6 Rosh Hashanah Customs at Home by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
Ways to connect on Rosh Hashanah when you’re not in synagogue.
Rosh Hashanah is a majestic holiday and much of its power comes from grand experiences of communal prayer. Yet some people, especially mothers with young children, need to stay home of Rosh Hashanah. But that doesn’t mean you need to miss out on the beauty and intensity of Rosh Hashanah.
Here are six traditional ways to celebrate Rosh Hashanah at home.
Lighting Candles and the Power of Women’s Prayer
Like all Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah begins with a quiet moment at home as the women of the household light candles ushering in the day. (In homes where there are no women, a man lights the candles instead.)
The candles are lit, then the woman covers her eyes and recites two blessings:
Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the light of Yom Tov.
Blessed are you, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
This powerful moment harks back thousands of years to the first matriarch, Sarah. Together with her husband Abraham, Sarah set forth into the wilderness, dedicating her life to spreading the word that there is only one God and to teaching the world about kind through her incredible warmth and hospitality. Sarah’s home was the ideal prototype for what a Jewish home should be: it was open on all sides, so that Sarah and Abraham could better spot guests and hasten to invite them in. It was a place where all felt refreshed, both physically through the abundant food and drink that Sarah prepared, and spiritually as well.
Jewish tradition relates that Friday evening, Sarah would light Shabbat candles, and instead of burning out, they’d burn steadfastly all week long, until the following Friday, symbolizing the holy atmosphere Sarah managed to create in her home. Jewish women today trace their heritage back to Sarah, and by lighting our own Shabbat and holiday candles we’re following in her footsteps and bringing a feeling of sanctity into our homes. This is our moment to draw on her strength and example and visualize what we hope for in our own lives and homes.
Once the candles are lit, it’s customary for Jewish women to take a moment to pray. Some women take this opportunity to bless their children, or to formulate their own prayer expressing their individual hopes. Some women say a beautiful prayer asking for divine help in raising their family, and remembering the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. This timeless prayer can be found in many standard prayer books, including The Classic Artscroll Siddur. This is your moment to pour your heart out to God, expressing all that you hope and wish for in the coming year. It’s a powerful spiritual moment if we choose to use it.
Rosh Hashanah Greetings
On Rosh Hashanah the very way we greet people contains blessings and conveys our hopes that others have a good year ahead.
The first night of Rosh Hashanah, Jews wish “For a good year may you be inscribed and sealed” (in the book of life). Some Jews add “immediately, for a good life and for peace.”
For the rest of the holiday, it’s customary to wish each other a Ketivah v’Chatima Tova, “a Good Inscription and a Good Sealing (in the Book of Life)”. Some Jews also merely wish each other Shana Tova, or “a Good Year” on Rosh Hashanah. Bestowing blessings on others this way creates a bond, drawing us closer to our fellow Jews on Rosh Hashanah as we launch a new year.
One of the most joyous aspects of Rosh Hashanah is the festive meals that families and friends come together after synagogue. It’s traditional to have special dinners and lunches on both days of the holiday. These don’t have to be elaborate, but it is customary to set a nice table with a tablecloth, use good dishes, and dress up for the meals.
As on other Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah meals feature Kiddush over wine or grape juice and two loaves of challah bread. (On Rosh Hashanah it’s customary to use round challah instead of braided loaves: this symbolizes the circle of life and the beginning of the Jewish year.) Instead of dipping our challah into salt, as on Shabbat, on Rosh Hashanah we dip it into honey to signify a sweet new year.
Beyond Apples and Honey
Eating apples dipped in honey is a time-honoured Rosh Hashanah practice: the sweetness of fruit and honey is said to portend a sweet new year. Apples and honey are only two of many simanim, or foods that help evoke our hopes and dreams for the coming year. There’s a plethora of other auspicious food and it can be fun to try. These unusual foods and blessings add a new dimension to our family feasts and gets us all thinking about what we wish for in the new year.
Here are a few traditional simanim and their blessings to get you started. It’s traditional to eat them at the beginning of the meal before the first course.
