Celebrate & solemnly reflect on Rosh Hashanah

Jewish New Year 5771 begins at sundown Wednesday September 8
so enjoy the sweet flavors of apples, honey … and renewed hopes

Happy New Year to our 6 million American Jewish friends, and to Jews around the world! We published a more reflective story on Tuesday about people taking small steps to help the world. Today, Jewish households will be busy, so this story explains a few holiday basics to non-Jews among our readership.

Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah, the head of the Jewish year and the first of the High Holidays. It is both the first of the days of remembrance and also the beginning of a new calendar—so Rosh Hashanah is both solemn and a time to celebrate. (MyJewishLearning has more.) (So does Aish.com.) And, please stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit for more holiday stories as we move through September!

What makes this a celebration? There is a spiritual grandeur to a new year tradition that sees Rosh Hashanah as linked to the Creation of the world. Jewish teachers and writers describe this connection in various ways, but the renewing of the year is a time of long-term, very long-term, reflection on our lives and our world.

What makes this solemn? Again, Jewish teachers and writers vary in their descriptions, but God’s book of life opens during these 10 Days of Awe that lead to Yom Kippur. This is a period of examining one’s life, reconciling relationships and making amends as the overall record of our lives is set down in the book for another year. There is a close connection between this annual Jewish season and what Muslims experience during their own month-long fast of Ramadan, which comes to an end this week.

On Rosh Hashanah, the ancient shofar—a trumpet made from an animal’s horn—is blown to “awaken” people from their “sleep,” and to alert them to begin preparation for judgment. (Wikipedia has details.)

In the Hebrew calendar, Rosh Hashanah is the New Year for everyone—animals, people, politics and even some legal matters. Since Jews hold the forward-thinking concept that they are being judged for the coming year on Rosh Hashanah, they commonly wish one another a “good and sweet year.” (Take a quiz, get recipes and more at Chabad.org.)

Sweet foods such as honey-dipped apples are eaten for this holiday. Some traditional Jewish communities prefer pomegranates or other foods. You might see round loaves of challah bread, symbolic of the year coming full circle. (There’s even more at Judaism 101.) While not feasting, reflecting or praying at the synagogue, some Jews visit a place with flowing water (such as a fast-moving stream or river) and empty their pockets or throw pebbles, to symbolize the “casting off” of sins for Rosh Hashanah.

The high-tech side of Rosh Hashanah is gaining more publicity each year, as the ever-growing digital world extends its grip to this Jewish holiday. (President Obama utilized technology to record a Rosh Hashanah video greeting for Jews; watch it here.) Jewish congregations are experimenting with lots of new-media options. For three years, for example, a Cincinnati-based congregation has provided a live stream of the High Holidays’ service, according to the Jerusalem Post; the online synagogue also streams holiday services for children. (Access the stream here.) Some oppose this idea, however, and argue that these holidays are all about community and should be a time of unplugging from the rest of the world. Supporters say supporters debate that technology should be used to reach Jews of today and those without access to a local synagogue.

Please, email us at [email protected] with your hopes for the new year 5771—or simply email to describe your own favorite traditions where you live!

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