Referred to as the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana falls on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, the first month of the lunar calendar. It is the beginning of the 10-day Jewish new year festival, which culminates with Yom Kippur. Humanistic Jews see Rosh Hashana as a time for renewal, reflection, and new beginnings. Our focus is on the affirmation of human power and human dignity. Rosh Hashana is a time to consider the possibilities for change, improvement, and happiness that we can create for ourselves as human beings. Acknowledging human courage and independence, we can achieve human dignity. For a schedule of Rosh Hashana celebrations in SHJ communities, follow this link.
Humanistic Jewish communities have adapted many of the ceremonies that are part of the rabbinic celebration of Rosh Hashana. As the first day of the Jewish year, Rosh Hashana marks a turning point, a separation between what was and what will be. It offers a time for Humanistic Jews to pause in their daily lives and reflect on their behavior and renew their commitment to their highest values. The creative liturgies used by Humanistic Jewish communities on Rosh Hashana reflect these themes.
Many Humanistic communities sound the shofar on Rosh Hashana, evoking memories of a time when the blasts of the ram’s horn called the Jewish community together in times of danger. Today, the shofar summons Jews around the world to a celebration of renewal, reflection, and commitment to values in action. The four sounds of the shofar are: t’kiah (one long blast), sh’varim (three short blasts), t’ruah (nine quick blasts) and t’kia g’dolah (one very long blast).
The biblical story of the binding of Isaac, the Akeda, may be told and commented upon. The mythical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son at God’s command raises many questions for Humanistic Jews, beginning with why a loving father would be willing to obey such a command.
The ceremony of Tashlikh, which typically involves visiting a moving body of water and symbolically casting off one’s sins by throwing bread crumbs into the water, often is included in a Humanistic Rosh Hashana observance. Tashlikh allows Humanistic Jews to reflect on their behavior, to cast off behaviors they are not proud of, and to vow to be better people in the year to come. Some Humanistic Jewish communities incorporate the writing of New Year’s resolutions into their Tashlikh ceremonies.
In creating family celebrations for Rosh Hashana, you will want to select readings and music that create a balance between self-reflection and renewal of commitment to Humanistic Jewish values. The readings and music should encourage children to begin articulating their values and the behaviors in which they want to engage. Rosh Hashana is a good time to teach children about role models of Humanistic Jewish values. The Tashlikh ceremony can be very powerful (and fun) with children, as can the blowing of the shofar and eating apples and honey. By examining our past behavior, we can learn from our mistakes and improve ourselves and the world around us.
Tashlikh can be done in many different ways. If a flowing body of water is available, take advantage of the opportunity to involve the children in this outdoor ceremony. Use this as a lesson about identifying and letting go of undesired behaviors by throwing bits of bread into the water. It is possible to use bird seed as well. If no such body of water is available, throw bird seed outside and explain that just as we throw the seeds or bread crumbs, so too do we cast off unwanted behaviors. Another alternative is to use large jugs of water and a large bowl or collander. Have the children (and adults) write down behaviors or qualities that they would like to change on slips of paper and pour water over the paper until all the ink disappears.
The shofar is a call to action and commitment to our values. Children love being able to blow their own shofar (inexpensive plastic shofarot are available from most Judaica stores).
Apples and honey are a fun and memorable way to mark the new year together as a family. The sweetness of the honey combined with the tart taste of the apple represents our hope for a year that will be tempered by sweetness and joy. A round challah, often with raisins, also may be dipped in honey, then eaten. The round shape is said to reflect the ongoing cycle of days, seasons and years that make up our lives.
The creative possibilities for this holiday are endless. Although the holiday has serious themes, it is a time for children to begin participating in the behaviors we value. Use this time to make group resolutions about the upcoming year, which can be re-examined the next year, or for children to write short paragraphs on their commitment to Humanistic Jewish values.
Themes of Humanistic Rosh Hashana Celebrations
- Renewal of commitment to Humanistic values and ethics
- Putting Humanistic Jewish values into action
- New beginnings
- Endings and beginnings
- Resolutions for new behavior
- Letting go of undesired behaviors or attitudes