Some fun facts about Rosh Hashanah

We all have learned the facts behind the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

That the holiday begins on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, which falls this year on Sept. 6. Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world and marks the beginning of the Days of Awe, a 10-day period of introspection and repentance that culminates in Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the two High Holy Days in Judaism.

But there are some lesser-known facts that surround the holiday that we thought would be fun to share.

Rosh means head

Although considered the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah does not mean “New Year” in Hebrew. The translation is actually “Head of the Year.” Just like your head (or more specifically, your brain) tells your body what to do, your actions and behavior on Rosh Hashanah has far-reaching consequences for the entire year.

Among the many blessings in Deuteronomy 28 we read, “God will make you the head, not the tail,” and it is customary in some communities at the meal on the night of Rosh Hashanah to recite this blessing, ending it with the words, “may it be so.”

It is also customary to then eat the head of a fish, but for those who are squeamish you can substitute gummy fish or fish-shaped crackers for the real thing.

What day is it?

The Jewish calendar follows a lunar schedule, with each month beginning on the new moon. So while Jewish holidays fall on the same day of the Jewish calendar each year, because the Jewish year is not the same length as a solar year on the Gregorian calendar (which is what the calendar on your smartphone is based on and what most of the Western world goes by) the dates shift annually.

To further add to the confusion, the Talmud in Rosh Hashanah explains that Yom Kippur shouldn’t fall on the day before or after Shabbat, since two consecutive days when preparing food and burying the dead is prohibited, could be problematic. The first morning of Rosh Hashanah can be Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Shabbat – never Sunday, Wednesday or Friday. If Rosh Hashanah were to fall on a Friday, Yom Kippur would fall on a Sunday.

Thank goodness in this day and age we can just Google, “When does Rosh Hashanah start?” and get our answer immediately. Or, if you want all the Jewish holiday dates at your fingertips, download Luach (the Hebrew word for calendar) by Penticon for Apple and Android mobile devices.

Shofar spray

It only makes sense that a shofar would have a pungent odor, being that it once was connected to a living animal. The good news is that you can purchase “shofar odor neutralizer spray” on Amazon from several different vendors for under $20.

From the reviews, the sprays are successful although sometimes more than one application is necessary. One reviewer even recommended other uses for the spray that included applying it to the in spout of a vacuum cleaner, under the dashboard in the car and between the shoulder blades of their Great Dane.

Pass the pomegranate, not the pickles

Pomegranates, apples and honey are all foods that are symbolic to the holiday Rosh Hashanah.

Every pomegranate is believed to contain 613 seeds. This number just happens to be identical to the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. So, eating a pomegranate can be a symbolic way to display the desire to fulfill the mitzvot.

The pomegranate is also written about in the Bible as one of the seven species identified within the land of Israel, and the fruit is depicted on the Temple King Solomon built in Jerusalem.

We all know that eating apples dipped in honey facilitates that the new year will be a sweet one. But did you know that the opposite holds true as well? If you refrain from eating pickles, lemons and other sour foods at this time, you most certainly will avoid an unpleasant year ahead.

A solemn song

The song, “Who By Fire,” written by Leonard Cohen is based upon the U’Netaneh Tokef. This prayer is chanted on both days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur.

The singer-songwriter shared the origins of the song in the 1980 documentary by Harry Rasky, The Song of Leonard Cohen:

“That song derives very directly from a Hebrew prayer that is sung on the Day of Atonement, or the evening of the Day of the Atonement. Who by fire, who by sword, who by water? According to the tradition, the Book of Life is opened and in it is inscribed all those who will live and all those who will die for the following year. And in that prayer is catalogued all the various ways in which you can quit this veil of tears. The melody if not actually stolen, is certainly derived from the melody that I heard in the synagogue as a boy. But of course, the conclusion of the song, as I write it, is somewhat different, ‘Who shall I say is calling?’ Well, that is what makes the song into a prayer for me in my terms, which is who is it or what is it that determine who will live and who will die? What is the source of this great furnace of creation? Who lights it? Who extinguishes it?”

No napping

Even though napping on Shabbat is considered a physical pleasure and therefore a mitzvah (and a proper way to celebrate the day of rest), on Rosh Hashanah we make a point of not napping.

Some people will even stay awake at night so as not to waste a precious moment on something as trivial as shuteye. The Talmud states that if one sleeps at the beginning of the year – i.e., on Rosh Hashanah – his good fortune also sleeps.

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