The Customs and Practices
of Rosh Hashonoh
(According to the Ashkenazic and Hasidic Custom)
Rosh Hashonoh is the season of remembrance, the season of sweetness, and the season of the shofar. I shall explain these by describing the customs and practices of this Holiday and its season.
If you've read the first article, The Meaning of Rosh Hashonoh, you know why Rosh Hashonoh is the season of remembrance. So let's move on to the other two.
I just want to insert one important word before I start: Rosh Hashonoh is a Holiday, which means that with all its seriousness, it is a time of rejoicing before Hashem. Our joy should be the joy of doing Mitzvos, i.e., of fulfilling the Commandments Hashem has offered to us in His love. And in Judaism, we do not repent by being depressed. We rejoice that we are returning to Hashem. True, we feel a little sorrow over the mistakes we have made, but when we serve Hashem we must serve Hashem joyfully, and repentance is also a part of serving Hashem. Therefore, Rosh Hashonoh is also a time or joy.
The month that precedes Rosh Hashonoh is a contemplative one. We know that we are going to be judged on Rosh Hashonoh, so we seriously attempt to clean ourselves up, and better ourselves. Obviously, it is preferable to improve our traits and personalities permanently, and any time of the year is good for that. But this month has a special ambience about it that makes such behavior even more acceptable to Hashem -- unless you purposely waited until this season. Nevertheless, at this time, Hashem is considered to be a little closer to us, in the sense that now especially He desires us to come closer to Him!
So, we come closer to Hashem, and we pray that Hashem come closer to us. As the Talmud says: "If you open your way to Hashem even as small as the hole made by a needle, Hashem will open the way with an opening as large as a building."
So our prayers this season are that Hashem accept our repentance, and grant us a sweet year full of blessing.
Below are some of the customs of Rosh Hashonoh.
On the night of Rosh Hashonoh we add the little prayer "Remember us for life, O King Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life - for your sake, O G-d of life." And of course, we say the special Rosh Hashonoh prayer, instead of the weekly prayer. In this prayer we ask, among other things, that Hashem bring the Messiah and that all wickedness disappear. We ask that all people join into one peaceful society (Jews as Jews, others as whatever they wish to be), doing Hashem's will.
We do not ask that the wicked die, but that they repent and do the right thing.
And above all, we pray for a good year for everyone.
When the prayers are over we wish each other: "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year, good life, and peace."
When we arrive home, we have a festive family meal. We start with the Kiddush, the prayer in which we declare over wine the holiness of the day, and our relationship with Hashem as a people.
Afterwards, as usual with a Holiday, we wash our hands and break bread. Instead of dipping the challah-bread into salt, as we usually do, we dip it into honey, to symbolize our desire for a sweet year.
Then we cut up an apple into slices, dip each slice into honey, and distributes a piece to each person at the meal. Before eating the first bite, we recite the following blessing:
Blessed are You Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the tree.
We take one bite and eat it. Before taking the second bite, we recite:
May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d and G-d of our forefathers, that you renew for us a good and sweet year.
Next, take a piece from the head of a sheep, and distribute pieces of that. When Hashem told the Patriarch Abraham not to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham sacrificed a sheep instead.
Abraham had told Isaac that "Hashem would provide the sheep," and so Hashem fulfilled the word of this righteous man, and provided a sheep for him to sacrifice. But Abraham had been ready to obey the word of Hashem no matter what Hashem had said, and had even gone so far as to tie up Isaac, in obedience to Hashem's command (so he thought), and Hashem considers this the most righteous act of all.
Hashem has promised us that every good deed will be rewarded even up until the two thousandth generation. That means that we can still benefit from the good deeds of the Patriarchs, if we follow in their ways.
Now don't go off sacrificing your son. Hashem only meant to test Abraham, but that's a discussion for another time. Ultimately, Hashem wants us to become the holiest we can become, so He created the Torah as the means for us to do that. The Torah is what we follow for self development..
On Rosh Hashonoh we pray that Hashem remember the willingness of Abraham, and that He grant us His favor because of it; that we reap the benefits of that intention of Abraham's, and that we be granted a good year.
So, before we eat, we recite:
May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d and G-d of our forefathers, that we be like a head, and not like a tail, and that You remember in our favor the Binding of Isaac the son of Abraham.
