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5 Facts to Know About Rosh Hashanah

As autumn approaches, so does Rosh Hashanah, also known as the Jewish New Year, or Feast of Trumpets. Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the first month of the Hebrew year and the 10-day period known as the Yamim Noraim, or Days of Awe, that lead up to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.

Whether you are observing the holiday, planning to celebrate with a friend, or just learning more about Jewish culture, here are five things you should know about Rosh Hashanah.

1. It’s the “head of the year.”

Rosh Hashanah is Hebrew for “head of the year,” and it is the celebration of the Jewish New Year. It is observed at the start of the month of Tishrei, which is the first month of the Hebrew year. The Hebrew calendar is lunisolar, meaning it is determined by the positions of both the sun and moon. Lunisolar years can range from 353 to 385 days, which is why Rosh Hashanah falls on a different Gregorian calendar day each year.

Jews take the phrase “head of the year” pretty literally. It is customary to serve the heads of fish as part of a Rosh Hashanah meal. Additionally, as the Los Angeles Times notes, many observers recite the phrase “May we be heads, not tails” — or leaders, not followers. This references the blessing “And the Lord will set you at the head, and not at the tail,” from Parshah Ki Tavo in Devarim, the fifth book of the Torah.

2. It gets loud.

The holiday is more commonly referred to as Rosh Hashanah, but the Biblical name for the Jewish New Year is Yom Teruah, translating roughly to “day of a massive shout.” During a traditional Rosh Hashanah service, a shofar — an ancient musical instrument usually made from a ram’s horn — is blown 100 times. It’s important that the shofar is fashioned from the horn of a kosher animal, meaning an animal that the Israelites were allowed to eat in accordance with the Torah passages Parashat Shmini and Parashat Re’eh. The blower of the shofar takes a deep breath, representing our inward reflection at the end of the year; then they blow air out of the horn, producing a loud noise that represents our ability to burst into the new year and make the world a better place.

To hear the blowing of the shofar, check out this video from a 2009 Rosh Hashanah celebration: 

3. Greet your Jewish friends and loved ones with “Shanah tovah.”

The traditional greeting during Rosh Hashanah is the phrase “Shanah tovah,” which translates to “Good year.” The typical response or addition to that greeting is “U’metuka,” meaning “and sweet.” Another versatile greeting that applies to Rosh Hashanah, and most other Jewish holidays, is “Chag sameach,” meaning “Happy festival.” 

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