A key component of Rosh Hashanah preparation is to ask for forgiveness from anyone we may have wronged during the previous year. To the greatest extent possible, we want to begin the year with a clean slate – and without anyone harboring a grudge against us. Similarly, we should be quick to forgive those who have wronged us.
Many people have the custom of going to the mikveh before Rosh Hashanah after midday. A mikveh, which has the power to purify from certain types of spiritual impurities, can be an important part of the teshuva process.
Some have the custom of visiting a cemetery on the day before Rosh Hashanah and praying at the graves of the righteous. Of course, we do not pray "to" the righteous, but only to God who hears our prayers in the merit of the righteous.
The morning before Rosh Hashanah, we perform "Hatarat Nedarim" – annulling of vows. In Torah terms, saying something as simple as "I refuse to eat candy" can be considered a legal vow. Therefore, before Rosh Hashanah, we annul any vows, whether made intentionally or not. This is done by standing in front of three adult males and asking to be released from one’s vows. The full text can be found in a Siddur or Rosh Hashanah Machzor.
The Festive Meal
During the High Holidays, a round challah is used – symbolizing fullness and completion. After making the "Hamotzi" blessing, it is customary to dip the bread into honey – symbolizing our prayer for a sweet new year.
Then, after the bread has been eaten, take an apple and dip it in honey. Make a blessing on the apple (since "Hamotzi" did not cover the apple) and eat a little bit of the apple. Then say, "May it be Your will, God, to renew us for a good and sweet new year." (OC 583)
Why do we ask for both a "good" AND "sweet" year? Doesn't the word "good" automatically include "sweet?" Judaism teaches that everything happens for the good. It is all part of the Divine will. Even things that may look "bad" in our eyes, are actually "good." So we ask that in addition to good, the year should be a "revealed" good – i.e. one that tastes "sweet" to us.
On Rosh Hashanah, we add the paragraph "Ya'aleh V'yavo" in Grace After Meals.
On Rosh Hashanah, we eat foods that symbolize good things we hope for in the coming year. We contemplate what these foods symbolize, and connect with the Source of all good things. Here is a list from the Talmud of symbolic foods customarily eaten on Rosh Hashanah. (The food and its related meaning are written in capital letters.)
- After eating LEEK or CABBAGE, say: "May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be CUT OFF."
- After eating BEETS, say: "May it be Your will, God, that our adversaries be REMOVED."
- After eating DATES, say: "May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be FINISHED."
- After eating GOURD, say: "May it be Your will, God, that the decree of our sentence should be TORN apart, and may our merits be PROCLAIMED before You."
- After eating POMEGRANATE, say: "May it be Your will, God, that our merits increase as the seeds of a POMEGRANATE."
- After eating the HEAD of a sheep or fish, say: "May it be Your will, God, that we be as the HEAD and not as the tail.
You can also use other foods and make up your own "May it be Your will…" For example, eat a raisin and celery, and ask God in the coming year for a "raise in salary" (raisin celery)!
Rosh Hashanah Prayers
Since there are so many unique prayers on Rosh Hashanah, we use a special prayer book called a "Machzor."
In the "Amidah" and "Kiddush" for Rosh Hashanah, we say the phrase "Yom Teruah." However, if Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, we say "Zichron Teruah" instead. (If one inadvertently said the wrong phrase, he needn't repeat the prayer.)
The supplication "Avinu Malkeinu" should be said on Rosh Hashanah, except when Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat coincide, since supplications are not said on Shabbat. If Rosh Hashanah falls on a Friday, "Avinu Malkeinu" is not said at Mincha.
The curtain on the ark is changed to white.
During the High Holidays, the curtain on the ark is changed to a white one, to symbolize that our "mistakes will be whitened like snow."
The "Amidah" prayer of Musaf contains three special blessings: "Malchiot" (praises to God the King), "Zichronot" (asking God to remember the merits of our Ancestors), and "Shofrot" (the significance of the shofar).