Next, we take a piece of the head of a fish. Before eating the first bite, we recite:
May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d and G-d of our forefathers, that we be like a head, and not like a tail.
We eat one bite. Before continuing, we recite:
May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d and G-d of our forefathers, that we be fruitful and multiply like fish.
Next, we take some butternut squash, or any type of gourd or pumpkin. The Hebrew word for gourd is a homonym of the Hebrew word for "read," and also of the Hebrew word for "torn." So, before eating, we recite:
May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d and G-d of our forefathers, that any bad decrees be torn up, and that our merits be read before You.
Next we take a pomegranate. Before eating, we recite:
May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d and G-d of our forefathers, that our merits increase like the pips in a pomegranate.
Some people continue this with various other types of food, and some people stop here. Most people do not eat those foods, so I have created it as a separate article, and I have included the prayers recited over them, the reason for eating them, and their recipes as well. That article can be found when you return to the Rosh Hashonoh Gateway.
We next eat the Holiday meal, which usually consists of such foods as fish, soup, chicken or meat, etc. It is the custom to eat some sweet foods, such as tzimmes, which is carrots cooked in honey. It is also customary not to eat bitter foods (no horseradish on the fish, for example). Still, if you like bitter foods, eat them to your heart's content; it's not a sin.
On the morning of Rosh Hashonoh --- both days --- we go to the synagogue to pray Rosh Hashonoh prayers. They are somewhat different than the prayers of any other Holiday.
Some people have the custom to wear white on Rosh Hashonoh. This is to remind us of our mortality, since white is the color of burial shrouds. This reminds us to repent, as the Talmud says: "Repent one day before your death. Since you can never know for certain when you will die, repent every day." And that is why it says in Ecclesiastes, 7:2: "It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a banquet hall, for that is the end of all men and the living will take it to heart." In other words, when you go to comfort a mourner there is the possibility that you will consider that some day, you too, will meet your Maker, and you will take that to heart, and you will repent.
But remember, as I said above, Rosh Hashonoh is a day of rejoicing in the fulfillment of the Commandments, and especially in rejoicing over the Kingship of Hashem. The prayers highlight this concept.
But even though it is a Holiday, we do not say Hallel, the Psalms of Praise we usually say on a Holiday, because this is a day of judgment.
As usual for a Holiday, there is a Torah reading after the first part of the morning services. We take two Torah Scrolls out of the Holy Ark.
On the first day of Rosh Hashonoh, we read about the birth of the Patriarch Isaac from the first Torah Scroll. This is because of how Isaac was born.
Our Matriarch Sarah was born incapable of bearing children. She prayed for many years to have children, and on Rosh Hashonoh, Hashem granted her that prayer. And as a result, our Patriarch Isaac was born. Thus, the Torah reading begins with the words: "And Hashem granted special providence to Sarah, as He said He would . . . Sarah conceived, and she gave birth . . ." The implication is that we pray that Hashem will grant us also providence, and give us what we desire in the best possible way.
We then close up the first Torah Scroll, and open the second. From this Scroll, we read the maftir, which consists, as it does on every Holiday, of the sacrifice that the Torah requires to be brought when there is a Holy Temple on Mount Zion, may it be rebuilt and re-established speedily in our days, Amen. The reading mentions briefly some of the Laws of the Holiday, such as that it is a holy season, when we meet together at the synagogue for special Holiday prayers; that it is forbidden to perform certain types of creative activities during this Holiday (such as any farming activity, such as planting or watering crops or plants of any sort, writing, building, and others); and that we must blow the shofar on this day. This reading is read from the second Torah Scroll on both days of Rosh Hashonoh.
On the Second day, we read about the Akaidah, the Binding of Isaac, which also took place on Rosh Hashonoh. The Binding of Isaac has a central and important place in Judaism. We read of this today to highlight the existence of people who are willing to sacrifice everything to comply with Hashem's will. And we pray that Hashem will take into account their merit when judging us.
We then read from the second Torah Scroll the same reading that was read from the second Torah Scroll the day before.
After the Torah reading on Rosh Hashonoh, there is the Blowing of the Shofar. Before blowing the shofar, the designated blower recites the blessings, and everyone answers Amen after each blessing.
