Beyond Words - Language Blog

Shana Tova! The Language of Rosh Hashanah

Tonight at sunset marks the end of Rosh Hashanah (literally translated “head of the year”), the Jewish New Year celebration. Beginning at sunset on September 8, this is the 5771st year in the Jewish calendar — a lunisolar calendar used mostly to indicate religious holidays and the reading structure of the Torah. The reasoning behind the new year beginning in the month of Tishrei (a Babylonian word from the Akkadian tasritu “beginning”, from surru “to begin”) is that autumn, with its harvesting and fruit gathering, is the beginning of the economic year — the time when the rewards of labor become apparent.

The holiday itself is divided into many sections, beginning with the previous month, Elul, during which self-examination and repentance occurs. Additionally, the ram’s horn or shofar, which is the defacto symbol of Rosh Hashanah, is blown every morning. Erev Rosh Hashanah (literally “the day before Rosh Hashanah”) marks the almost beginning of festivities.

On the day of Rosh Hashanah, piyyutim (from the Greek for “poet”), or religious poems, are recited during religious services. These poems are generally in Hebrew or Aramaic and follow some sort of form, often that of an acrostic. Many scholars consider Hebrew to be the only language that is “sufficiently cultivated that it could be managed with stylistic correctness, and only there could it be made to speak so expressively,” signaling the specific cultural situation of the religious poetry. Also during the day of Rosh Hashanah, tashlikh (literally “casting off”), or the casting off of the previous year’s sins, are performed symbolically by throwing a piece of bread into a body of flowing water.

As with any other significant religious holiday, certain foods are associated with Rosh Hashanah. Apples and honey are eaten to symbolize a sweet new year — other foods depend on the specific community and minhag (“custom”). Often the cooked heads of animals, fish or some other meat, are served to symbolize the head of the new year. Minhag, itself, has an interesting history, given that the Hebrew root “n-h-g” means “to drive” or “to conduct (oneself).” Thus, it can be said that minhag homiletically reflects this “n-h-g” and refers to “the manner of driving” a chariot or some other vehicle. Those following customs are driving themselves down a certain path — the path of custom. The contemporary use of minhag, however, could be influenced by the Arabic minhaj, but no distinct ties have been made between the two.

The holiday, of course, is not lacking in specific greetings. Shana Tova is the most recognized greeting, meaning “a good new year,” but there are other common greetings in use as well: Shana Tova Umetukah (“a good and sweet year”), Ketiva ve-chatima tovah (“may you be written and sealed for a good year”), and the Yiddish גוט־יאָ&#1512 (gut-yor or “good year”). And when the festivities end tonight at sundown, the public fast of Gedaliah (צוֹם גְּדָלִיָּה Tzom Gedaliah) begins — actually on Sunday since Rosh Hashanah ends on a Friday — and the year’s cycle will have begun.