Rosh Hashanah: A Guide for Gentiles

By Samantha Plotner

L’shana tova! Tonight marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Here’s a crash course on the reason why you probably have a Thursday or Friday class cancelled this week.

What is Rosh Hashanah?
“Rosh Hashanah” translates directly from Hebrew as “head of the year,” but is typically referred to as the “Jewish New Year.” It is one of the two high holidays (the other being Yom Kippur) called such because of how religiously important they are. Theologically, Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgement. The belief is that God opens up the book of life and the book of death, and begins the process of deciding who will be in each book for the coming year. As a result, Rosh Hashanah is not celebrated with the raging parties associated with the secular New Year’s Eve. The holiday is often used as an opportunity to spend time with those closest to you and evaluate your life and goals for the coming year.

Is Rosh Hashanah on the same day every year?
The answer actually depends on which calendar you’re using. On the Jewish calendar it is on the same two days every year, the first and second days of the month Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. It is believed that 1 and 2 Tishrei mark the anniversary of creation (specifically, the creation of Adam and Eve) which is why those days are celebrated as Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, however, so when Jewish dates are translated to the secular calendar they rarely fall in the same place twice. For example, last year Rosh Hashanah fell on September 9, while this year it falls on September 28.

How do you observe Rosh Hashanah?
There is a saying about Judaism that if you ask two rabbis a question you end up with three answers. In other words, you rarely meet two Jews who practice in the exact same way. A very observant Jew may spend all of both days in prayer at synagogue, whereas a less observant one may spend only part of the first day in prayer. There are some similarities, however. For many Jews, Rosh Hashanah is a family-oriented holiday—in my family, for example, it is often like a second Thanksgiving. At synagogues all over the world, someone will blow a shofar (an instrument made from a ram’s horn) in a distinct staccato pattern. Many families will serve apples and honey, which symbolizes the wish for a sweet new year.

What if I want to observe Rosh Hashanah on campus?
The Columbia/Barnard Hillel has several options for Rosh Hashanah observance at the Kraft Center on 115th and Broadway. Tonight at 6:45 P.M there will be a Conservative and a Reform service. Tomorrow there will be a Conservative service at 9:30 A.M. and a Reform service at 10 A.M. Go to the Hillel website for more information or to register.

Samantha is a junior at Barnard and Editor-in-Chief of The Nine Ways of Knowing. She will be spending Rosh Hashanah at home, trying to remember all the Hebrew she learned at Hebrew School.

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