Some of the following material on Rosh Hashana customs may sound quite eccentric, and very far away from our present, intellectual, politically-correct society. Read on, and see what you think. You don't have to like them, agree with them, or even understand them. But do know that these customs are but a small part of a vast wealth of Jewish erudition and practice. And if something "speaks" to you, why not go ahead and try it on for size?
Tashlich, from the root word which means "to cast away" is the practice by which Jews go to a flowing body of water and symbolically "throw away" their sins.
This occurs in the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashana or the second day if the first falls on Shabbat (Saturday). This practice is based on a verse from the book of the Prophet Michah where it says,
"And Thou wilt cast ("ve-tashlich") all their sins into the depths of the sea"
Another reason cited for the use of a "live" body of water is that there are usually fish present. Fish never close their eyes, and that is a reminder to us of the ever- watchful eyes of God who records and remembers everything, but who also constantly peers down on His creations with mercy.
Furthermore, there is the mystical belief that fish are immune to the "Evil Eye" (a type of curse) and by casting our sins away where there are fish, we are indirectly asking to also be protected from the evils of the world. (Doesn't this sound Twilight-Zone-Like?)
To do Tashlich, you basically go to a running body of water. A river, sea, or lake are the best choices. If there is none within walking distance, a well or reservoir is acceptable. Once there, several prayers are recited. There is no special prayer for Tashlich. However, there are several Scriptural chapters relating to the idea of penitence and Divine forgiveness.
And that's it. The psychological ramifications of such an act are immeasurable. Think about it - you go to the sea, say a few prayers (or a little something that has special meaning for you) and you can feel that you are walking away with a "clean slate".
The water has SYMBOLICALLY carried away your misdeeds and you are free to
start over. Think about what that can do to one's spiritual self-esteem! This
action gives one a starting point; remember - in no way should Tashlich be
viewed as an "end" in and of itself.
תשליך - Tashlich
השלכה - cast
חטאים - sins
מחוסן - immune
קללה - curse
מאגר - reservoir
On the first night of Rosh Hashana, there is a custom that people exchange the following greeting: "May you be inscribed and sealed immediately for a good life." After the first night, it is considered improper in some communities to extend this greeting any more because tradition has it that on the first night of Rosh Hashana, the completely righteous are already inscribed for a good life.
By wishing someone a good inscription on a later day, you are implying that he/she is not a completely righteous person. (True, you KNOW that this person is far from righteous, but you still want to give him/her the benefit of the doubt.)
In some Sephardic communities, the greeting is, "May you be inscribed for a good year; may you be worthy of abundant years." Also, in some Sephardic communities, the greeting is extended beyond the first night.
Though Rosh Hashana is one of Judaism's more solemn holidays, (remember- it IS the "Day of Judgement"), a large part of its celebration takes place around the table as in other holidays. Aside from the standard holiday Kiddush (blessing over wine), there are numerous symbolic activities that take place (usually) the first night of Rosh Hashana at the dinner-table:
Normally, the two loaves of challah over which the Hamotzi (blessing) is said at a festive Shabbat or holiday meal are loaf- shaped or braided. For Rosh Hashana, the traditional shape of the challah is round. This shape symbolizes the cycle of life and how we should be aware of it on this day. In some communities, the challah is shaped like a ladder, symbolizing the fortunes of people for the year ahead - some ascend and some descend life's ladder.
On the Sabbath and other holidays, after the blessing and before partaking of the challah, it is dipped into salt. On Rosh Hashana, it is dipped in honey (if none is available, then into sugar) and then eaten. This custom symbolizes our hope that the upcoming year will be sweet. Many also have a custom to make sure that there are raisins in their challah. As far as I know, the raisins are there to enhance the sweetness of the challah. If you know of any other reasons for raisins, I'll be glad to hear them!
Apple Dipped in Honey
After dipping a sweet apple into honey, the blessing over fruit is recited plus the additional prayer, "May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year."
The symbolism of the honey here is also connected to a sweet year. The symbolism of the apple is a bit more complex: The numerical value of "tapuach" (Hebrew word for apple) is numerically equivalent to "seh akeida" which means "the lamb of the binding." In the story in which our forefather, Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son, Isaac, at God's command, Isaac asked his father, "We have all the necessary utensils for a sacrifice. But where is the sacrificial lamb?" Based on Abraham's answer, Isaac understood that HE was to be that lamb about to be bound on the altar; he would be the "seh akeida."
This whole incident of the binding of Isaac took place on Rosh Hashana. (Notice, I say binding and not sacrificing, because in the end of the story, Isaac is not sacrificed. At God's bidding, he was removed from the altar and a ram was sacrificed in his place. This was only a test.) By eating the apple, we are symbolically expressing our hope that some of the merit generated through Abraham's and Isaac's testing will trickle down to our generation and help us be granted a sweet new year.