The chazan (cantor) for the High Holidays should not be chosen for his vocal talents alone. Ideally, he should be over 30 years old, God fearing, learned in Torah, humble, and married. Rather than cause strife in the community, a Chazzan under the age of 30 who possesses the other qualifications, may serve.
Since it is a question as to whether the "She'hechianu" blessing should be said on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the custom is to eat a new fruit or wear a new garment – and say "She'hechianu" upon it.
The essential mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is to hear the shofar.
The shofar used on Rosh Hashanah should be a curved ram's horn, and longer than four inches. It is permitted to use the shofar of an animal not ritually slaughtered.
The minimum Torah obligation is to hear nine blasts. However, given a doubt whether the sound should be a groaning type of cry (Shevarim), or a sobbing weep (Teruah), or a combination (Shevarim-Teruah), we perform all three sounds – each preceded and followed by an unbroken blast, Tekiah. Three of each set results in 30 blasts total, which remove all doubt that the Torah precept has been fulfilled.
The shofar is regarded as a spiritual alarm clock, awakening us from our slumber.
The shofar should be blown during the daytime. Everyone should stand, and have the intention that their obligation is being fulfilled.
Before blowing, two blessings are recited: "To hear the sound of the shofar," and "She'hechianu." Once the blessings have been made, one may not speak until the end of the shofar blowing.
A woman may sound the shofar for herself after saying the blessing. (Sefardi women do not say a blessing.) A child who is old enough to be educated regarding mitzvot is required to hear the Shofar.
The shofar is not blown when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat.
During the chazan's repetition of the Musaf "Amidah," an additional 30 blasts are blown in the various combinations.
It is the custom to blow 40 extra blasts at the end of services, bringing the total to 100.
It is customary to prolong the final blast, called "Tekiah Gedolah."
It is customary to greet others with: "L'shana Tova – Ketivah vi-chatima Tova." This means: "For a good year – You should be written and sealed in the good (Book of Life)."
One should try not to sleep or go for idle walks on the day of Rosh Hashanah. (The Arizal permits a nap in the afternoon.)
It is advisable to avoid marital relations, except if Rosh Hashanah falls on the night of the wife's immersion.
If a Bris Milah falls on Rosh Hashanah, it should be performed between the Torah reading and the shofar blowing.
The "Tashlich" prayer is said on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, by a pool of water, preferably with fish in it. This prayer is the symbolic casting away of our mistakes. Surely we do not “rid our sins” by shaking out our pockets – rather the Jewish approach is deep introspection and commitment to change. Indeed, the whole idea of "Tashlich" is partly to commemorate the Midrash that says when Abraham went to the Akeida (binding of Isaac), he crossed through water up to his neck.
If Rosh Hashanah falls out on Shabbat, "Tashlich" takes place on the second day. If "Tashlich" was not said on Rosh Hashanah itself, it may be said anytime during the Ten Days of Teshuva.
Tashlich is said by a pool of water, preferably with fish in it.
Both the body of water and the fish are symbolic. In Talmudic literature, Torah is represented as water. Just as fish can't live without water, so too a Jew can't live without Torah.
Also, the fact that a fish's eyes never close reminds us that, so too, God's eyes (so to speak) never close; He knows of our every move.
This is the text of "Tashlich:"
Who is like You, God, who removes iniquity and overlooks transgression of the remainder of His inheritance. He doesn't remain angry forever because He desires kindness. He will return and He will be merciful to us, and He will conquer our iniquities, and He will cast them into the depths of the seas.
Give truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham like that you swore to our ancestors from long ago.
From the straits I called upon God, God answered me with expansiveness. God is with me, I will not be afraid, what can man do to me? God is with me to help me, and I will see my foes (annihilated). It is better to take refuge in God than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in God, that to rely on nobles.
Many people also read Psalms 33 and 130.