Shanah Tova!

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”[1]

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.[2]

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[3]: “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:


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!    

May you have a blessed Jewish New Year!  L’Shanah Tovah!

[1] Rosh Hashanah, ArtScroll Mesorah Series, Mesora,Publications, 1983 – p.  16

[2] Deut.28:13

[3] If You Be the Son of God, Come Down From the Cross, p.3

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

You might also be interested in:

Where To Study Biblical Hebrew –...

By Julia Blum

The Lessons Of Exodus

By Julia Blum

Join the conversation (28 comments)

Leave a Reply

  1. shelly swanby

    IM only part Jewish, My great great grandparents were from Poland and went to Norway then to the states , I don’t know Hebrew or understand it. This might sound weird, but last night I had a dream and someone kept saying to me ,”Ha shanah tov” What does this mean?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Shelly, welcome to this blog. The words “Ha shanah tov” by themselves don’t really make sense in Hebrew, but it might be part of expression “hashanah hatova” – “good year”, or “hashanah yihye tov” – “(it)will be good, this year”. In any case, tov means good, so what you heard in the dream was probably a good news. Hope it helps.

  2. Anthony Bradshaw

    I am very greatful for the insights that you share, I am working on getting a visa card, so that I can in list in one of the courses. God bless you and all the other teachers.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Anthony, for your kind words. I am sure you will enjoy our courses greatly. PLease contact me once you ready to sigh up for a course, I will be able to provide a discount.

  3. Chris Whitaker

    Hi Julia

    According to Exodus, Moses was told by God that the first month was the month of Aviv, Nisan as it is known today. This would indicate that this month is the start of the new year as it is with the Sacred Calendar.

    My question is when did the Civil Calendar start and what historical evidence is there for it?

    1. Julia Blum

      You are right, Chris: in biblical times, the month we call Tishrei, was explicitly called “the seventh month”. During the First Temple period (8th to mid-6th century BCE), the year began in the spring, on the first day of Nisan. In Torah, the first of Tishrei, celebrated as Rosh Hashanah today, is referred to as “a memorial of blowing of trumpets” (Lev.23:24). However, after the Jews had returned to Israel from Babylonian exile, their religious practices had profoundly changed compared with the pre-exile era. Among these changes, were new, Bablynoian names of the months: Tishrei for example is a Babylonian month (from the Akkadian word tishritu – “beginning.”)
      We don’t exactly know when Rosh Hashanah began to be celebrated, but most scholars agree that it was during the Second Temple period. We first hear about it in the early rabbinic literature, from about 200 CE.

  4. Julia Blum

    I want to thank everybody who left a comment here, for your warm words and kind wishes! I am really touched and blessed by your generous words!

  5. Antwi Felix Twum

    Reading Genesis 21 and 22 during Rosh Hashanah festival; hmm, Prof. Julia you will never seized to amaze me. You are almost bringing my mind to Yom Kippur (the day of attornment). The scape goat (sent to Azazel) and the lamb who was bound.
    I’m very sure that, I am not far from the answer but kudos to your hard work many thanks.
    God will surely and aboundantly increase you.
    Shanah Tovah

    1. Julia Blum

      Shalom Antwi, it’s always good to hear from you. You’ve also amazed me with your comment because it is exactly what I wrote about in my book : Genesis 21 and 22 in the light of two goats of Yom Kippur, Leviticus 16. I am absolutely convinced that there is a profound connection between these chapters.

  6. David Russell

    Shana Tova Julia and all reading, I look forward to these weekly visits/lessons in my inbox!
    David Russell

  7. Rick

    Thank you Julia for sharing the light. Be blessed with a good and sweet new year!

  8. קאת'רין פפי

    Thanks so much for this article in particular and your amazing book: Abraham had 2 sons. Received healing and Chalom. It will change my intercessorry prayers for Israel! Blessings and Shanah Tovah

  9. Tony Egglestone

    Shalom Julia, thank you so much and a Shana Tova for you and all the staff.

  10. Ansa

    Thank you Julia for such deep teachings! Ansa