What is Rosh Hashanah?
Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew: רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה, “The Head [of] the Year”), the Jewish New Year, is a two-day celebration, which begins on the first day of the Jewish month Tishrei (usually falling in September). It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days (יָמִים נוֹרָאִים Yamim Nora’im, literally “Days [of] Awe”) specified by Leviticus 23:23–32. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), literally “day [of] shouting/blasting”, since Torah prescribes sounding the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.
In Judaism, the day we celebrate as Rosh Hashana – the first of Tishrei – is not actually the anniversary of Creation, it is the anniversary of the sixth day of Creation, when Adam and Eve were created. The anniversary of the first day of Creation would be five days before, on the twenty-fifth day of Elul; however, according to the Jewish understanding, it’s only when man was created that the whole of creation became meaningful. “Everything was created earlier, but none of it was worthy of being called even the beginning of God’s handiwork until man opened his eyes to see it, his mind to comprehend it, his heart to guide it”
In Rabbinic tradition, the birth of humanity added to the universe the possibility for God to be proclaimed King. Therefore, God’s sovereignty and God’s Kingship are the main themes of Rosh Hashanah and the ten days of Judgment it opens. “Avinu Malkeinu” (Our Father, our King) prayer is recited daily from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.
Rosh Hashanah customs include attending synagogue services, sounding the shofar, and reciting special liturgy—and of course, enjoying festive meals and eating symbolic foods, such as apples dipped in honey – hoping for and wishing everybody Shanah Metuka – שנה מתוקה- A Sweet New Year!
The Head and Not the Tail
One of the symbolic foods (hardly the most appealing one) that it is customary to eat on Rosh HaShanah is the head of a fish. Before eating the head, the following blessing: is recited: May it be Your will, our God and the God of our forefathers, that we be as the head and not the tail.
What does that mean? Why do we say it? This blessing comes from Deuteronomy 28:13 And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not be beneath, if you heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and are careful to observe them.
There are different interpretations of the meaning of this blessing. According to Ramban, for instance, the blessing refers to the external political status of the nation of Israel: they “will always be at the top and never at the bottom” of the other nations. On the other hand, there were rabbis who thought that the blessing was about the quality of the leadership within the people of Israel.
The bottom line, however, is that this blessing refers to everyone. God wants us to transform reality, to shape it, instead of conforming to it and letting it shape us. The concept of ‘head’ indicates excellence and courage: the head walks ahead and leads, while the tail just follows behind others.
So as the New Year dawns, May you be the head and not the tail!
The Rosh Hashanah Reading
Two chapters of the Torah are read in synagogues during Rosh Hashanah. In the past my attention had always been drawn to the fact that Genesis 22, Akedat Itzhak, is read every Jewish New Year. It is highly significant that at each Rosh Hashanah, each New Year, this portion, Akedah, about the binding of Isaac is read. As I wrote in my book: “the people of Israel look at this story with mixed feelings of fear and wonder, understanding that it somehow bears significance to their fate.” Undoubtedly, most of my readers have read this chapter a number of times—the story of Isaac’s sacrifice, Aqedat Itzhak, is indeed the center and the culmination of Abraham’s life! For me personally, Genesis 22 had always symbolized the Sacrifice. The chapter itself seemed like a high and lonely Peak of unprecedented and inimitable obedience and faith. For many years, all the chapters around it had seemed to me much less significant, less important, almost vague and foggy in comparison with this daunting peak, clearly visible against the backdrop of heaven, a sharp, craggy silhouette with its frighteningly clear request. Thus, when I wrote a book about to the mystery of Israel’s sacrifice, it was based on Genesis 22 and opened with reflections on Genesis 22.
But then, just a few years ago, as I was writing another book, my heart was pierced by a sudden realization: for the first time ever I realized – though, of course, in my head I had known it all along – that every New Year, we also read Genesis 21. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, before Isaac’s story is read, we read the preceding chapter: Genesis 21, the story of Ishmael’s banishment. The Rosh Hashanah holiday consists of two days, as some of my readers may know, and these two chapters are read, side by side, every year. As a matter of fact, this is the only Jewish holiday that is celebrated for two days both in Israel and outside of Israel, as if it was cut out precisely for this reason: one day for each chapter. And, as always happens, once I saw it, it became so evident: once it was done, it could not be undone. All of a sudden the lonely Peak of Genesis 22 was not so lonely anymore. The Peak of Genesis 21 grew up alongside it, almost as high and daunting as the Peak of Genesis 22. There are two stories of sacrifice in Abraham’s life, not one. There are two sacrifices in the book of Genesis, not one, and today, in retrospect, I would re-word the sentences I just quoted from my book: “It is highly significant that at each Rosh Hashanah, each New Year these portions… are read.” Every year, our people look anew at those stories with renewed feelings of fear and wonder, “understanding that they somehow bear significance to their fate.” I have absolutely no doubt that indeed, both chapters and both stories bear significance to the fate of Israel—and this is the mystery we are reminded of every Rosh Hashana, as we are entering a new year of our lives.
