At its core Rosh Hashanah is about reflection on the past year, hoping for and wishing each other the best in the coming year, and choosing to do what we can to make it so, even as we acknowledge that it's not entirely in our hands, that we will have to work with what the year brings.
How can you use Rosh Hashanah @ your house as an opportunity for your family to reflect, resolve, dream and celebrate? As always on this blog, what follows is a list of suggestions of traditions and ideas you might want to bring into your family celebrations. It's not all or nothing, and depending on the ages and personalities of everyone involved, sometimes less is more. And even though you may choose to skip some of the ideas in an earlier section, you might still find something useful for your family further down the page.
The BasicsOn Rosh Hashanah it's traditional to have a festive meal - in Hebrew a סְעוּדָה se'udah - with wine (or grape juice for the kids), round challah, apples and honey, and other holiday dishes. You can make a meal for just your family or invite friends and extended family to join you. Here you have the traditional table ritual with the order, the blessings and symbolism, and where you could cut it down if you need to move things along.
הדלקת נרות - Hadlakat Neirot - Lighting Candles
Rosh Hashanah, like most Jewish holidays begins with candle lighting. Candle lighting can happen 18 minutes before sunset, or just before dinner. The blessing is almost the same as for Shabbat.
Since it's a special occasion many people continue with Shehecheyau:
קִידוּש - Kiddush - Blessing the Wine
Almost all Jewish celebrations include wine and the blessing always includes the line:
At lunch time, the longer version of Kiddush goes like this:
At the end of kiddush for Rosh Hashana, like many other festive occasions it's traditional to add the Shehecheyanu blessing, used for new things and reaching special occasions.
In my family we really get into singing shehecheyanu. There's a recording of the tune we use on this page here listed as "Shehecheyanu - fancy".
הַמוֹצִיא - Hamotzi - Blessing the Challah
Rosh Hashanah challah is traditionally round to symbolize the cycle of the year and new beginnings. Usually when we eat challah, we sprinkle it or dip it in salt, but on Rosh Hashanah, and for many families, all the way from Rosh Hashanah through the end of Sukkot, it's traditional to dip in or drizzle with honey, for a sweet new year. Raisin challah is also particularly appropriate for Rosh Hashanah, because it is sweet. The blessing over the challah is the same as always:
Apples with Honey - תפוחים ודבש - Tapuchim Ud'vash
Maybe the best known tradition, and the one kids look forward to most is dipping apples in honey. Apples remind us of the season, and are round like the cycle of the year. The honey helps us wish for a sweet new year. Traditionally we say the blessing over the apple first, then the hope for a sweet new year.
There you have it! All you need next is some yummy food for your meal. Though by this point, the kids may have filled up on grape juice, challah, apples and honey. For your meal, you can go traditional with Chicken soup, gefilte fish, roast chicken or brisket, kugel and vegetables. But there's no rule that you have to eat all these things, or that you have to make way too much food, or exhaust yourself cooking before the holiday even starts. The meal can be whatever feels special to you.
Adding More to your Meal TimeIf you've already been doing a lot the above for a while, and you're ready to think about adding some other traditions to your meal, here are a few nice things you could do.
There is a tradition to eat some sort of new fruit on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It's partly about the theme of new things and new beginnings, but it's also because it feels a bit strange to say Shehecheyanu for the new experience on day two when we just did the same thing the day before. Some families try to find a fruit or vegetable they've never tried before. You can also choose something that you haven't eaten yet this year.
Beyond round challah, apples and honey, Rosh Hashanah has a host of foods that are traditional for one reason or another. I'll list some of them below, but I'm sure I'll miss some. Let me know in the comments if I left your favorite out or if you have a different explanation.
PomegranatePomegranate is full of seeds. Acording to Jewish tradition it has the same number of seeds as mitzvot in the Torah, 613. Eating pomegranate is like promising to do our best to do as many mitzvot as we can this year. It's also a symbol of fertility and helps us wish for a fruitful and prosperous year, in which all of what we plant, literally and symbolically, bears fruit.
CarrotsThe tradition of eating carrots comes from a Yiddish pun. Carrots in Yiddish are מערן, meren, which sounds like the word for more, מער, mer. When we eat carrots on Rosh Hashanah, we hope for a year where we will have more, do more, be more, than in the previous year. I grew up looking forward to Rosh Hashanah carrot salad with shredded carrots, oranges and pineapple.
BeetsThe tradition of eating beets dates back to the Talmud, when in Aramaic, beets were called סלקא, silka, which also means to remove. Eating beets expressed the hope that the enemies of the Jews would be removed. We can think about what we'd like to remove from our lives and our characters as we move into the new year. Beet in modern Hebrew is סלק, selek.
LeeksLike beets, leeks are also mentioned in the Talmud, where they are called כרתי, karti. This word sounds like כרת, kareit - to cut off - and went with the hope that our enemies be cut off.
Gourds / PumpkinIn the Talmud, gourds are called קרא, kra, which sound like the Hebrew word for both tear and call out. Eating squash or pumpkin is like asking that any bad judgments against us are torn up, and that God calls out and proclaims a good new year.
