One of the most significant Jewish holidays is here. What to know about Rosh Hashanah

  • Rosh Hashanah, one of the most significant Jewish holidays is approaching.
  • But what is Rosh Hashanah? When does it start?
  • Here’s what you need to know about the holiday.

Rosh Hashanah is approaching, and Jewish people around the world will gather with friends and family to start a sweet new year.  

The holiday marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. Rosh Hashanah itself represents the beginning of the Jewish New Year, translating from Hebrew to mean the “head” of the year. It’s commemorated with special prayers, foods, gatherings and more. 

“These are moments where we come together as a community, where we take time to think about ourselves as individuals, but also think about the ways that we can help others,” Rabbi Rob Gleisser, the Peter J. Rubinstein reform senior Jewish educator at Penn State Hillel, told USA TODAY. “Think about the ways that we want to create a safe community, a welcoming community, a warm community and then be able to enrich the world around us after having those moments of introspection.” 

Here’s what you need to know about Rosh Hashanah. 

Boys play outside as men celebrate the New Year inside at the tomb of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov on September 18, 2020 in Uman, Ukraine. Despite travel restrictions imposed by Ukraine meant to curb the spread of Covid-19, a few thousand pilgrims arrived in Uman for Rosh Hashanah. Uman is home to the tomb Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, founder of a prominent Hasidic movement.
Two Ethiopian Jews perform Tashlich, a Jewish atonement ritual, at a lake formed by the Umanka River on the first day of Rosh Hashanah on September 10, 2018 in Uman, Ukraine.

What is Passover or Pesach? The Jewish holiday explained

What is Hispanic Heritage Month? Latinos and Latino culture can be celebrated year-round

When is Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah starts at sunset on Sunday and continues through Tuesday evening.  

The celebration of the new year is the only Jewish holiday that is two days long both inside and outside of Israel. It’s called yoma arichta, translated as “a long day,” because the 48-hour celebration may be thought of as one extended day.  

Why is Rosh Hashanah celebrated?  

Rosh Hashanah is often treated as a time to reflect on the previous year and focus on hopes for the coming year, according to Jordan Rosenblum, the Belzer Professor of Classical Judaism and Max and Frieda Weinstein-Bascom Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  

“It’s the beginning of the Jewish calendar, and like all new years there are, it’s a time for sort of taking stock, right? … 

What do I want to improve? You know, the equivalent of joining the gym in January,” he said.

Rosh Hashanah is also important for some Jewish people as a celebration of the creation of humanity. It may be referred to as the “birthday of the world,” marking the time when God created – or when the breath of life entered – Adam and Eve. 

How is Rosh Hashanah celebrated?  

Many Jewish people will attend services at synagogues and other spaces for worship on Rosh Hashanah. Jewish congregations will recite special prayers and songs to mark the new year.  

Whether in synagogue or other spaces, “the central component of Rosh Hashanah services and really any Jewish festival is community.  We come together as a community to experience a holiday in a number of different ways,” Gleisser said. 

Members of the Ethiopian Jewish community gather in a makeshift synagoge, Friday, Sept. 22, 2006 as they celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year in Gondar, Ethiopia.

Some Jewish communities will blow a Shofar, a curved ram’s horn.  

“It’s meant to kind of stir you, awaken you to the idea of thinking of new year, taking stock, preparing to atone, and in the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah it begins to be used as a kind of wake up,” Rosenblum said. “It really kind of pierces the air, and you can’t ignore it.”

Some Jews may also pray near a body of water in a Tashlich ceremony, in addition to tossing pieces of bread or other food into water to symbolize sending off sins. 

The shofar, held by Rabbi/Cantor Meeka Simerly of Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, New Jersey, is blown during the Jewish High Holy Days.
Joel Friedman and his family observe Tashlich beside the seafront at dusk on September 24, 2020 in Canvey Island, England. The atonement ritual of Tashlich comes from the Hebrew word meaning 'to cast', and refers to the idea of casting away ones sins.

What are some traditional Rosh Hashanah foods?  

Rosh Hashanah celebrations don’t just take place within the walls of a synagogue. Many Jews will gather with friends and family to eat special foods and hold commemorations:

  • Some Jewish people eat apples and honey together to represent a sweet new year.
  • People may also eat challah, a braided bread, in a round loaf to represent a cycle of the year.
  • Pomegranate seeds also represent the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, that are cited in the Torah, the Jewish holy book. 

“For Rosh Hashanah in particular, there’s just a lot of emphasis on sweetness so that you are stepping into the year with good tastes and good feelings, and with this idea that you want to have a sweet and bountiful year ahead,” Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, senior educator and campus support director for Hillel International, told USA TODAY. 

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein (R) and comedian Deb Filller share apples and honey as is customary in Jewish tradition during a socially distanced Rosh Hashanah celebration at a drive-in on September 20, 2020 in Toronto, Canada.
Batya Weisinger, 11 makes round challah bread for Rosh Hashanah in her Teaneck, New Jersey, home on Friday September 27, 2019.

Is it OK to say ‘happy Rosh Hashanah’?

Yes, happy Rosh Hashanah or happy new year are both appropriate greetings if you are talking to Jewish friends, family, coworkers or classmates around the holiday. You can also say shanah tovah, which means good year in Hebrew.  

“Happy New Year is great,” Gleisser said. “Happy Rosh Hashanah, that’s a beautiful thing to say.” 

Big Rosh Hashanah celebrations make a comeback 

 Leshaw noted that many college campuses are looking forward to seeing their first large scale celebrations since 2019, due to festivities being canceled or going virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

She said the Tashlich ceremony “in particular is really meaningful for people.” 

“What’s beautiful about it is that it’s an easy access point,” she explained. “So if you haven’t grown up in a family where there’s been a lot of synagogue attendance, or if you’ve grown up in a family where you’re not even necessarily familiar with the meals that accompany the holiday… you can very easily join a group of people who are gathering at a body of water and think about your wrongdoings of the past year.”