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 Holiday Central > Rosh Hashanah > Customs and Traditions
Rosh Hashanah Customs & Traditions
By: Rivka C. Berman, Contributor
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Rosh Hashanah Customs

Rosh Hashanah’s mix of meanings, celebrating God’s coronation and worldwide Judgment Day, jumble together for a sweet/serious holiday whose customs mix the joy of God’s 'Ruler-ship' and the seriousness of passing muster and being inscribed for a good year.

Clothing
Customary attitudes toward Rosh Hashanah clothing exemplify how the contrasting themes play out. On the one hand, special festive clothing is worn because Rosh Hashanah is a holy day, Day of God’s coronation. Jewish legal writers went so far as to require men to buy new holiday clothing or jewelry for their wives. (Now women have their own credit cards and salaries to match. No need to wait for husbands to loosen the purse strings, thank you.)

Yet some will avoid red clothes, a color linked to severity and blood, in favor of white attire, a hue of purity and the shade of a mother’s milk, sign of love and mercy. White can also symbolize confidence that a favorable judgement will be meted out. The power of positive thinking only extends so far, and some Sephardic Jews will not wear brand new clothing on Rosh Hashanah lest they appear overly certain of their righteousness before the Judge.

New Years Cards
Hallmark, the ubiquitous card printer and kitsch maker, must love the Jewish custom of sending New Year’s greetings by post. Many Jews draw up long lists of loved ones, friends, would-be friends, and wished-for acquaintances and send New Year’s greetings to them.

Apparently this custom was born out of a serious intent. By offering the greeting “May you be sealed for a good year” or “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life,” Jews would subtly remind each other of the Day of Judgment ahead.

Mikvah
A perennial symbol of rebirth the mikvah is a gathering of waters that Jewish have immersed in the womb-like waters to emerge with a renewed sense of self. Taking a dip in the mikvah before Rosh Hashanah is a step in greeting the New Year with a fresh slate.

Visiting the Cemetery
Modern mobility brought a decline in the custom to visit a loved one’s gravesite before the New Year. Psalms and personal prayers said at a cemetery are not directed to the ancestor. Rather the prayers are said with the belief that God will listen closely to the prayers because of the departed one’s goodness. Some synagogues host public memorial services at local cemeteries to carry on this tradition.

Hattarat Nedarim
An unfulfilled personal vow starts off the New Year in the red. To avoid this a brief ceremony called Hattarat Nedarim, vow annulment, is held. This ceremony only works to end an obligation to vows that were made to oneself and forgotten about or inadvertently uttered. All other vows remain intact.

How Hattarat Nedarim works:
After Rosh Hashanah eve's morning prayers, an ad hoc Jewish court is formed (by gathering three adults). The person seeking vow annulment recites a brief admission, found in Rosh Hashanah prayer books, that he or she wishes to be released from the vows that may have been made and not fulfilled over the past year.

The “court” states that the request is granted saying: “Now there is no pledge or swear or promise only forgiveness and repentance. Just as we have set you free in this court you should be absolved in the heavenly court. May the negative forces born from your lapsed promises turn into blessing because God loves you.”

Greetings
Shana Tova – Good Year
L'Shana Tova Tea-ka-tayv v’teekatem– May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year

This wish is based on a passage in the Talmud.

“Rabbi Kruspedai said in the name of Rabbi Johanon: Three books are opened [in heaven] on the New Year. One for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are inscribed in the Book of Life, the thoroughly wicked are inscribed in the Book of Death, and the fate of the intermediate is suspended from the New Year until the Day of Atonement. If they deserve well, they are inscribed in the Book of Life. If the do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the Book of Death…. Repentance, prayer, and charity can avert the severe decree.” (Rosh Hashanah 16b)

Symbolic Foods
Though information on symbolic foods certainly belongs under "Rosh Hashanah Customs," it is a big subject, so rich in ritual practices and traditions, that we decided to devote to it it's own page on MazorGuide to Rosh Hashanah.  Click here for more information.

Mazor Guide to Rosh Hashanah brings you much more about the holiday, its meaning and its traditions... See the links below.

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