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 Rosh ha-Shana (Jewish New Year)

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Rosh ha-Shana (Jewish New Year)

The High Holidays

As the major Jewish holidays are approaching, many will be interested to either learn the holiday vocabulary or to have the explanations handy to teach kids etc.

In this article we start to explain some Hebrew words and names used relevant to the High Holidays period: from Rosh ha-Shana to Yom Kippur.


Rosh ha-Shana

That's Jewish New Year, and the name literally means the Year's Head.

רֹאשׁ - [ rosh ] - head, pl:   רָאשִׁים - [ rashim] - heads

שָׁנָה - [ shana ] - year, pl:   שָׁנִים - [ shanim ] - years

(The word שנים is remarkable because it's irregular: you would typically expect the -ot ending in a word of female gender with -a ending.)

The very construct [ rosh ha-shana ] is a compound form, or smikhut: it's quite equivalent to possessive case in English. The order of the words is the opposite, however, with respect to English one; it's more reminding of a "something of something" order: (the) Head (of) the Year. In compound words, the article [ ha- ] is being added to the second word only: רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה

In synagogues we blow in שׁוֹפָר [ Shofar ] - a horn, which is actually made of a real ram's horn.

The etymology of this word is not that obvious. It has probably more in common with the word צַפְרִיר (morning wind) or צְפִירָה (alarm, siren), rather than with לְשַׁפֵּר (to improve), which is a word of Aramaic origin. Thus, Shofar existed in Hebrew at least since the Torah has been written, which is much earlier than all the other words with the root [sh-f-r] entered the language.



The traditional blessing on Rosh ha-Shana is very simple: we say

!שָׁנָה טוֹבָה    -   [ Shana Tova ] - (Have a) Good Year!

(As שָׁנָה is feminine noun, the adjective is feminine too, and it's טוֹבָה rather than טוֹב.)

Another version of this blessing is:

!שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה    -   [ shana tova u-metuka ] - (Have a) good and sweet year!

I could write volumes about this expression only. E.g., the traditional spelling of [ metuka ] is [ m:tukkA ] which worth a whole new discussion. And why the usual "ve-" turned into "u-"?

Here is a quick note, on the very fingertips: "ve-" turns into "u-" before the letters [m], [b], [p], and [w], and also before a letter with a [shwa] under it, like u-metuka.

Why? This would deserve a separate article indeed. Just remember it for now. And it's classical Hebrew anyway; modern spoken Hebrew uses "ve" everywhere.


Another blessing which comes after Rosh ha-Shana and continues till Yom Kipur:

לְשָׁנָה טוֹבָה תֵּחָתֵמוּ וְתִכָּתֵבוּ!

[ Le-Shana Tova Techatemu ve-tikatevu! ]

That's masculine plural, of course, and it's the most commonly used form for this blessing. Since it's very official, it's usually used while talking to many people.

Note the "pausal" form of the verbs: the stress is not moving to the end of the word, and therefore the tzeire [-E-] is not falling out. In simple modern language you'd rather say "techatmu ve-tikatvu".

What it means is "For a good year may you be written and sealed (in a Book of Life)." Quite complicated, very mystical, and that's probably why this blessing is not really popular today, but we use a short version instead:

כְּתִיבָה וְחֲתִימָה טוֹבָה  - [ ktiva ve-chatima tova ] -- (Have a) good sealing (in the Book of Life)!

literally: "good writing and sealing!"



Speaking of what is popular... We the Jews always have some traditional food for every holiday: we eat a lot, it's part of national habit, I guess. :)

Different Jewish communities may have different customs, but in Israel we have two traditional things for Rosh ha-Shana: apples in honey, and fish head. (The rest of that fish is being actively consumed too; the head should be present on the table as a symbol. Unlike many other things in our culture, this is rather a popular custom than religious obligation... for the best of my knowledge.)

Let's learn some Hebrew at the table then:

תַּפּוּחִים בִּדְבָש - [ tapuchim bi-dvash ] - apples in honey

תַּפּוּח - [ tapuach ] - apple

דְּבָש - [ dvash ] - honey

You'd wonder, why it's bi-dvash, and not just be-dvash?

That's a rule in classical Hebrew grammar: once we have two schwas following each other, the first one turns into chirik. This rule is quite obsolete in modern language, however, when we talk about idioms or traditional names, the classical grammar prevails quite often.

Apples in honey symbolize the above idea of "sweet year",

שֶׁתִּהְיֶה לָנוּ שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה

so it will be good and sweet year for us!

You can see it on postcards sometimes, or everywhere: !שנה טובה ומתוקה - (Have a) Good and Sweet Year!

Another thing we eat is:

רֹאשׁ דָּג - [ rosh dag ]  - fish head - this is simple, isn't it? just head (of) fish.
For those who didn't know, דָּג is fish, plural: דָּגים. Don't confuse with a dog: the difference is, דג doesn't bark.

So, why fish head? The answer is as symbolic as it is simplistic:

שֶׁנִהְיֶה בְּרֹאשׁ וְלֹא בְּזָנָב

[ she-nihye be-rosh ve-lo be-zanav ] - So we'll be in the head, and not in the tail.

[ Be-rosh ] also means "in a leading position", and this proverb actually means, we want to lead the events / the people, to be successful, to be among the best, rather than to be losers. I would say, this saying is quite American: Napoleon Hill could be proud of this motivational statement. :)


שנה טובה ומתוקה!

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