Rosh Hashanah Customs

Suggestions for bringing the messages of the New Year home from synagogue.

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More than any other Jewish holidays, the High Holidays take place in the synagogue. While most Jews associate Passover, Hanukkah, and Shabbat primarily with home celebrations, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur conjure up memories of hours spent in services.

But these synagogue-based holidays can be enhanced through home rituals that add meaning to the messages of the day. Here are some ideas, old and new, for bringing the lessons and themes of Rosh Hashanah into your home.

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Foods for a Sweet Year

As with most Jewish holidays, food is the focus of home celebrations of Rosh Hashanah. Families and friends gather for extended meals, which include traditional foods, such as apples and challah dipped in honey. Honey, a symbol of the wish for a sweet new year, also appears in other holiday foods, such as tayglach----a honey and nut pastry----and honey cake. The challah, normally braided, is round, as a reminder of the never-ending cycle of life.

Like other festival and Shabbat meals, the Rosh Hashanah meal begins with Kiddush, the sanctification of the day over the wine. Both at dinner and at lunch, the Rosh Hashanah Kiddush includes a reference to the shofar, the most prominent symbol of the holiday.

In some families, it is traditional to serve the head of a fish or lamb (though meat substitutes would also do the trick for vegetarians) in the hope that everyone at the table will be at the "head" and not at the "tail" of whatever they do in the new year. You might add personal meaning to these rituals by asking everyone at the table to offer a wish for the new year as he or she dips the apple or challah in honey.

New Fruit

On the second night of Rosh Hashanah, it is common to eat a "new fruit"--a fruit that participants have not tasted for a long time. This tradition has become a way literally to taste the newness of the year, by enjoying an unfamiliar food. Often, a pomegranate is used as the new fruit, as the pomegranate is said to have 613 seeds, corresponding to the 613 mitzvot. The pomegranate has also long been a symbol of fertility, and thus of the unlimited possibilities for the new year.

The tradition of eating a new fruit need not, however, be restricted to pomegranates. Instead, this ritual can be an excuse for scouting out the "exotic fruit" section of the produce department, or exploring fruit markets to find fruits that family members have not before tasted. (Interestingly, the custom developed as a technical solution to a legal difficulty surrounding the recitation of the shehehiyanu blessing on the second day of the holiday. The blessing, usually recited to commemorate a new situation, is said on the second day of Rosh Hashanah both in honor of the day and the new fruit.)

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Rabbi Jill Jacobs

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. She previously served as the Rabbi-in-Residence for the Jewish Funds for Justice.