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Rosh Hashanah means literally "the head of the year." The first of the Hebrew month of Tishri, it's the beginning of a month full of Jewish holidays. Its symbols are the shofar or ram's horn and sweet food like apples and honey. The central metaphor of Rosh Hashanah is having our fate for the New Year written in the Book of Life.
Why is there a specifically Jewish New Year? Like most Jewish holidays, this observance is mentioned in the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures, which Christians sometimes call the Old Testament. In the Torah it is called Yom Teruah, the Day of Sounding the Shofar, or Yom HaZikkaron, the Day of Remembrance. Why is this holiday in the autumn when the secular New Year is in the winter?
Jewish holidays are set on the Hebrew calendar, which reflects a Jewish sense of time. All Jewish holidays start and end at sundown, and are tied to the phases of the sun and the moon so that they remain at same season of the year and the same phase of the moon. The secular calendar is only solar, so that both secular and Christian holidays are always at the same season, but not always at the same moon phase. Rosh Hashanah always falls in the autumn, usually in September or October, and always at the new phase of the moon. The Muslim calendar is exclusively lunar so that Muslim holy days move through the seasons but are always at the same phase of the moon.
Some Jewish communities celebrate Rosh Hashanah for two days, and some for one day. This comes from antiquity when there was still a temple in Jerusalem, but there were also substantial Jewish communities outside the land of Israel that wanted to celebrate in sync with Jews in Jerusalem. In this period, the Jews of Babylonia had to rely on a series of signal fires to let them know when people in Jerusalem could see the new moon. As the signal fires might take more than 24 hours and there were no cell phones in the first century, Jews outside of Israel began to extend many holidays to two days that Jews in Israel only celebrated on one day. In the modern period the Jewish Reform movement began celebrating Rosh Hashanah for one day.
Oddly enough, Jews in Israel today still celebrate Rosh Hashanah for two days. Because Jews had such a long history outside of the land of Israel, they developed a second set of Torah readings and a large collection of liturgical poems to make the second day of Rosh Hashanah beautiful and compelling. When Jews established the State of Israel in 1948, Rosh Hashanah became the one holiday that Orthodox and Conservative Jews celebrated for two days there, too.
Whether North American Jews celebrate for one or two days, Rosh Hashanah is a popular holiday for synagogue attendance and for visiting with families.
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