the sound of the shofar marking the holiday. For the Jewish people, this piece of history is honoured by recreating a desert hut in every Jewish household, known as the sukkah.
The Sukkah is a simple hut made of at least two walls, with a thatched roof of palm leaves or a simple tarp. It can be decorated with all sorts of plants, vines, fruits, and even the artwork of the family children. However a sukkah is not a sukkah without a sechach. This is a covering for the walls of the sukkah so that there is enough shade during the day. In Israel, almost every household has a balcony space where the sukkah is put up. During sukkot a good portion of Jerusalem eats and sleeps inside of the sukkah. Every day each family must shake the “four kinds” while reciting a prayer. The “four kinds” are a palm branch, two willows, three myrtles, and one citron, known as the etrog.
From Rosh Hashanah to Sukkot: Connecting to the Source
The Jewish New Year is a topsy turvy time in the life of a Jewish community. It’s New Years but people are guilty, they may be hungry but still happy to fast a whole twenty-four hours. Despite the challenges and endless preparations, the High Holidays are a joyful time for family and community. They are rooted in some of Judaism’s most ancient history and beliefs. One whole month dedicated to the Jewish people building and strengthening their relationship with God and one another.