One takes a piece of this fruit (watch out - pomegranate juice stains in the worst way!) and says, "May it be Your will that our merits be numerous as (the seeds of) the pomegranate."
What's the deal? There are 613 commandments in the Torah for a Jew to fulfill. An individual pomegranate supposedly has 613 seeds. (Try counting them.... I did once, and though we lost exact count, there were more than 600 and less and 625 seeds - so it was awfully close!) By eating the pomegranate, we figuratively show our desire and hope to fulfill all 613 commandments, and by doing so, we will be able to accrue a nice amount of merit.
Beets are called "Salka" in Aramaic, and in Hebrew, that word is related to removal. We recite, "May our enemies be removed." Notice we don't say destroy - we just want them to go away, elsewhere, bye-bye.
This vegetable, called "Karti" in Aramaic, is related to the Hebrew word "to cut." We recite, "May our misdeeds, our spiritual enemies, be cut down."
Type of Green Bean
This vegetable is called "Rubiyah," from the Hebrew word "to increase." We recite, "May our merits increase."
Type of Squash
Called "Kera," this squash is phonetically related to the Hebrew word for "read" or "tear." We recite one or both of the following: "May You tear up our negative judgement," or "May You read our good merits before You."
Dates are called "Tamri" in Aramaic which is related to the Hebrew word for consume. We ask here that those who want to destroy us be consumed.
Head of Sheep or Fish
(Vegetarians - skip this one!)
We partake of this and say, "May it be Your will that we should be at the head and not at the tail." Aside from this, some people specifically eat from a sheep's head saying that blessing, but precede it by eating fish (not necessarily the head) and say the blessing, "May it be Your will that our merits be fruitful and multiply as do the fish."
Are you full, yet?
As a general rule, at this meal, foods that are sweet are eaten and we try to avoid eating anything sour, bitter, or overly spicy. Furthermore, there is one final food-item that is customarily NOT eaten on Rosh Hashana, and that is any type of nut. There are two reasons. First, pragmatically speaking, tradition tells us that nuts cause an extra production of phlegm in the nasal-throat area, and such phlegm can hinder someone's ability to recite prayers (the main focus of the Holiday). The other reason is that the numerical value of nut in Hebrew, ("egoz"), is equal to the numerical value of the word "chet" which means sin. On Rosh Hashana, we try to distance ourselves from anything remotely related to sin, so we avoid nuts.
This dinner meal sounds rather long, huh? The custom in a large number of communities is to eat these symbolic foods only the first night of Rosh Hashana, though in some Sephardic communities, it is done both nights.
One more thing: On the second night specifically, most families have a custom to eat a "new" fruit and say the blessing called "Shehecheyanu" ("thanks, G-d, for allowing us to be here and doing what we are doing on this day").
When I say a "new" fruit, I mean a fruit that has recently come back into season and you have not had it yet, or a fruit you have not eaten for at least 30 days (some say even for a year - this depends on the individual's custom). The point is to make sure that the second day of Rosh Hashana (which seems redundant because it IS the second day) has something new about it. In addition or in place of the fruit, some people will make sure they are wearing new clothing to give that same element of novelty to the second day.
Some families eat only some of the aforementioned foods. Some families eat them all. One member of a Yemenite family confided in me, "By the time we through all of these, I am too stuffed to even think about the main course!"
Though the whole thing may seem silly to some, partaking of these symbolic
foods and reciting the appropriate prayers add a profound level of reverence and
meaning to the festive meal on this important day.
רציני, חגיגי, כבד-משקל - solemn
חלה - Challah
כיכרות לחם - loaves
רימונים - Pomegranates
סלק - Beet
כרישה (ירק) - Leek
תמרים - Dates
This next custom is just as it sounds - we do not take a nap on Rosh Hashana afternoon. (Some hold just for the afternoon of the first day; some hold for both afternoons.) The source for this custom is a saying in the Jerusalem Talmud,
"If one sleeps at the year's beginning (Rosh Hashana), his good fortune likewise sleeps."
In other words, if there is a day not to be idle, it's Rosh Hashana. We are meant to be contemplating, learning, or seeped in prayer. If we are not prepared to do this today, our good fortune will not be prepared to show its face during the upcoming year.
A takeoff of the source of not sleeping is the following: Some people view Rosh Hashana as a minuscule version of the upcoming year. How you behave on this day determines how the rest of your year will be. So if you engage in sleep, it is said by some that you will have a "sleepy" year. (Oh.... So THAT'S why I can't seem to move myself before 10:00AM!)