What is Rosh Hashanah? Here's what you need to know about the Jewish New Year

Rosh Hashanah is one of the most important holidays for Jewish people around the world.

The name “Rosh Hashanah” translates from Hebrew to mean “the head of the year,” and the holiday marks the start of the Jewish New Year. During the two-day celebration, your Jewish friends or coworkers might take time away from work to attend synagogue, eat foods such as apples and honey or say prayers near a body of water.

But why is Rosh Hashanah important? And what do traditions like eating a round challah mean for Jewish communities? Here’s what you need to know about Rosh Hashanah celebrations:

Why is Rosh Hashanah important?

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days that lead up to Yom Kippur, the most sacred day for Jewish people.

The celebration of the new year marks the beginning of the 10 “Days of Awe,” a time when Jews reflect and repent ahead of Yom Kippur.

Samira Mehta, the director of undergraduate studies in the program for Jewish studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, explained to USA TODAY that the “Book of Life,” which symbolizes how Jewish people will be judged for the coming year, "opens" on Rosh Hashanah and is “sealed” on Yom Kippur.

“Rosh Hashanah sort of opens the period of intense retrospection that leads up to that moment of atonement,” Mehta said. “But it's also a joyous holiday in which people celebrate and hope for a sweet new year, a happier, an enriching New Year.”

Rabbi Charlie Schwartz, senior director of Jewish education at Hillel International, called Rosh Hashanah “a time of reflection and reset and reevaluation.”

“It's a time to reflect and evaluate, and to think about what you want to do differently and what you want to achieve in the upcoming year,” Schwartz said.

When is Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah starts at sunset on Monday, and it continues through sunset on Wednesday.

Rosh Hashanah is the only Jewish holiday that is two days long both outside and inside of Israel. The celebration is called yoma arichta, translated as “a long day,” because the 48-hour holiday is considered to be one extended day.

Tip: If you want to greet a Jewish friend or family member on Rosh Hashanah, you could say “Shanah Tovah,” which means “good year” in Hebrew.

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How do Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah?

Jewish communities around the world have embraced different celebrations for Rosh Hashanah.

Some of the most common celebrations for Jews in the United States include eating apples and honey, which is meant to usher in a sweet new year.

Others eat challah, a braided bread, in a round loaf to represent the cycle of the year. Pomegranate seeds are also eaten to represent the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah, the Jewish holy book.

“There’s a great custom of having symbolic foods that are symbolic of what we’re hoping for in the coming year,” Schwartz said.

Some Jews may also recite prayers near a body of water during a Tashlich ceremony, in addition to tossing pieces of bread or other food into the water to symbolize “casting off” sins.

Synagogues will also blow a shofar, a curved ram's horn, during Rosh Hashanah.

There are many interpretations of the shofar’s meaning. One is that it represents the biblical story told in Genesis, in which Abraham sacrifices a ram instead of his son, Isaac.

Rabbis have also interpreted the loud blast of the shofar as a wake-up call for the new year. Schwartz called the sounding of the shofar “the pinnacle of the Rosh Hashanah service in synagogues.”

“It's an ancient sound that kind of transports you back to the whole expanse of Jewish history. It’s supposed to awaken us to the possibility of transformation,” he said.

How will the pandemic change Rosh Hashanah celebrations this year?

Synagogues across the country are taking different approaches to holding services for Rosh Hashanah during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Some synagogues will hold services in person with no vaccine mandate, while others might ask members to be vaccinated or test negative for COVID-19. Other temples will hold services virtually or outside and socially distanced.

Mehta noted that some communities are struggling with how to include children under the age of 12 who cannot be vaccinated, citing the Jewish concept of “l’dor v’dor,” which means passing traditions from generation to generation.

“The idea of putting unvaccinated children at risk is very troubling to these communities, but also the idea of excluding them,” Mehta said. “How do you make a service meaningful for children? Can it be done over Zoom? Can it be done outside?"

Schwartz said that some synagogues, Jewish communities on college and university campuses and other groups are “trying to be as flexible as possible” with implementing safety precautions for services.

“The High Holidays are an opportunity to think hard about who we want to be and how we want to be in the world,” he said. “And I think at this moment in the pandemic, as we're starting to reemerge, starting to think about like what the world might look like in the future, it's a perfect time to think ‘OK, so here are the things that we've learned. Here’s how we want to change.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rosh Hashanah 2021 dates: What to know about the Jewish holiday