Writing Jewish Characters: Rosh Hashanah

Updated: Feb 22


Happy New Year, everyone! Today in writing Jewish characters, we’ll be discussing the first of the two holidays which jointly are called the High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah, which literally means head of the year, is the holiday on which Jews celebrate the birthday of the world and the start of the Jewish year.

It’s a two day holiday, which happens on the 1st and 2nd days of Tishrei. We’re still in an average year, so this year it’s falling from sundown on September 20th to sundown on September 22nd. However, it can fall as early as September 4th or as late as October 5th. For future/past dates, look it up!

I’ll also be discussing preparation and a few smaller observances - plus the time leading up to Yom Kippur. (Though that holiday is big enough to be its own post; look for it next week!)

Preparation - The Month of Elul

As the High Holy Day period centers around repentance, we begin a month early with self-reflection and penitential prayers during the month of Elul. The shofar, a hollowed-out and preserved ram’s horn, is blown every day other than Shabbat, and certain prayers are added to each service.

Less observant Jews won’t do much for this month. As in, I haven’t even been to synagogue once.

What I do notice happening is emails - while I’m not (personally) a member of a synagogue, I have signed up for some young adult programs at one and therefore had my email added to a list. Every day in Elul except Shabbat, I’ve received an email about Yamim Nora’im (the days of awe - the entire period from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur). Each email is different, but they’re all related to the subject, and often based around self-reflection and repentance.

I’ve also been receiving emails about upcoming programs and details for High Holy Day services, including info on getting tickets to services (look below) and other related programming.

Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah, like all top-level Jewish holidays, is considered Chag, or a holy day. The no work rules (see this post) do apply.

The traditional greeting is “L’Shana Tova,” which literally means “to (a) good year.” (Hebrew drops articles.)

Observance of Rosh Hashanah is fairly straightforward. There’s four main parts to it: synagogue, clothing, shofar, and food.

Synagogue (and Prayer)

You know how you get Christmas-and-Easter Christians, the ones who only go to church on Christmas and Easter? The equivalent in Judaism is Rosh-Hashana-and-Yom-Kippur Jews, though we don’t really use that terminology specifically. But if Jews are going to go to synagogue two days a year, it will be the first day of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. So your characters will likely go, and may in fact use work vacation days in order to do so. This includes otherwise non-observant Jews, especially on the first day. The second day, fewer will go to synagogue and more will do other things (such as school or work) instead.

Unless you work at a Jewish organization or go to a Jewish college (ex. Brandeis), your job will almost certainly not close on these days. But in the northeast, jobs/professors are generally understanding when you want to take days off for the holidays. This is less likely to be the case in other parts of the US/world. In New York City and the surrounding areas, public schools will be closed on both days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, so even non-Jews will have to deal with their children.

Jewish student groups at colleges will hold their own services, and while some students will go home, a lot will stay at school. (I personally always went home on Yom Kippur, which is a more important holiday, and stayed at school for Rosh Hashanah.)

The overabundance of worshipers often makes seating a bit of a hassle at synagogues, as the number of people who show up is far higher than any other day (at least at Reform and Conservative synagogues, probably less so at Orthodox, where more people come every day/week). In my experience, they tend to handle it by requiring tickets, which generally must be purchased ahead of time. This is also because using money is one of the things you can’t do on Chag, so buying tickets at the synagogue won’t work.

Some synagogues just give them out to all members, but many use it as a fundraising drive for the year - with different sections costing different amounts of money. If you can’t afford the tickets, the synagogue will usually work with you to get at least the cheapest option, quite possibly for free. Some synagogues don’t have assigned seating, but others very much do. And as with any place with assigned seating (or without, for that matter!), people will defend their seats.

Another way synagogues solve this is to hold multiple services (often still requiring tickets). For instance, the Conservative synagogue I go to holds a general service, a family service, a study service, and various kids/teens services. A local Reform synagogue puts up a tent and holds a second service out there, with one in their sanctuary, as well as family and kids services.

Services are held at all the usual times (morning/afternoon/evening, when I get to a Shabbat post I’ll go through that in detail), though they tend to run fairly long - my synagogue will start morning services at 9 am and if we end before 1:30 pm it’ll honestly be early. There’s various prayers that are added, including study, a Torah service (in which the Torah - the Hebrew Bible - is read), and songs.

One common theme that comes up is the book of life - traditionally, the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is when God decides everyone’s fate for the year. There’s a phrase that’s repeated a lot: On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. You’ve got ten days to change God’s mind about letting you live, so prayer/repentance is a big part of this.

One small (but important) observance is saying shehechiyanu (the prayer you say when you do something for the first time) literally every time you say a blessing, as it’s the first time you’re doing that thing that year. This applies to literally everything, from lighting candles to blessings over bread.

Clothing

While most synagogues don’t have official dress codes, there is definitely a norm that most people adhere to, though it does depend on the synagogue (and the denomination). If your characters aren’t dressed appropriately, they will notice.

At an Orthodox synagogue, adult men (aka over 13) will wear a kittel (a white linen robe) and a tallit (prayer shawl) over their nice clothes (often suits or at least long sleeved button down shirts and nice pants). They will also wear a kippah (yarmulke) on their heads (truly Orthodox men will wear this at all times). Boys will wear the kippah and tzitzit (a child-friendly version of a tallit).

Women will dress in a specific way, with skirts that at least cover their knees and shirts that at least cover their elbows. Married Orthodox women also cover their hair (some at all times, some just in certain circumstances but synagogue is definitely included), using either a scarf or a wig, or, in less Orthodox groups, a hat. Women do not wear any of the ritual garments men do.