If you are interested in learning more about this mystery and about the significance of both stories to the fate of Israel, you might be interested in reading my books based on these chapters: ”If you are Son of God” (Genesis 22) and “ Abraham had two Sons” (Genesis 21). You can get the books from my page: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/
As the people of Israel are about to be steeped in apples and honey and festive meals, in synagogues, prayers and shofars, I would like to use this wonderful opportunity to wish you all a very blessed Year! Rosh Hashanah presents a special opportunity to celebrate with our King and to grow in our efforts to remain close to Him throughout the coming year. I know, this is the desire of your hearts, and I thank the Lord for each one of you. It has been a joy and a privilege to have such appreciative readers – to get to know you and to serve you.
I would like to bless you , my dear readers, with this wonderful Rosh HaShana song that a friend of us, a professional singer, recorded specially for my readers. It is all about Rosh Hashana: about apples and honey, about the head of the fish, about the blessings. Enjoy! https://youtu.be/7B6u3kt-fzc
May you have a blessed Jewish New Year! L’Shanah Tovah!
 Rosh Hashanah, ArtScroll Mesorah Series, Mesora,Publications, 1983 – p. 16
 If You Be the Son of God, Come Down From the Cross, p.3
Join the conversation (28 comments)
Thank YOU Julia! Your teaching is much appreciated!
L’Shanah Tova to you, Julia, & all those at Israel Institute of Biblical Studies. I just returned on Monday from a week in Israel, my 2nd visit. Truly amazing & very different from my 1st “pilgrimage” tour, because this time I made my own arrangements & was traveling alone or day tours. Still, I did not visit every place or museum I wanted to cover; hence, I hope I can travel to Israel once more in another year.
Again, blessings for all the High Holy Days,
Thank you, Julia, for providing such interesting insights on Genesis 21 and 22. As always your blogs are spiritually uplifting.
May you have “A sweet New Year” and enjoy many blessings both on you and your family.
Shanah Tova, dear Julia! Thank you for your wonderful teaching and your good wishes. I wish you a blessed New Year, too and look forward to read your articles.
Thank you very much Dr. J Blum
May the LORD grant you Grace and Wisdom for the Wonderful Service you are doing.
Your articles are informative, easy to read, and result in an incentive to read and learn more about our Judeo-Christian tradition, so often ignored or down played in our own education. Thank you for your service.
This article is very interesting and it called my attention that the Arabs also celebrate a very “sacred” holiday when they kill a lamb remembering Abraham’s sacrifice of Ismael. They consider that Abraham did not sacrifice Isaac but his eldest son Ismael. During this festivity lambs in all sizes and materials are sold to remember this very special day. We were in Jerusalem on the day that this celebration was being held and the mosque was open on this ocasion for Muslim women to enter for the celebration. I am a Christian and believe that is was Isaac that was bound and laid on the altar, but it always calls my attention how closely related the two nations are in many rituals and teachings.
May you have a wonderful time during these festivities and may our precious Lord Jesus prove to be very real and close to you and to provide for all your neds. Ruth Symes
Yes, Ruth, you are so right, the stories and destinies of both nations, of Isaac and Ishmael, are absolutely intertwined. I hadn’t fully realized it before I started to write a book on two sons of Abraham, but I see it so clearly now.
Thank you, Julia, for your insight concerning the two sacrifices of Abraham. I love the way you enable me to see what I never saw before. Shana Tova! Ellen
Thank you Ellen, for your kind words. My book “Abraham had two sons ” is all about these two sacrifices, maybe you will bee interested to check it out.
Thank you for sharing the Messianic Jewish prospective of the Jewish Holidays. Rabbi Saul went out of his way to go to Jerusalem to celebrate the three Holidays that required the Jews to be in Jerusalem in order to celebrate. People don’t understand that we as Jews who believe in Yeshua are JEWS no less Jews than those who looked forward to the coming of the Messiah promised through our Jewish scriptures!! The whole Scriptures from Bereshit to Revelation were written by Jews! We Jewish Believers in Yeshua are fulfilling our calling, “to be a light to the Gentiles and a blessing to the world.” We are the Remnant of Israel today!!!!
I don’t know the professor’s beliefs but to me, the whole point is Abraham’s word to Isaac, “God himself will provide a lamb”, which He fulfilled with the ram in the bush but we look to the greater fulfillment heralded by John the Baptist’s words, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
That was so beautiful, so enlightening, thank you. Shanah Tova! This enriches my life, my understanding is increasing in these beautiful feasts, holy days of the Lord.
Thank you Sheila, I am so glad you find it helpful.