The shofar is always made out of a ram's horn, and the Blowing of the Shofar has many purposes and many layers of meaning.
It calls to mind the ram that the Patriarch Abraham sacrificed instead of Isaac. And it helps us remember to feel fear of Hashem's glory, as it says in Amos 3:6: "If a ram's horn is sounded in the city, can the inhabitants fail to be alarmed?"
The word "shofar," is similar to the word "shapru," Hebrew for "beautify" (second person plural imperative), which is to remind us: Beautify your deeds, and correct your actions . . .
The shape of the shofar is very indicative of our relationship with Hashem. The shofar has one narrow end and one wide end. We blow into the shofar at the narrow, tapered end, and the sound comes out of the wide end, as in some musical instruments. This alludes to our prayer that: "From the straits I called upon Hashem, Hashem answered me expansively" (Psalms 118:5), which we actually recite before the Blowing of the Shofar. In other words, when we are in straits, i.e., in a tight situation, we pray to Hashem, and Hashem answers us by helping us with expansively, i.e., with a great deal of help and support.
One person is designated as the Shofar blower, as it is a difficult art, and in any case should be performed by a righteous person, since in a sense he is representing us. We must stand while the shofar is being blown.
On Rosh Hashonoh we are judged. The Tempting Angel, who is also our Accuser, stands before the Heavenly Court and lists our sins. But the Talmud tells us that whenever we perform a Mitzvah (a good deed, one of Hashem's Commandments) the Accuser is silenced as long as we are doing that Mitzvah. Thus, as we listen to the shofar being blown, we cannot be accused. Therefore, that is a very good time to silently repent our sins.
Judaism does not believe in confessing to human beings. When you confess, do so quietly, so that only Hashem and you can hear it. If you have sinned against another human being, you must ask that person for forgiveness first (not while the shofar is being blown, of course), and afterwards confess quietly to Hashem and resolve to try not to sin again.
Our blowing of the shofar is also like crying. It is our cry to Hashem to show that we are sorry for our sins.
There are three types of sounds that we blow on the shofar: one straight sound, a set of three brief sounds, and a set of staccato sounds. Why these sounds? Each of these represents a different crying sound: the long moan, brief groans, or choppy cries. Sometimes a crying person makes various kinds of crying sounds, catching his breath, bleating, even hiccuping, at times.
All this, to remind us that Hashem has mercy on us like a father has on his crying children, giving them what they need and comforting them. And so, we pray this prayer:
Today is the birthday of the world. Today all creatures of the world stand in judgment, either as children or as servants. If as children, be merciful with us as a father has mercy on his children. If as servants, our eyes look to You, in dependance upon You, until You are gracious to us and acquit us with a verdict as clear as day, O Awesome and Holy One.
We blow the shofar in a number of stages: some of the blasts we blow immediately after the blessing, and the other blasts are disbursed throughout the prayers. All in all, we blow 100 blasts.
Next, we pray the Musaf prayer. Every Sabbath and every Holiday we pray a Musaf prayer, an "Additional Prayer." This is not instead of the afternoon prayer, Minchah, which we pray every day of the year, sometime before sunset.
After Minchah, we go to a body of water, preferably one that has fish in it, and we say Tashlich. There we recite the following verses (which I hope will explain the reason for this ceremony):
Who, O Hashem, is like You, Who pardons iniquity and overlooks transgression for the remnant of the People who are His heritage? Who does not stay angry eternally, for He desires kindness. He will again be merciful to us; He will ignore our sins.
He will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.
All the sins of Your nation, the House of Israel, please cast away to a place where they will never be remembered, never be considered, and never be brought to mind ever again.
Give truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham, as You swore to our forefathers in ancient times.
From the straits I called upon Hashem, Hashem answered me expansively. Hashem is with me, through my helpers, therefore I can face my enemies. It is better to take refuge with Hashem than to rely on humanity. It is better to take refuge with Hashem than to rely even on nobles.
Please bear in mind that this is only a partial list of Rosh Hashonoh customs, and I certainly have not explained everything that there is to know about this season.
May we all be granted a good and sweet year, a year of life and blessings.
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