Rosh Hashanah Etiquette Guide

Congress closes. Some schools close. Jewish friends are nicer than usual. What’s going on here?

It’s that time of year again.

Congress closes. Some schools close. Jewish friends and co-workers are being nicer than usual. Then they ask for a few days off, sometimes in the middle of the week. Round challah with raisins show up at the deli. Honey, grape juice, apples, and brisket go on sale at major supermarket chains. What is going on?

Don’t panic — it’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown on Wednesday evening, September 24th. While traditionally the holiday is observed for two days, some Reform congregations today only observe one day.

Rosh Hashanah, an ancient holiday described in the Torah (Hebrew Bible), is observed on the first two days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and is a commemoration of the Big Bang which fashioned the universe, our planet, and ultimately Adam and Eve. Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of humanity experiencing the world.

While you might think that Jews party like it’s 5772 — yes, that is the year on the Hebrew Calendar — don’t look for all night bashes as you are more likely to find your Jewish friends in synagogue or at their parent’s house. Many Jews, who would otherwise not be caught dead in a synagogue, somehow find their way there on Rosh Hashanah. Jews believe that on that day, God judges the world and decides, “who will live and who will die . . . ” We ask God for forgiveness and pray to be inscribed in the “Book of Life” for a sweet and healthy New Year. And, really, who wants to miss out on that?

Rosh Hashanah inaugurates a time of reflection called the aseret yamei teshuva, 10 days of penitence. We believe that while we can find forgiveness for sins committed against the Boss, it is left to to us to seek out and apologize to people we have wronged in the previous year. The aseret yamei teshuva end on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when God’s decree for the coming year is sealed, and the final version of our contract issued.

There are three ways to avoid being left out of that Book of Life even if one has not behaved well: repentance (teshuva), prayer (tefillah), and charity (tzedakah). Consequently, Jews give a lot of charity and spend a lot of time in prayer, or at least in synagogue. We humble ourselves as we start the process of asking forgiveness. Teshuva is a process of getting our community and ourselves back on track, out of bad habits and into living meaningful and righteous lives.

The most famous symbol of the holiday, the Shofar, is sounded in synagogues on Rosh Hashanah, and is critical to our obligations on Rosh Hashanah. It’s not an ancient trumpet for the likes of Wynton Marsalis, rather the Shofar is serious business and fashioned from a ram’s horn. The blasts of the Shofar are likened both to the wordless cries of the humanity speaking to God, and a wake-up call to the soul which transcends rational explanation.

Some of our other cherished customs include: dipping challah and apples into honey and eating honey cake to symbolize our wish for a sweet new year; consuming  huge meals with too many courses, calories, and cousins; tossing bread crumbs into living waters during a ceremony called “Tashlich” to symbolically cast away our sins; and renewing synagogue memberships.

All are welcome to attend Rosh Hashanah services, but make sure to call in advance to see if you need a reservation. Owing to popularity and the need to raise revenue, most congregations charge for seats, as Larry David found out in an unforgettable episode of his show. However, there are more and more congregations that offer free and open services to the community. If going to synagogue, the custom is to wear a nice outfit, because we want to make a good first impression for the New Year.

Feel free to greet your Jewish friends and neighbors with “Happy New Year,” or to use the Hebrew expression “Shana Tova,” which is a wish for a  “good new year.”

May you blessed with sweet and healthy New Year and Shana Tova!

Image courtesy of ChameleonsEye/

Yonah Bookstein
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  • bucinka8

    In my household, I dip peaches in honey instead of or in addition to apples. We are south of the Mason-Dixon line, after all. L’Shana Tova to all!

  • soferrs

    What an obnoxious article. You don’t speak for me Yonah.

  • OMGalmost53

    Happy New Year is fine, but if we’re talking about etiquette, be careful not to make it sound as though you expect your Jewish friends to be celebrating with party hats and Dom Perignon. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are kind of heavy. Even if you don’t buy into “I better do this right or I may not be alive next year” (which, if you look at it literally, is exactly what the prayers say), it’s still a yearly dose of facing your faults and mortality. Not fun stuff! And for most Jews it means dressing up and spending hours (and hours, and hours, and hours) in synagogue praying and chanting in a language you don’t understand. And the author is right — Jews who don’t go to synagogue any other day in the year, and who don’t keep kosher or the Sabbath (which is probably most of us) haul ourselves into synagogue at this time of year every year just so we don’t REALLY p**s off The Big Boss, in case He’s really out there. We also do it because it’s our one big time of the year when we re-affirm that we really still are Jewish in a very public way, showing up together in big groups to let our fellow Jews know we haven’t left the tribe.

    So it’s stressful, and not fun, but not all bad, because it’s a time to affirm your identity, and a time to see family and friends and community and feel more connected and bonded to the people who matter to you.
    Yet there’s no two ways about it: Getting through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Yom Kippur includes fasting, too) is a bit like getting through a marathon.

