What Is Rosh Hashanah and How Is It Celebrated?

Rosh Hashanah is one of the most important, but perhaps the least understood, of the Jewish holidays.

Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the 10-day period in the Jewish religion known as the “High Holidays” (or High Holy Days”). It may be one of the most well known of all Jewish holidays, but it’s also steeped in mystery. This is largely because “Rosh Hashanah” isn’t directly referenced (at least not by name) in the Torah (the five books of Moses, or the Old Testament), which essentially defines Jewish law and worship. And the indirect references that the Torah does seem to make to it provide only the most minimal guidance as to why it’s a holiday and how it is to be observed. As we’ll see, even when, precisely, it was to begin was up to some debate back in ancient times.

What Rosh Hashanah isn’t

Because so much of Rosh Hashanah was left to scholarly interpretation, trying to explain what it is might be better accomplished by beginning with what it is not. Most people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, think of Rosh Hashanah as the celebration of the “Jewish New Year.” However, Rosh Hashanah is neither a celebration, per se, nor the first day of the new year. It is, however, the first day of a 10-day period of personal reflection and atonement known as the “Days of Awe” (more about the Days of Awe later).

It wasn’t originally called “Rosh Hashanah”

The Hebrew “Rosh Hashanah” literally means “the head of the year.” That may go a long way toward explaining why the holiday is treated as the “Jewish New Year.” However, the holiday didn’t acquire the name, “Rosh Hashanah” until the second century. Until then it was referred to by other names (which we’ll discuss a bit later), but it originated as a nameless command from the Torah to observe a day of rest on the first day of the seventh month of the year, which was to be deemed sacred and memorialized by a burnt offering and a “sound.”

The “sound”

The Torah’s nameless references to the holiday we now call Rosh Hashanah can be found in the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Numbers. But precisely what was meant by “sound” remained unclarified until King David wrote in his Psalms, “Sound the shofar at the new moon, at the hiddenness of our festival.” A “shofar” is a wind instrument made of a ram’s horn, which makes a piercing sound.

Why the first day of the seventh month?

There’s no particular consensus as to why Rosh Hashanah was meant to occur on the first day of the seventh month of the year. However, some scholars point to the fact that the number “seven” is also associated with the day on which God rested after creating the universe. Seventh day, rest. Seventh month, rest. In any event, the first day of the seventh month of the year always coincides with the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, or harvest time.

Why not the first day of the first month?

Actually, it’s not that the first day of the first month wasn’t the beginning of a new year for the Jews of ancient times. It’s that the first day of the first month wasn’t the only beginning of the new year back then. In fact, there were four days during four separate times of the year in which the new year was observed, in addition to Rosh Hashanah:

  • a spring day, which marked the new year for purposes of determining the length of kings’ reigns
  • a day in late summer, designated as the day on which God was to be offered a sacrifice consisting of cattle
  • the winter’s day on which the birthday of trees (or, arguably, all agriculture) was observed, called Tu B’shvat

Other names for Rosh Hashanah

The holiday we know as Rosh Hashanah has also been referred to in Jewish scholarly literature as:

  • The Day of Sounding
  • The Day of Remembrance
  • The Day of Judgement
  • The Day That Lasts Longer Than a Day

Although “Rosh Hashanah” is the name widely used, each of these alternative names provides insight into the holiday, its meaning, and how it is observed.

The “Day of Sounding”

As discussed above, the Torah commands that the sacredness of the holiday be commemorated with a “sound,” and in particular, the sounding of a Shofar. But precisely how the Shofar was to be sounded, as in, the precise sounds and patterns of sounds to be made, was not prescribed anywhere. Over a period of centuries, a variety of local traditions arose, but by the sixth century, all had been incorporated in some way into the following pattern, which was repeated at specified times throughout the holiday in a pattern of calls:

  • One long blast (called t’ki’ah)
  • Three shorter consecutive blasts (called sh’varim)
  • Nine fast blasts, separated into groups of three (called tru’ah)

The “Day of Remembrance”

It’s widely accepted that “remembrance” refers to the command to remember the particular day each year—and to commemorate it—as sacred. As to why it’s a sacred day, the Torah doesn’t say, but since as far back as the 3rd century, scholars have interpreted it as the day on which God reflects on humankind, individually and collectively, remembering everything each individual did during the prior year.

The “Day of Judgement”

The Jewish religion holds that after spending the day reflecting how we acted in the last year, God then determines our respective fates in the coming year. The “wholly righteous” shall live. The “wholly wicked” shall die. For everyone else, and presumably, most people are neither all good or all evil, thus begins a 10-day period of self-reflection, also known as the “Days of Awe,” during which God suspends judgment in order to give people the opportunity to think about their misdeeds, repent, and atone.

The “Day That Lasts Longer Than a Day”

Whenever we refer to “the day of” Rosh Hashanah, we’re actually referring to a two-day period. Some scholars assert this wasn’t intentional but rather the result of communication delays in the ancient world. Although Rosh Hashanah was to be observed on the first day of the seventh month, it didn’t officially begin until a centralized rabbinical council said so (based on their observation of the rising of the new moon). Although messengers were deployed immediately, by the time the news reached the people who lived furthest away, the “day” was long over, but the holiday (as well as another calendar year’s worth of holidays) for them had just begun.

Rosh Hashanah begins at night

When we say Rosh Hashanah is a two-day period, we’re not talking about days that begin at dawn and end at dusk. Nor are we talking about calendar days that begin at midnight and end at 11:59 p.m. Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown and ends two sundowns later. In fact, all Jewish holidays, and for that matter, all days in the Jewish calendar, start and end at sundown. This may be a literal interpretation of the Bible’s Book of Genesis, which notes that God created night to divide the days. Check out these 24 facts you never knew about the Bible.

Rosh Hashanah isn’t “celebrated” so much as observed

Starting at sundown on the first day of the seventh lunar month of the year (in Hebrew, the month is known as Tishrei), Rosh Hashanah is a two-day period of communal prayer punctuated by festive meals. Rosh Hashanah’s prayers are meditations on the world and God’s relationship to it as king and protector. Although it marks the commencement of the Days of Awe and has been referred to as the “Day of Judgement,” Rosh Hashanah’s recitation of prayer makes virtually no mention of our own personal judgment (after all, only God has the right to judge). Instead, the focus is on quietly contemplating our place in the universe, creating a personal “mission statement” for the next year, and essentially cleaning our proverbial slate. For this reason, there is a tradition called Tashlich, of tossing stale bread (a symbol of bad deeds) into bodies of water.

Even so, Rosh Hashanah is a sweet and optimistic holiday

The Days of Awe that begin on Rosh Hashanah culminate in the observation of Yom Kippur, which involves fasting and mournful prayer. In between, we’re meant to reflect on our shortcomings, feel remorse, and offer reparations directly to those we’ve hurt. So one way of looking at Rosh Hashanah is as a two-day period of optimism and sweetness before the tough work begins. Indeed, it’s customary to observe Rosh Hashanah by enjoying sweet foods like honey and apples. In coming together with friends and family for prayers and feasts, It’s also an ideal time to consider how much those friends and family mean to us and how we might do better by them in the coming year. Ultimately, the purpose of Rosh Hashanah is to prepare for and usher in a “Shanah Tovah”—a beautiful new year. Surprised by any of this? You’ll love learning about the 15 things you never knew about Hanukkah.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest and in a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction, and her first full-length manuscript, "The Trust Game," was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.