Rosh Hashanah Dictionary
Common Rosh Hashanah words and phrases to help get you through the holiday.
Rosh Hashanah, the two-day Jewish holiday marking the New Year, is full of beautiful customs and traditions – and more than a few Hebrew terms and prayers. Here is a handy list of common Rosh Hashanah terms and names to help get you through the holiday.
Shana Tovah! (and its variations)
Shana means year in Hebrew, and Tovah means good – this is a standard Rosh Hashanah greeting.
Before Rosh Hashanah, it’s customary to greet people with Ketiva V’Chatima Tovah – a Good Inscription and Seal. On Rosh Hashanah itself many people L’Shana Tovah (A Good Year) Tikatev V’Tichatem (May you be inscribed and sealed). This reflects the idea that on Rosh Hashanah our fates are inscribed for the coming year, and on Yom Kippur ten days later, our fate is sealed. For a woman, this greeting is conjugated differently: L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevi V’Tichatemi. After Rosh HaShana, people say Gmar Chatima Tovah – a good final seal (for a good year to come). Some people shorten this to the greeting Gmar Tov. Gmar Tov is used as a greeting all the way until Yom Kippur.
Another popular Rosh Hashanah greeting is Shana Tovah U’Metukah – may you have a good and sweet new year.
Yom HaDin – Day of Judgment
Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom HaDin – the Day of Judgment. On this day, each person is evaluated and judged according to their past deeds by God in His heavenly court. The Torah explains that “on Rosh Hashanah all creatures pass before Him” (Mishnah Rosh HaShana 16b).
The Talmud describes two heavenly ledgers open on this day: one to record our achievements and one in which our shortcomings will be noted, God forbid (Talmud Rosh HaShana 16b). Rosh Hashanah is a opportunity to contemplate our past actions, to resolve to make changes going forward, and to enter the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with an attitude of repentance and improvement.
Siman means signs or omens – a signal indicating the way things will be. It’s customary to eat foods that are Simanim for a good new year on the nights of Rosh Hashanah. The most famous siman is apples dipped in honey. This is eaten at the beginning of Rosh Hashanah dinner along with the blessing May it be Your will, Adonai our God and the God of our forefathers, that You renew us for a good and a sweet new year.
Other traditional simanim include pomegranates, fish and the head of a fish. (In some households, pastry or candy in the shape of a fish’s head is used instead.)
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, there’s a beautiful custom to walk to a body of water and recite Tashlich, a brief service reminding us of God’s judgment and infinite mercy. Tashlich comes from the Hebrew word to send away; we symbolically cast our past sins into the sea, calling: “Cast into the depths of the sea all the Jews’ sins.”
Tashlich originated in Medieval times, though it harkens back to the time when the Jews returned to Israel to build the Second Temple in the 5th Century BCE. The prophet Nehemiah described a Rosh Hashanah when the Jews finally reestablished their nation in the Land of Israel: “Then all the people gathered together as one man at the plaza before the Gate of Water (in Jerusalem)” – there they listened to the Torah being read and were blessed as a nation on Rosh Hashanah (Nehemiah 8:1), near a flowing stream.
On Rosh Hashanah, we recognize God as the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. In ancient times, the kings of Israel were crowned near the water – Tashlich gives us the opportunity to acknowledge God’s kingship in our own lives today.
It’s ideal to say Tashlich next to water containing fish: one reason is because fish procreate widely, and we too hope to build large families and communities. Fish also never close their eyes, reminding us that God’s gaze never wavers.
If no body of water is available, it’s possible to say Tashlich over a man-made container of water. It’s also possible to delay Tashlich if necessary – if need be, it can be recited any time until the Hoshana Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot.
Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah
One of the most arresting aspects of Rosh Hashanah is the sound of the shofar blasts – each day of Rosh Hashanah (except when it falls out on Shabbat) we listen to a total of 100 blasts on a shofar, or ram’s horn. The Talmud records that on Rosh Hashanah, our prayers and repentance rise up to the Heavens accompanied by the sound of the shofar’s blasts (Rosh Hashanah 16b).
