A key component of Rosh Hashanah preparation is to ask for forgiveness from anyone one may have wronged during the previous year. To whatever extent possible, we want to begin the year with a clean slate – and without anyone harboring a grudge against us. One should also be quick to forgive those who have wronged him.
Many people have the custom to go 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 all vows. In Torah terms, saying something as simple as "I refuse to eat any more candy" can be considered a legal vow. Therefore, before Rosh Hashanah, we annul any vows, whether they were made intentionally or not. This is done by standing in front of three adult males and asking to be released from the vows that were made. 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 most of your slice of 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 when we ask God that the year should be "sweet" (in addition to good), it is because we know that everything will be for the good. But we also ask that it 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.
The symbolic foods are based on a word game which connects the name of a certain food, to a particular hope we have for the new year. Here is a list from the Talmud of symbolic foods customarily eaten on Rosh Hashanah. (The food and its related meaning are in bold.)
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, you could eat a raisin and celery, and ask God in the coming year for a "raise in salary" (raisin celery)!
Print a PDF file of the symbolic foods (courtesy of ArtScroll).
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.
During the High Holidays, the curtain on the ark is changed into a white one, to symbolize that our "mistakes will be whitened like snow."
The chazan (cantor) for the High Holidays should not be chosen for his vocal talents alone. Ideally, the chazan should be over 30 years old, God fearing, learned in Torah, humble, and married. A learned man under 30 with the other qualifications is acceptable. Though it is preferable to allow an unfit chazan to lead services, rather than cause strife over the issue in the community.
Since it is a question as to whether the She'hechianu blessing should be said on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we are accustomed 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 sounding of the shofar. The shofar blasts after the Torah Reading are called "Tekiot M'yushav."
The minimum Torah obligation is to hear nine blasts. However, there is a doubt whether the sound of the shofar should be a groaning type of cry (Shevarim), or a sobbing weep (Teruah), or a combination (Shevarim-Teruah). Therefore, we perform all three sounds, each preceded and followed by an unbroken blast, Tekiah. Three of each set results in 30 blasts total, which are necessary to remove all doubt that the Torah precept has been fulfilled.
It is customary to blow shofar in the same place that the Torah is read, so that the merit of the Torah will support us. The shofar should be blown during the daytime. In ancient times, when the Romans persecuted the Jews, the rabbis instituted blowing the shofar before Musaf, since the Romans had guards in the synagogues during the early morning.
The person who blows the shofar must stand. He should be instructed immediately before blowing to have intention to fulfill the obligation for all those listening. Similarly, all those listening should be reminded to have 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.
Women may sound the shofar for herself and say 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.
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. After the fact, any shofar is acceptable except the horn of a cow, ox or an unkosher species of animal.
In the "Amidah" prayer of Musaf, there are 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). During the chazan's repetition, we blow an additional 30 blasts 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, which is called a Tekiah Gedolah.
It is customary to greet others as follows: "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 that preferably has fish in it. These prayers are symbolic of the casting away of our mistakes. Of course, it is foolish to think you can rid sins by shaking out your 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 had to cross through water up to his neck
If Rosh Hashanah falls out on Shabbat, "Tashlich" is pushed off until the second day. If "Tashlich" was not said on Rosh Hashanah itself, it may be said anytime during the Ten Days of Repentance.
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 fish's eyes never close serve to remind 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.
based on research by Rabbi Moshe Lazerus