Fish HeadI don't know anyone who actually eats fish heads these days, though they used to be considered a delicacy and an honor. The tradition of eating a fish head, or placing one on the table expresses the hope that we will be "like the head, and not like the tail".
Table ConversationsOne final way to enhance your holiday meal is to ask your family to participate in some holiday themed discussions. Here are a few suggestions for ways to get the ball rolling. Please add your own in the comments section below.
- Ask each person at the table to think of a new year resolution, one thing they'd like to do better this year.
- Ask everyone to give a new year blessing, hope, or wish for someone else at the table.
- Think of new year wishes and blessings your family would like to share with others who aren't with you, with your wider community or the world.
- Have each person share one thing in their lives that has changed in the last year, and one that they expect will change in the coming year.
New Year Cards
One nice tradition is to make and send cards wishing friends and family a sweet new year. Yours could include photographs, kids' drawings, apple prints, or really anything you want. You could have family members create cards for each other, or to send to extended family and friends. Some families have the tradition of saving and hanging their Rosh Hashana Cards as decorations in their Sukkah.
I love baking challah with my kids. I wish I made time to do it more often. It should probably be one of my New Year resolutions to do so. Rosh Hashanah is a great time to give it a try. Round challot are easier to form than braided ones. You can make them as a simple coil, or weave them into a very impressive braided look with a relatively simple pattern. Here's one video that shows how to do it.
Decorating the Table
You can get your kids involved with decorating the table. You might choose a white or mostly white tablecloth, since white is the symbolic color of the High Holy Days. If you have multiple challah covers in your collection, you and/or your kids could choose one that feels right for the holiday. If you don't, why not make one together? You can start with a white cloth napkin or another piece of cloth and decorate with fabric markers or paints, making pictures of holiday symbols like challah, apples and honey, and shofar. If you want you can add the words Rosh Hashanah, רֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה.
Make a Shofar
Have your kids make their own shofar out of a whistle or kazoo, and paper, cardboard or toilet paper rolls. Here's one example of how it could be done. They can decorate with crayons or markers, and then practice the shofar calls.
The different kinds of blasts are:
Tekiah: one long blastIf your kids are older and play a brass instrument (such as trumpet or trombone), you could temporarily turn their mouthpiece into a shofar and let them practice shofar blasts on it. Or even buy a family shofar (they come in different shapes, sizes, and price points), and learn to blow it. The sound is produced just like a brass instrument, by buzzing the lips together.
Shevarim: Three shorter blasts, all together about as long as a Tekiah
Truah: Nine very short blasts
Tekiah Gedolah: One super long blast
Family Opportunities Outside your HouseThis blog is called Yom Tov @ Your House, but I'd feel like I was missing something if I didn't mention a few things you might do as a family that require leaving the house. Of course there's going to your synagogue or temple. Check out what options there are for kids. Many have young family services that may be designed just for your child's age. Plus there are few other things you could do if you venture out.
The tradition of tashlich, symbolically throwing our sins into the water as breadcrumbs, is one that kids can relate to and get excited about. Whether you go with an organized group from your synagogue or on your own as a family, the key to doing tashlich is finding a body of moving water (anything from a trickle of a stream to the Atlantic Ocean), thinking about what you want to throw away this year, and encouraging your kids to think about the same, and throwing bread crumbs into the water with the intention of getting a new start.
In the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur, we talk about being judged for all of our deeds in the past year, and our fate in the coming year being determined based on that judgement. Now, theologically, this isn't really my favorite way of understanding the world. I doubt that most of us believe things really work this way on a small scale. But I do think it's worthwhile entertaining the metaphor once a year, and thinking about how our actions have affected those around us and how they make a difference, for good or bad, in the world. On a grand scale, the way we behave as a community and society certainly does affect the world around us, at times with long-reaching consequences.
Connected with this liturgy is the idea that תשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רעה הגזירה, Teshuva, tefilah, utzedakah ma'avirin et roah hagzeirah - repentance, prayer and tzedakah avert the bad decree.
According to our prayers, we have a chance to make things better at this time of year, through three mitzvot. Teshuvah, saying sorry, resolving to be better, gets talked about a lot. Tefilah, prayer, happens primarily at services, though it can also happen on your own. But Tzedakah is one opportunity we have as families to think of others at this time that we often reserve for introspection. So, think with your family about something you'd like to support or something you care about that can be part of your holiday observance, whether by donating money or things or setting a time to volunteer.
Some families I know set aside time on Rosh Hashanah to take a walk in nature and appreciate the beauty of the world. Rosh Hashanah is known as the birthday of the world and considered the anniversary of when creation was completed. Taking a walk with family, pointing out the wonder and the beauty we so often take for granted, is another kind of Rosh Hashanah spiritual practice.
I hope some of these ideas and resources are helpful as you plan this year's holiday celebrations for your family. Please share your own traditions, both old and new, in the comments below. Wishing you a Shanah Tovah U'metukah, a good and sweet new year from my family to yours.