Apples and Honey symbolize sweetness. First it’s traditional to recite the blessing over apples: Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the Universe, Who creates the fruit of the tree. Then after eating the apple: May it be Your will, Hashem, our God and the God of our forefathers, that You renew for us a good and a sweet new year.
Fish traditionally was seen as a Jewish holiday delicacy. This is another siman; it’s customary to eat fish then recite: May it be Your will, Hashem our God and the God of our forefathers, that we be fruitful and multiply like fish.
Fish Head might seem a little off-putting but many kosher grocery stores sell or give them away just for this. Just as Rosh Hashanah is literally the “head” of the year, so too fish heads remind us that we’re at the beginning, with an entire new year and blank slate before us. It recalls God’s promise that if we keep the commandments, we will triumph over our enemies: “God shall place you as a head and not as a tail; you shall be only above and you shall not be below – if you hearken to the commandments of Hashem, Your God” (Deuteronomy 28:13).
Pomegranates are a common theme in Jewish art and culture. In ancient times, the Cohanim who worked in the Temple in Jerusalem used to wear beautiful white robes with golden pomegranates and bells lining the hems. That’s because pomegranates are full of seeds – some say 613, the same number of mitzvot that are in the Torah. This juicy fruit reminds of the many mitzvot that we can do. It’s traditional to eat some pomegranate and say: May it be Your will, Hashem our God and the God of our forefathers, that our merits increase as (the seeds of) a pomegranate.
These and the blessings for other simanim can be found in Jewish prayer books and Rosh Hashanah machzorim (special prayer books for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).
Rosh Hashanah is a time of first starts and new beginnings. One aspect of this is eating a new fruit – one we haven’t tasted in at least a year – before dinner on the holiday’s second night.
As on other holidays, on Rosh Hashanah we recite a blessing for new things, the Shechiyanu prayer, during dinner, right after the Kiddush over wine or grape juice.
Blessed are you, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.
On the first night, this blessing refers to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. On the second night, it also refers to a new fruit that’s sitting on the table. After Kiddush, it’s customary to pass out slices of fruit. In my home we try to get as creative as we can: in the past we’ve sampled dragon fruit, Asian pears, jackfruit and rambutans. Shopping for these unusual delicacies is a fun way to get in the mood for Rosh Hashanah; sampling them together turns us all into amateur gourmets, as we exchange thoughts about our new fruit. It’s an unusual and entertaining way to get the second Rosh Hashanah dinner started.
One of the most beautiful Rosh Hashanah customs doesn’t take place in synagogue. On the first day of the holiday (or the second day if the first coincided with Shabbat or if you couldn’t make it for some reason), after lunch, Jews walk to a nearby body of water (a stream or pond will do) and symbolically cast away their sins from the previous year. (If no body of water is nearby, then perform Tashlich after Rosh Hashanah when it’s convenient. Tashlich should be performed before the conclusion of Sukkot.)
The custom of Tashlich began in Medieval times. There are a number of mystical explanations for this beautiful ceremony, including recalling the ancient Kings of Israel, who were crowned next to bodies of water. We think of them now on Rosh Hashanah when we contemplate God as the “King” over the world. In traditional Jewish thought water is said to represent the beautify of the Torah. As we stand next to ponds or streams, we recall this beautiful image: just as water is necessary to nourish our bodies, Torah is needed to nourish our souls.
The brief Tashlich ceremony is contained in Rosh Hashanah machzorim (prayer books).
Rosh Hashanah can be a hectic day: synagogue services can last for hours and many of us have plans with relatives and friends for the festive meals. It can be hard to carve out time for reflection, but doing so can remind us what the day is all about and keep us focused.
When my kids were very young, I didn’t always make it to synagogue. I would recite the prayers from the machzor at home, and also say my own personal prayers that came directly from my heart. The Talmud explains that “On Rosh Hashanah all the people of the world pass before (God)” one by one (Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:3). This is our time to commune with the Divine, our moment to connect. The gates of prayer are always open, but on Rosh Hashanah they are opened particularly wide. No matter what your plans, don’t let the day go by without a moment of prayer and reflection.
We each need this day and the chance it offers to connect with the Divine. This year, may we all use it to reach new spiritual heights and pray for a wonderful year ahead. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a sweet new year.