    Soooooo, saying to your Jewish friends “Have a good New Year” or “have a good Holiday,” being a little more toned down and somber than “Happy New Year,” captures the right tone and spirit, and will impress your Jewish friends that you really “get it.”

  • OMGalmost53

    Your comment is lashon hara, soferrs — one more thing you need to do some teshuvah about.

  • TheMathDoctor

    L’shana tova, y’all!

  • gm123

    This goyish goy is confused – 1) it never occured to me to panic that there were folks celebrating religious holy days and 2) I thought it was l’shana tova, not shana tova – did I learn that wrong?

  • mollei

    Excellent explanation. Happy Rosh Hashanah!

  • green76j

    On the eve of the Jewish New Year, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics releases the latest numbers for the population of the state of Israel. This year is no exception, and the report reveals that the total population of Israel is nearing the 8 million mark. This report indicated that the Arab population of Israel is growing faster than the Jewish population which has some Israeli officials concerned. In 1948, when the modern day state of Israel came into existence, there were only about 500 thousand Jews in the land, now there are more than ten times that number and growing each year. This is tangible evidence that the prophecies in the Bible are at least in a process of being fulfilled.

    The ancient Jewish prophet Ezekiel wrote that the Lord would find all the Jews scattered for some 2000 years across the world and bring them back to the land of their forefathers, Ezekiel 37:7-11. In fact, the prophet Ezekiel wrote that the Lord would not only bring them into the land He had promised them, but He would make the land better and it was for their forefathers, Ezekiel 36:11.

    The ever increasing Jewish population of the state of Israel is indeed tangible evidence that Bible prophecy is and will be fulfilled.

  • soferrs

    i’m not gossiping about her. i’m telling her here. i think she represents Jews poorly and i’m not happy about it. shana tova to you too.

  • OMGalmost53

    Shana tovah and l’shana tova are both fine. L’shana tova translates as “to a good year” or “for a good year,” but when people talk it’s usually shortened to “shana tovah.” The whole phrase is “l’shana tova tikatevu,” which sort of translates as “[may you have] a good year [and] be inscribed [in the Book of Life]” (Hebrew is amazingly condensed, it really is). But honestly, that’s kind of overkill if you’re not Jewish and just trying to be mannerly with your co-workers. .

  • publius1

    Frankly, it would have been a much better column without the lame attempts at cutesy-poo humor.

  • OMGalmost53

    lashon hara is more than gossip. It also includes using words cruelly, using words in a way that hurts and cuts, that distances people rather than heals. You have a right to have some issues with her delivery or her information, but it’s clear her communication was done with good intention. I don’t see anything she wrote that reflects poorly on the Jewish people. Rather than writing what bothered you in a respectful manner, you projected ill intent on her for writing the column the way she did, and your words were angry and unkind and seem to have been meant to hurt, not to illuminate. Perhaps you don’t realize that. If that was not your intention, then perhaps you should know that that is how it comes across, and you might want to learn this year how to come across in a kinder and more caring way. You’ll be happier, and undoubtedly the people you talk to or write to will be happier as well — and they’ll listen to and take you seriously more often.

  • sim55

    OMGalmost, cease with your annoying lecture. If you think you can erradicate lashon hara in Internet feedback, you are a real luftmensch.

  • esthermiriam

    And Jews who come from Sephardi families ( originally from Spain, Portugal, Greece, Bosnia, Turkey, Egypt, various Arab countries, et al.) have some food and holiday custom that differ from the (Eastern)uropean side of the family described here: reconizeable but distinct…

  • studiousdude

    I seriously doubt traditional rabbis accept the modernist Christian viewpoint on Israel, as neither does the mainstream traditional Christian. It is a Christian as well as Jewish heresy to support the secularist optical machination of Communist Ashkenazi Zionism. Only the Zionists and extreme Christian dispensationalists, akin to New Age Religionists, change the traditional view of the resurrection of Israel. It is supposed to be in Heaven, not on earth. The vast majority of Rabbis around the world were opposed to the Israeli statehood, have we forgotten? Does their opposition say anything to us now? Have the traditional Jews been hooded over by usurpers? God help and bless them.

  • LovetheCapsbuttheysuck

    Don’t panic? Yes, I always panic when I see a Jew eating raisin bread. Is this article from the 50s?

  • yellojkt

    And the wormhole works this time.

  • DaveoftheCoonties

    “luftmensch” ?

  • bobsewell

    “Airhead” is the intention, I think. Kinda cute.

  • bobsewell

    Not if you appreciate a little cutesy-poo humor, it wouldn’t.

  • Snarky Squirrel

    As you should. Raisins are evil; they’re the devil’s own fruit.

  • Snarky Squirrel

    Where Hermann Goering meets Nena?

  • bpai_99

    Deciding which of the world’s major religious faiths is worse in terms of the bigotry, injustice and murder it has caused during the course of human history is like deciding whether it’s worse to get killed by a bomb or crushed by a truck.

  • aliziad

    Oh and a Happy New Year !
    May we see Peace in Jerusalem soon.