There are four types of shofar sounds: Tekiah is one blast on the horn; Shevarim is a succession of three short blasts; Teruah is nine shorter blasts; Tekiah Gedolah is one very long blast on the shofar that concludes the shofar portion of the Rosh Hashanah service.
Jewish sage Saadia Gaon (882-942) taught that just as it’s customary to sound a trumpet at the coronation of an earthly king, the shofar is a fitting accompaniment to Rosh Hashanah when we commemorate God’s creation of the entire universe and His sovereignty over it.
Teshuva – repentance in Hebrew – comes from the word lishuv: to come back. On Rosh Hashanah, we return to being the good people that we are at heart. Unlike some religions, Judaism doesn’t view mankind as intrinsically sinful. We are each created betzelem Elokim, in the image of God. We each have the capacity to rise to great spiritual heights.
On Rosh Hashanah we dedicate ourselves anew to returning to God and to becoming the good people that we know we are capable of being.
Teshuva, Tzedakah, Tefillah
Our prayers on Rosh Hashanah remind us of the three-fold formula for changing our ways and ensuring that we reach our potential in the coming year: Teshuva (repentance), Tzedakah (charity), Tefillah (prayer), and is the Jewish formula for changing our ways for the better and for growing spiritually. As the Rosh Hashanah service says, we know that everything that happens is in God’s hands – “But repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree.”
This beautiful prayer is one of the highlights of the Rosh Hashanah service, and is said during the Musaf service. Its stirring words are those of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, who lived in the German town of Mainz in the 15th Century.
It is said that he was friendly with the Bishop of Mainz. One day the Bishop ordered Rabbi Amnon to convert to Christianity. Rabbi Amnon was terrified of defying the Bishop, and as a delaying tactic he asked for three days to think about the offer. Once he was home, he bitterly regretted giving the impression that he’d even consider betraying his Jewish faith. When the Bishop’s men came to fetch him, Rabbi Amnon told the Bishop he was so regretful for even saying he’d think about converting that he wished his tongue would be cut out of his mouth.
The Bishop replied that Rabbi Amnon’s tongue would indeed be cut out, and that wasn’t the only part of him that would be torn away. He had his men cut off Rabbi Amnon’s feet joint by joint, then his hands. After each cut, they asked Rabbi Amnon if he would convert; each time Rabbi Amnon refused. Finally, they brought Rabbi Amnon home, near death. A few days later was Rosh HaShana. Rabbi Amnon asked to be brought to the synagogue. There, he recited the hauntingly beautiful prayer beginning Unesaneh Tokef (also pronounced Unetaneh Tokef) – “Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness…” When he was finished reciting the prayer, Rabbi Amnon’s soul left his body. His last prayer inspires us still.
Malchiyot – Zichronot – Shofrot
The Talmud explains that Rosh Hashanah wouldn’t be complete without mention of three key concepts: Malchiyot (accepting God’s Kingship and rule of the world), Zichronot (Divine Remembrance of all our deeds and actions); and Shofrot (the blasts of the shofar). Each of these has a dedicated section in the lengthy Mussaf Silent prayer.
The Talmud explains that these three concepts are mandated by God for us to recall on Rosh Hashanah: “And recite before Me on Rosh Hashanah verses that mention Kingship, Remembrances, and Shofarot: Kingship so that you will crown Me as King over you; Remembrances so that your remembrance will rise before Me for good; and with what will the remembrance rise? It will rise with the shofar” (Rosh Hashanah 16b).
Rosh Hashanah is a chance to take the time to think deeply about God and His relationship with us. The Talmud explains that everyone ought to think of themselves not as all good or all bad, but as something in between. We each have deeds that we are proud of, and also memories of times we fell short of our ideals. Rosh Hashanah is a time to ask ourselves what we can do to increase our merits, and ensure we grow and change for the good in the coming year.