The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana ("Head of the Year" in Hebrew), is an occasion for celebration and feasting but also for introspection and reflection. Marking the "birthday of the world" -- the creation of the universe some six millennia ago, according to the traditional reckoning -- it falls on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and is commonly celebrated for two days.
Because Judaism uses a lunar calendar adjusted to the solar year, the holiday can fall anywhere from mid-September to mid-October, and people often speak of Rosh Hashana coming early (as it does this year) or late -- but, as the joke goes, never quite on time.
"On time," however, might be at the solar equinox, for Rosh Hashana is concerned with balance, with weighing and with judgment -- like the scales of Libra, the astrological sign associated with this time of year. As daylight and darkness even out and summer slowly fades, it seems as if a larger drama framing human lives is being acted out above. It's to this drama, its Creator and the individual in relationship to it, rather than to events in Jewish history, that Rosh Hashana directs itself. The holiday does not neglect festive meals, holiday clothes and family get-togethers, but its themes are existential, focusing on rigorous self-examination, free will and the possibility of personal change.
Wearing this hat, under the name Yom ha'Din, the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashana asks that individuals assess themselves to see where they have fallen short in their relationship to their inner selves, to their loved ones, to their community and to God. Because the holiday urges return to the inner self, it has a feeling of homecoming embedded in it. This promise of homecoming may explain why even many Jews who feel disconnected from Judaism the rest of the year bring themselves back to synagogue on these High Holidays.
Rosh Hashana is also called Yom Teruah, the day of sounding the shofar, or ram's horn, whose piercing blast is the primary symbol of the holiday. The practice of blowing the shofar is mandated by biblical law, and though the Bible offers no justification, the shofar sounds can be understood as a way of waking the inner person to self-examination, change and recommitment to the moral and ethical requirements of Jewish life.
The holiday's tropism toward the philosophical and internal is corrected, so to speak, by an array of appealing customs. Among the best-known is eating apple slices dipped in honey with a wish for a sweet year. Many people also follow a custom of eating symbolic foods at the start of Rosh Hashana meals, with a spoken word play that explains their symbolism (see page 36). For example -- to carry the verbal play into English, as many people do -- beets may be served to express the hope that our opponents will not "beat" us. The head of a fish (or even a sheep) suggests, "May we be the head and not the tail."
The braided breads typical on Jewish festivals are exchanged for round loaves, to allude to the cycles of time. Some bakers decorate them with such motifs as a ladder (to recall the ladder that the biblical Jacob saw connecting heaven to earth). At Tashlich, from the Hebrew word meaning "to send," individuals or congregations go to a river or pond to symbolically empty their pockets, as if to cast the mistakes of the past year into the flowing water.
The process of personal realignment is begun on Rosh Hashana, but the struggle with the self isn't likely to be completed in a day or two of feasting or even praying. Rosh Hashana initiates the period of the Days of Awe, an extended opportunity for making amends to others and for clarifying one's own heart that culminates 10 days later in the austere and yet joyful fast of Yom Kippur.