Outline, Symbols and Meanings of Rosh HaShanah: Undelivered Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5774 by Rabbi Joe Blair

Rosh Hashanah 5774

Rabbi Joe Blair

Shanah tovah, chag sameach.

We are gathered here according to Jewish custom and practice, at the birth of a new year, the anniversary of creation, and the acknowledgement of God as Creator and Sovereign. Last evening we came together in community, lit the candles, read and sang the familiar words of the prayers and readings, and heard the beautiful melodies presented for us so ably and with such warm emotion, so that we became ready to open our hearts to celebrate.

But what exactly is it that we are here to celebrate?  What is this holiday?  What are we doing, and what does it mean?  Because several people have asked, I thought this would be a good opportunity to share some thoughts about this.

Let’s take a look at what is unusual that takes place in the course of the period from sundown tonight through sundown at the conclusion of the holiday.

A Rosh Hashanah Outline

Following a festive meal, dressed in our finest, often choosing to wear something new as a sign and reminder that this is a new start of a new year, we come together to welcome the Holiday.

We use special melodies to indicate that this is not just another service. Listen to the tunes, think about the difference from Shabbat. Do you hear how the music is broader, both more plaintive and more uplifting?  Pay attention to the way it fits the mood of the service.

We insert special prayers into the Amidah, the central prayer of the service – including specifically the request to be inscribed in the book of life. This metaphoric book of life concept is about judgment. It is viewed as a book that tells what our year holds, based on our past behavior. It is the judges’ sentence passed on us. When we think of it in that way, it is a powerful image, one that strikes viscerally, because it drives home the point that we are called to account for our actions and omissions. This is probably the Jewish metaphor that is best known and most remembered.

Even the foods that we eat on this holiday have a symbolic meaning. Apples & honey, or honey cake, symbolize the wish for a sweet year, and gesture towards a return to Gan Eden and the close relationship with God as the parent. The round challot symbolize the crowning of G-d as sovereign and our submission to the divine, physically demonstrating the theme of endlessly turning and returning, and indicating our turning back to G-d as part of the cycle of our life. 

The feeling is one of joy, celebration, and welcoming, a special feeling of being welcomed home into the presence of the King and parent who loves us. We are all family, all coming together at this moment.

This morning, after the standard start of day – gratitude for bodies, breath, and health, and the Psalms of praise – the warm up of praying to be ready to pray, we recognize the holiday by adding Hamelech with its very fancy tune – the special affirmation of God as Sovereign, and us as part of the godly kingdom in God’s earthly realm. Some have the custom to rise at this moment to show readiness to pledge fealty and to be judged and evaluated by God, our ruler and sovereign.

We insert the Unetaneh Tokef prayer into the Amidah, focusing on judgement, and the impact of our own actions on our life. We follow that with the assertion that prayer, tzedakah, and deeds of loving kindness can avert the severity of the decree – offering us some hope to mitigate the punishment we should deserve according to strict justice, and giving us the prescription for how to act when we do err.

On Non-Shabbat days we include Avinu Malkeynu – our father our king, expressing hope for redemption and a good year to come, calling on God as both sovereign and loving parent. 

This part of the service is a good opportunity to focus on your relationship with God, with others, or with both; to revisit areas of your life, your goals, and to reflect on where you have been and where you would like to go in the year ahead. It is fodder for the week ahead, the Yamim Nora’im (days of awe) leading up to Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

In our congregation, we read the Torah portion containing  the story of the Binding of Isaac – Abraham’s effort to sacrifice his son. The Haftarah is from Jeremiah, and it is about being cast out of the land, and how Rachel weeps for the exiles (her children) and pleads with God for their return to God’s favor. These readings challenge us to think about loyalty, zealotry, sacrifice, faith, what God wants of us, and the limits of human perception.

With the Torah still out of the Ark, the Shofar is sounded. Hearing the Shofar is considered THE Mitzvah for the day. Rosh Hashanah is known as Yom Teruah – the day of the (sounding of the) horn/trumpet; the reason that the holiday is sometimes called the Feast of Trumpets.  The shofar has always been used as a call to action – in times of war, for disasters, and for spiritual lethargy. Pay attention to the different sounds of the Shofar – the 9 blasts of Teruah, the 3 blasts of Shevarim, and the single longer blast of the Tekiah. Think of this set of sounds as one larger grouping, representing brokenness seeking to heal and become one. The separate sounds are combined in different combinations, but end with the one, long, Tekiah Gedolah – the large or great Tekiah.  The shofar is an alarm to wake us up to pay attention.

When we think of the shofar we are reminded of the special moment of the giving of the Torah, of the fact that this is Judgement Day, and the sound of it heralds the crowning of God as king, recalls the ram in the thicket at the binding of Isaac, and reminds us that Abraham was prepared to do God’s will with a massive sacrifice so we can ask that God should be merciful with us by recalling our ancestor Abraham’s merit.  The Shofar is a sound of hope, reminding us of redemption – messianic days will be announced with the sound of the Shofar. Finally, shofar is from the root that also means to make better and to beautify – so it calls is to improve and make beautiful our deeds in the coming year.

At the close of services, the custom is to wish each other a Shana tovah tikatevu – to be inscribed for a good year. From Yom Kippur until Sukkot, we change that to Shana tovah tichatemu – to be sealed for a good year, as the book of life is finally closed and the decrees in it enacted. 

As the final event on the day of Rosh Hashanah, we go to a nearby flowing natural body of water, ideally one that empties (eventually) into the sea. There we symbolically ‘cast off’ our sins, misdeeds, and missteps of the past year, now that we have engaged in teshuvah, and can begin the year in a state of openness.  Often we use bread crumbs to symbolize the sins and we cast them into the water, which covers them so they may never be found again, with the idea that they will be carried to the depths of the ocean, or eaten by the creatures that will ‘take on’ our sin in our place.

An amusing conceit, written tongue in cheek by Rabbi Dick Israel, z”l, some years ago, lists the various types of breads one might use to indicate specific varieties of sins. Of course, this has nothing to do with traditional Jewish practice, but it is quite funny, and has taken on a life of its own.  That outlines the holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

I would like to read a poem at this time that is based on the story from the Torah, in Genesis 21, concerning the story of Isaac and Ishmael. It is by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, and is called We’re Settling Down Now. It speaks to me of hope – hope for forgiveness, hope for reconciliation, and hope for peace. All of which are appropriate for this holiday.


Abe and I have finally settled down now

near the well at Be’er Sheva.

The palm tree is growing,

the dates are almost ripe!

I see a shadow on the horizon —

Two figures, shimmering like a mirage.

Closer, closer they come.

I see the boy,

now a tall, strong man,

beard black and full, muscular arms,

dark skin, hide of a buck.

I see the woman, rounder now,

ebony hair

tumbling down,

a few white streaks

betraying all the moons

that have

waxed and waned

since then,

since . . .

Oh, never mind.

She approaches me,

unsure —

sand and dust,

questioning eyes.


I myself


slowly, very slowly,

I open my arms

to my sister, my other, my self —

and we embrace,

Izzy and Ish,

their old dad between them,

walk off together

arms entwined,

shovels ready to dig a new well.                                               

— Rabbi Leila Gal Berner


[Intended to be delivered on Rosh HaShanah morning 5774 at Temple House of Israel in Staunton VA. Not delivered due to time constraints.]