Conservative and Reform Jews don’t dress quite as chastely as Orthodox ones, but some of these rules will still hold - it’ll just be more of a choice. Men will still wear variations on suits and often the kittel/tallit/kippah (the kippah almost certainly while in synagogue, the tallit likely, the kittel is the least likely but still common), but boys are much less likely to wear the tzitzit and will just wear the kippah.

Women often wear skirts, though they’re not required (I know some women who only wear pantsuits to synagogue) and the lengths are less of an issue. Shoulders are likely to be covered, elbows less so. In Conservative/Reform synagogues, some women will wear the kippah/tallit/kittel, especially ones who are Rabbis or Cantors. Some (but not all) married women will cover their hair, though usually with a hat, a kippah, or a doily. Yes, a doily. It’s a thing.

Clothing differences often turn into somebody complaining about the temperature of the synagogue. After all, if a man is wearing a suit, a tallit, and a kittel, while a woman is wearing a knee-length dress with no layers, someone is going to be unhappy no matter what temperature it is!

Shofar

The most important part of the prayer service, and the part that will be noticed, is the shofar service. This is a specific section which is repeated multiple times throughout the service and the day, in which someone (usually the Rabbi) calls the note that the shofar blower is supposed to play, and then they play it.

There are three types of notes and two variations. Teki’ah is one long note. Shevarim is three short notes. Teru’ah is nine very fast notes. The two variations are Teki’ah Gedolah, which is a super long Teki’ah (often until the blower literally runs out of breath) and Shevarim Teru’ah, which is those two done in a row. If you’d like to hear these notes, you can do that here.

The shofar is not blown on Shabbat, because playing music counts as work, and while that exception can be made for Rosh Hashanah, it won’t be made for Shabbat. So if the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat (the second can’t, but the first can), the shofar will not be blown that day and will instead be saved for the second day.

Food

As for food… well, the tradition is primarily for round foods - round challahs and apples are particularly common - to symbolize the continuity of the year. Honey is also important, to symbolize a sweet new year. So you dip your apples in honey, and also your challah. If you haven’t tried that, it’s worth it.

Other than that, there is no universal food; every family/community will have their own traditional foods. In my personal experience, brisket is particularly common, as is matzah ball soup (it’s common to most holidays, let’s be honest). Honey cake is also a big one. And of course gefilte fish. Many families will serve kugels and such. But really, it’s dependent on your individual family/community.

In my experience, there will always be some sort of holiday meal. While it’s not technically part of the observance, who doesn’t like food? It’s a good time to gather family as well. This can easily be dinner one evening or lunch after synagogue one afternoon, depending on your family and their schedule. Or it could be more than one meal with different sides of the family!

As a personal example, my aunt and uncle host a dinner the first night every year for their family, their siblings/nieces/nephews, a few friends, and, when they were alive, their parents. My mother meanwhile hosts a lunch the first day every year for our immediate family and a few friends. Another family friend hosts a large gathering in the afternoon/evening of the second day, for their family and a lot of friends. (One year, I had dinner with my then-boyfriend’s family the night before, dinner with my uncle’s family the first night, lunch at my mom’s the first day, and dinner at the family friend’s house the second day. All four meals served brisket. It was a busy holiday!)

This is absolutely a holiday meal that you invite a significant other or friends to (I have a friend whose family lives out in Colorado who comes to my parents’ for most major Jewish holidays because travel is expensive and time-consuming). And luckily, unlike Passover, there’s very few rules/steps! Just quick blessings over wine and bread (maybe two minutes total) and, in more religious families, grace after meals.

If you’re writing college students, a Jewish student group will almost certainly hold at least one meal for the holiday, quite possibly more. It’s been a while since I graduated, so I don’t clearly remember.

Tashlikh

Tashlikh is a small service that happens in the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, unless it’s Shabbat, in which case it’s put off to the second day.

The community gathers (sometimes multiple synagogues at once) at a large body of naturally moving water (we go to the local harbor on Long Island Sound). Prayers are said and broken up bread is cast into the water, to symbolize sins being cast into the sea. It’s part of the whole atonement/repentance thing that’s such a major part of this time of the year. I always enjoy it.

Really, it’s a time to connect with the community - I spend as much time wandering around and saying hi to all my mom’s friends as I do actually on the service. If your character has returned to see their parents, this is when they’ll get all those “fun” invasive questions about who they’re dating and how their life is going from the synagogue adults.

The Ten Days of Repentance (Aseret Y’may T’shuvah) and Tzom Gedaliah

These ten days are sort of the entire holiday plus - they cover everything from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. This is the period when Jews seek repentance and forgiveness for sins they committed in the past year. The Shabbat that falls during this period (the one that’s not on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur if either is) is called Shabbat Shuvah, or the Shabbat of repentance.

That applies to both God and other people. If you’ve committed a sin against someone else, you have to ask them, not God, for forgiveness. In fact, you’re only allowed to ask God after you’ve asked them three times and they’ve refused you all three.

Traditionally, a lot of Jews will go to other people and ask for forgiveness for any wrongs they’ve committed. If you have a Jewish character, this is a good time to have them apologize for something they did wrong. Or even something that wasn’t intentionally wrong, but that hurt another person.

You want to give charity during this period - tzedakah (charity) is one way of mitigating God’s possible anger.

There’s one last small observance: Tzom Gedaliah, which is a minor fast day, falls the day after Rosh Hashana on the 3rd or 4th of Tishrei, between September 7th and October 6th. It should fall on the 3rd every year, but since no fast day other than Yom Kippur can be on Shabbat, if the 3rd is Shabbat, it falls on the 4th. Yeah, Judaism is complicated.

It is a minor fast day (for the rules, see this post). The no work rules do not apply. It observes the death of the rightful governor of Judah - Gedaliah. It’s not a huge deal and non-observant Jews won’t bother.

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