The Jewish people have been keeping track of time for almost 5782 years. The Hebrew calendar year will flip on the evening of Sept. 6, marking the beginning of Rosh Hashanah.
Meaning “Head of the Year,” Rosh Hashanah is a time to celebrate another year coming full circle, and a time to own up to our lesser-than-finest moments.
This High Holy Day is a time to acknowledge sins and ask forgiveness for wrongdoings. It’s about self-examination, the repairing of broken relationships, and giving ourselves a fresh new start. Rich in symbolism and of course, special foods, here are some basics of a fine Rosh Hashanah:
• Apples and honey. One of the most popular Rosh Hashanah customs involves eating apple slices dipped in honey, sometimes after saying a special prayer. Ancient Jews believed apples had healing properties (I think they coined “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”), and the honey signifies the hope that the new year will be sweet.
• Round challah. On the Sabbath and other holidays, Jews eat traditional braided challah bread. On Rosh Hashanah, the challah is baked in a round shape to symbolize either the cyclical nature of life or the crown of God. (A shout-out goes to Big Sky Bread Co. and European Bakery for fantastic challahs; the round ones go very quickly, so call and reserve one a few days in advance.)
• Tashlich. On Rosh Hashanah, some Jews practice a lovely custom known as tashlich (“casting off”), in which they throw crumbs or pieces of bread into a flowing body of water while reciting prayers, or simply contemplating. The bread, which symbolizes the misgivings of the past year, is swept away and those who embrace this tradition are spiritually cleansed and renewed. I go to Deering Oaks Park and toss crumbs to the ducks while recalling my own actions and deeds. Needless to say, I’m there for a good, long while.
• “L’shana tovah.” Jews greet each other on Rosh Hashanah with the Hebrew phrase “L’shana tovah,” which translates to “for a good year.” This is a shortened version of the Rosh Hashanah salutation “L’shanah tovah tikatev v’taihatem” (“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year”).
• Sounding the shofar. The most famous ritual object connected with the High Holy Days is a ram’s horn, or shofar in Hebrew. It’s an ancient musical instrument that is blown like a trumpet. Sounding 100 times during the Rosh Hashanah service, there are four distinct patterns or blasts, each with symbolic meaning. As a child and even today, the haunting and beautiful shofar sounds are the highlight of the long and serious services held at the synagogue.
Much more goes into this special time of year. It’s the beginning of the 10 Days of Awe, leading up to Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement, which this year begins at sundown on Sept. 15). Throughout this time, Jews reflect on the last year, deciding how to improve. Tradition says this is when God decides, based on actions and acts of repentance, who goes into the Book of Life. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: “When a person turns himself around, regrets his past and does good, that is such a powerful act that his sins become merits.”
Usually coinciding with back-to-school clothing shopping, my mother, The Betty, would always buy us a new outfit to wear to the synagogue. Once there, everyone over 50 pinched my cheeks, snuck me a hard candy, and called me a sheynah meydeleh (pretty girl). I would always sit next to my Zayde (grandfather), and play with the tzitzit (fringe on his prayer shawl) wondering why he sometimes cried when he prayed.
When I was very little, Zayde would hoist me up high so I could see the rabbi sounding the long, twisted shofar. I’m comforted that the ancient peoples who would become the Haberman, Fivel, and Williams clans heard those sounds too. I think about the shiny patent leather shoes The Betty bought me, and those I bought for my daughters for the Rosh Hashanah children’s services at Temple Beth El. As it has always been, they watched the shofar being sounded with anticipation and amazement. I know the meaning and beauty of that sound is imprinted on their DNA, just as it is on mine.
The year 5782 will be a brand new wonder, but also an increasingly difficult and dangerous time to be Jewish. Anti-semitism has become far more sophisticated and is twisted in differing opinions about Israel. But know this: condoning violence is absolutely not a Jewish value. However, I also can’t think of any Jew who would fully turn their back on Israel, or the Jewish people’s right to exist. The latter is a never-ending battle as old as the first shofar sound.
This year, I will imagine world peace on Rosh Hashanah. To those I’ve slighted, offended, hurt, or wronged, I am sorry and will seek you out to ask for forgiveness. With the girls away, I’ll most likely have Rosh Hashanah dinner with BFF and her family. Together, we’ll eat round challah, dip apples in honey, and wish each other a healthy, safe, and sweet new year.
Just as I’ll do for all of you.
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].