The Jewish High Holidays are about to begin, starting at sundown on Sunday, September 25th. This first holiday is Rosh Hashanah (head of the year), the Jewish new year. You might assume that since this is the new year on the Hebrew calendar it is the fist day of the first month, but in fact it is the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei which is the 7th month. Why is this and how did it come to be?
The commandment to observe Rosh Hashanah is first found in the Torah, Hebrew Scripture, in the Book of Leviticus, 23:24-5. There it states:
In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, there shall be a rest day for you, a remembrance proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation. You shall not do any labor and you shall offer a fire-offering to the Eternal.
The nature of the day was established in the Torah, but the name Rosh Hashanah was not used until later, perhaps out of fear that a major Jewish festival around the Autumn new moon would be associated with the many pagan moon festivals that were common at the time. But by the time of the return from the Babylonian exile in the fourth century B.C.E., the observance of Rosh Hashanah as a new year festival was well established. In the Mishna, the first major written collection of Jewish oral traditions, Rosh Hashanah had taken on the meanings that we know today.
There are many traditions in observance of this holiday. The sounding of the shofar comes from the quote from Leviticus above. Apples dipped in honey are eaten to symbolize a sweet new year. The traditional challah (braided bread) eaten on the sabbath is round. Some see the round shape as a reflection of the continuing cycle of years and seasons. Another interpretation is that the round challah resembles a crown, symbolizing the sovereignty of God. A third explanation, is that it is a way to distinguish the already sacred challah we have on the Sabbath as something even more special and distinctive for the New Year. Finally, at a time of year when our thoughts turn to repentance and resolutions of self-improvement, the round challah reminds us that the opportunity for t’shuvah (repentance) is never-ending.
Ten days after Rosh Hashanah comes the most sacred day on the Hebrew calendar, Yom Kippur. On this day, a 25-hour complete fast is observed as Jews around the world attend synagogue services. Throughout the day, prayers are recited asking for forgiveness. The period from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur is called Yamim Noraim or, ten Days of Awe, where we consider our repentance each day in preparation for our prayers.