Around my parents’ Rosh Hashanah table it tasted, smelled and felt like Yom Tov. My mother would ply us all with delicious food and engage everybody in friendly conversation. At the other end of the table my father, usually quite talkative, engaging and fond of his food, would sit in silence, wearing a serene yet somber expression and eating sparingly. Talking about other people was not his favorite dinner pastime any time of the year, but on Rosh Hashanah he would tolerate none of it. It seemed as if he were between two worlds and did not want to be disturbed. Looking from mother to father I wondered: Is Rosh Hashanah a happy day or a sad day?
It turns out that this is an ancient question with no clear answer. In 384 BCE, Ezra and Nechemiah turn to the Jewish people who are mourning and weeping in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and tell them, “Do not mourn, weep or be sad. Go your way, eat sumptuously, and drink sweet beverages and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to the Lord.”
“Eat meat, drink wine and rejoice on Rosh Hashanah,” says the Shulchan Aruch. The Talmud Yershalmi points out that a person undergoing trial for an offense carrying capital punishment would don dark clothes and be in a general state of mourning. We Jews, on the other hand, are so confident of God’s mercy that we wear white and festive clothes and celebrate the Day of Judgment.
According to the Bach, Rosh Hashanah is referred to as moed, festival, the same term the Torah uses to describe Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. And the Psalmist tells us, “tiku b’chodesh shofar bakeseh leyom chageynu” –“Blow the shofar at the new moon on ourfestival.” It follows, then, that the Torah’s injunction “v’samachta b’chagecha” – “rejoice on your festivals” – applies equally to Rosh Hashanah. Because celebration and mourning are incompatible, the shiva – the seven-day mourning period for the deceased – is cut short if it commenced before Yom Tov, or is postponed until after Rosh Hashanah if it did not commence before Yom Tov. For this purpose, too, Rosh Hashanah is considered a Yom Tov.
But there is also another side to Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is also referred to as “Yom Teruah,” which Targum Yonatan translates as “Yom Yevava” – a day of sobbing. According to the responsa of the gaonim of the Academy of Surah, one should actually fast on both days of Rosh Hashanah and this was the custom of many rabbis throughout the ages. Indeed, though the halacha rules that one should not fast on Rosh Hashanah, it still permits those who feel they cannot truly repent without fasting to do so. Hallel, the song we sing on the moadim, the festivals, is not sung on Rosh Hashanah. It is inappropriate for us to recite Hallel on the days of Judgement when life and death are in abeyance.
So it seems that Rosh Hashanah is both joyous and somber. For this reason, some of our rabbis permit one to fast half a day until the prayer services are over and others permit fasting one day. All agree, however, that one should not fast at night. Perhaps the Shulchan Aruch sums up the mixed mood best: “One should not eat to the full so that one should not become lightheaded. The fear of God should register on your face.”
And so the Rosh Hashanah meals are full of symbols that remind us of the uniqueness of the day.
Rosh Hashanah Kiddush is made followed by the Shehecheyanu blessing. One then washes one’s hands and recites the Hamotzi blessingover two challot. The challah is then cut and dipped in honey. No blessing is made over the honey as it is covered by the Hamotzi. After swallowing a k’zayit, an olive-size piece of the challah, we recite the prayer “yehi ratzon shetechadesh aleinu shanah tovah u’metukah”– “may it be your will that You renew for us a good and sweet year.” A piece of apple is then dipped in honey, the Boreh Pri Ha’etz blessing is made, the piece of the apple is eaten and then the Yehi Ratzon prayer is recited again and the apple is finished. Some have the custom of eating a pomegranate and reciting the blessing “May it be God’s wish that we should have as many good deeds as a pomegranate has seeds.”
There is some doubt whether the Shehecheyanu blessing should be recited on the first night only, consistent with the view that both days of Rosh Hashanah are actually one long day, or whether it should be recited on the second night too. In order to be safe, it is our custom to have a new fruit or garment on the second night and have in mind both the fruit and the second day of Yom Tov when reciting Shehecheyanu on the second night. Finally, after finishing the meal, some have the custom to learn the mishnayot of Rosh Hashanah.