Another year has come and gone and soon we will be celebrating the festival of Rosh Hashanah, a day which marks the start of the Jewish New Year. But as we prepare to repeat this annual event, I am led to question exactly what is so ‘new’ about Jewish New Year? Is it simply the marking of the start of another calendar year? How are we supposed to feel and think on Rosh Hashanah when the coming of a new year can feel so old and familiar?
The word ‘new’ is not actually a part of the Hebrew name for Rosh Hashanah, which can most accurately be translated as ‘Head of the Year’. This name is similar to the monthly festival of Rosh Chodesh which translates as ‘Head of the Month’. Rosh Chodesh is the marking of the birth of a new moon and indeed, the word chodesh itself comes from the root chadash, which means new. Interestingly, Rosh Hashanah is also a Rosh Chodesh, however we do little to mark it as such. For example, Rosh Chodesh Tishrei is the only month where the custom of Shabbat Mevarekhim – the public declaration announcing the start date of the new month – is ignored. In fact, Rosh Chodesh is barely mentioned during any of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy at all.
So why this absence of chadash in the Jewish New Year? Many explanations and interpretations have been put forward, and here I will add my own thoughts. Rather than a time of ‘newness’, Rosh Hashanah is a moment for renewal, transition and continuation. It is the point in the year where we pause and take stock of our lives, our values and passions and think about how we would like to take these things forward over the next twelve months. In this sense Rosh Hashanah is not about newness at all, but about beginning again.
This idea is beautifully illustrated in the Talmud (Niddah 30b), which tells us that when a child is in the womb they are taught the entire Torah. However, at the moment that child is born, an angel touches the baby on the mouth which causes that child to forget all that was learnt. A reason for this is that the study of Torah should always feel familiar, a relearning of that which is already known. On Rosh Hashanah we learn from the past so that we can live a more fruitful and enjoyable future.
As Head of Youth, I look forward to building on the success of the previous year, and working together to create an even stronger future. My wife, Robin and my daughter, Aviva, join me in wishing you and your family SHANA TOVA UMETUKAH – “[a] good and sweet year”, full of hope and renewal.
Originally published in New London Synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah Magazine 2015