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Rosh Hashanah has begun: What to know about the two-day Jewish holiday that leads into Yom Kippur

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Yom Kippur

Answering some common questions around the Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; namely, what is Rosh Hashanah and what is Yom Kippur?

Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur.

They’re two of the most familiar – and important – days on the Jewish religious calendar, but did you know that the two events are strongly connected? And what these special days actually represent?

For some, Rosh Hashanah is called the “birthday of the world.” It marks the start of the Jewish New Year, and is filled with shared meals and prayer among loved ones. The celebration also begins the Jewish High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur – and a time when Jews focus their attention on repentance and reflection of action.

Here’s what to know about these holy days:

When are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2020?

This year, Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset on Friday, Sept. 18, and ends two days later at sunset on Sunday, Sept. 20. It’s the start of the Jewish month of Tishrei, or Tishri, which falls in September or October, according to the Gregorian calendar. It’s the first month of the civil year for Jews or the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year. Some years, Rosh Hashanah can start in early September or as late as early October.

Yom Kippur will begin in the following week – on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 27, and end the evening of Monday, Sept. 28.

What is Rosh Hashanah?

It marks the start of the Jewish New Year, as stated in the Bible (Leviticus 23:23-31).

While some ancient cultures, such as the Celts, celebrated the start of a new year during the spring equinox because it was the time of planting, Semitic cultures in the Near East celebrated the new year in the fall, after the harvest was gathered. The name of Rosh Hashanah can be translated as “first” or “head of the year.” It is also sometimes called “The Feast of Trumpets.”

Also, Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the Jewish High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur. It marks the beginning of the 10 “Days of Awe,” in which Jews focus their attentions on repentance and reflection leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, considered to be holiest day of the Jewish year. Traditionally, the blood of an animal was sacrificed as a way to remove sin or defilement.

According to tradition, the names of the righteous are written in the Book of Life and names of the wicked are written in the Book of Death. For everyone else – most people – you have 10 days to repent before your fate is sealed in one of the two books.

Why does it last for two days?

Religious holidays normally last for one day. But not Rosh Hashanah.

It’s actually called yoma arichta – translated as “a long day” – because the 48-hour period when Rosh Hashanah is observed is actually considered to be one extended day. It’s the only Jewish holiday that is two days long both outside and inside Israel.

Ancient Jews relied on a calendar based on actual cycles of the moon, not one arbitrarily set. Thus, the key to determining the first day of each month was the sighting of the new moon. It was so important that it required confirmation by two or more witnesses.

Because of difficulties in determining the new moon (it could be obscured by clouds, etc.) and the slowness with which news once traveled Jewish leaders living outside Israel decided Rosh Hashanah would be celebrated over two days to ensure it was celebrated on the appropriate day. Jewish leaders inside Israel had less difficulty determining the start of the holiday – but still celebrate it over two days for consistency.

How is Rosh Hashanah celebrated?

Unlike the festive celebrations of New Year in other faiths, the Jewish New Year is a time of reflection on one’s actions of the past year and sincere repentance for those sins.

However, it also is a time to share meals and prayer with family and friends. That includes special treats such as apples or challah bread dipped in honey (to symbolize one’s wish for a sweet new year to come); prayer services and Torah readings on both mornings of Rosh Hashanah that include repeated blasts from a ram’s horn, called a shofar; and the lighting of candles in the evenings with appropriate blessings.

The shofar signifies the presence of God and is a powerful symbol of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to show obedience to God by reminding us of the ram that was provided in Isaac’s place.

Special food also is eaten during Rosh Hashanah.

That may include pomegranate fruit, as people wish for blessings in the new year as plentiful as the seeds of a pomegranate. The pomegranate’s 613 seeds also symbolize the 613 “mitzvot,”or commandments, in the Torah.

Round challah bread baked with raisins inside is also popular during the holiday.

Some people also will traditionally eat the head of a fish or a ram to symbolize the “head of the year.” Fish is also eaten because it is a symbol of fertility and abundance.

Why are prayers said next to a body of water during Rosh Hashanah?

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jews may be seen praying near a body of water, such as a lake, river or sea while performing the Tashlich ceremony.

Traditionally, pieces of break or other food are tossed into the water to symbolize the “casting off” of sins. Just as the food is carried away, so are one’s sins.

The practice, which began in the Middle Ages, was inspired by a verse from the prophet Micah (Micah: 7:19):

God will take us back in love

God will cover up our iniquities

You (God) will hurl all our sins

Into the depths of the sea.

Can you work on Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah is meant to be a day of rest, not labor. The Torah expressly forbids one to do any work on Rosh Hashanah, as well as other major Jewish holy days.

The religious laws governing behavior on Rosh Hashanah can be complex.

It is permissible to cook on Rosh Hashanah, although there are certain important restrictions. Carrying items is also permitted – if the items are required for the holiday.

Orthodox Jews prohibit driving on the holiday. Reform and more liberal-minded Jews do not object to driving on the holiday. Orthodox Jews also forbid the lighting of a stove from scratch, although adjusting an existing flame on a stove is OK. That’s why Orthodox Jews will keep a candle burning for 24 hours a day during Rosh Hashanah.

What are Rosh Hashanah greetings?

If you’re not sure how to greet someone on Rosh Hashanah, you could just say “Shanah Tovah,” which means “good year” in Hebrew. The word “u’metuka” – meaning “and sweet” – is sometimes added to the end of that phrase as in “good and sweet year.”

A version of this story was originally published in 2019.

Follow Dwight Adams on Twitter: @hdwightadams.

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