Rosh Hashanah: A sweet and happy new year

A Jewish student describes the Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.


T’is the season…for Jewish holidays. Yom Kippur begins Tuesday night and Rosh Hashanah, one of my favorite holidays, ended last week.

Rosh Hashanah highlights a time for renewal and rebirth, a reflection of the past year and hopes for the future. It is a time for new beginnings and is commonly celebrated with family and friends. Not only does it commemorate the beginning of the new year, but also, according to traditional Jewish belief, it’s the day when G-d first created the universe or Adam, depending on who you ask. 

Falling early this year in the secular, sun-based calendar, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which translates to “head of the year,” began the evening of Sept. 9 and lasted until sundown on Sept. 11. It is observed for two days in the Diaspora and Israel.

The annual date of the holiday is based on the lunar calendar and is always at the very beginning of the Hebrew calendar in the month of Tishrei. However, because the secular calendar is according to the sun, the “English” date of the holiday is not consistent year to year. 

The holiday typically happens in the first half of fall semester. Missing class during this time can be difficult, and it is often hard for students to travel home. This past year is one of the few holidays I spent with my family since freshman year.

Thankfully there are options for students celebrating on campus, and opportunities for homestays with friends or welcoming families in nearby communities. 

“Although it could be challenging when Rosh Hashanah comes out early in the semester, I think it’s nice because the message is kind of similar that you have the opportunity for a fresh start, to make this year, or semester, better than the previous year,” said Chanie Kantor, the Rebbetzin and co-director, with her husband Rabbi Baruch Kantor, of the Chabad Jewish Student Center at the university. 

Made from a hollowed-out ram or antelope horn, the shofar is a staple instrument of the holiday. It is blown 100 times throughout the prayer service, and it creates a resonating, jarring sound to “wake up” a person’s spirit and prepare them for the new year.

Some Rosh Hashanah traditions, however, do not take place in synagogue. The celebratory, festive dinner on the day the holiday begins is fundamental to Rosh Hashanah, like many Jewish yuntifs or holy days.

On Rosh Hashanah during the seudah, a festive meal on both nights of the holiday, there is an additional element of the simanim, which are specific foods either eaten or placed on the dinner table to encourage starting the year on the right foot. 

Quintessential Rosh Hashanah foods, like apples dipped in honey, place an emphasis on having “sweet new year.” Some lesser-known foods are pomegranate seeds, which signify the wish that our merits be as numerous as its many seeds, and a fish’s head, meaning that we may be the head, not the tail in the coming year. 

Rosh Hashanah wouldn’t be complete without the sweet, circularly braided challah with cinnamon and raisins, even though is it not a part of the simanim, compared to the more common longly-braided challah loaves.

While many Jewish students have different experiences with their families on this holiday, one of my fondest childhood memories is making the four-hour drive to my grandparents’ home in Buffalo, New York, where we would join them and my uncle’s family for the seudah and a tradition called tashlich. 

To reflect on the previous year and shed any mistakes we may have made, we shake out our pockets overlooking a body of water and a special prayer is said. This symbolizes ridding ourselves of any residue from the previous year. 

Some people, myself included, bring breadcrumbs and toss them into the water. I remember watching the bread pieces sink down into the lake behind my grandparents house, being snatched up by fish or disappearing into the darkness.

Whether you commemorated Rosh Hashanah or not, I wish you the best with the traditional Jewish greeting for this time of year: a shana tova u’metuka, or “a sweet and happy year.” 

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