Rosh Hashana is the name for the Jewish New Year. In Hebrew it means the “head of the year.”
Rosh Hashanah is one of the most important religious holidays for Jews. It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days, as specified by Leviticus 23:23–25. Rosh Hashanah marks the first day of the “Ten Days of Repentance” which end with Yom Kippur.
In Israel, Rosh Hashanah is observed for only one day. Diaspora Jews carry on the celebrations into a second day.
The date for Rosh Hashanah changes each year as the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar year. Rosh Hashanah for the Hebrew Year 5783 begins on the Gregorian calendar at sundown on Sunday, September 25 2022 and ends at nightfall on Tuesday, September 27 2022.
Rosh Hashana remembers the creation of the world. It’s a time for continuous introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and making plans to do better in the new year… to do Teshuvah – returning to the paths of the Almighty.
The biblical name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, which means “day of shouting or blasting.” Rosh Hashana is also called the Feast of the Trumpets, as the central observance of the holiday is the sounding of the shofar, a ram’s horn.
The blowing of the shofar represents the trumpet blast that is sounded at a king’s coronation. Its plaintive cry also serves as a call to repentance. The shofar itself recalls the Binding of Isaac, in which a ram took Isaac’s place as an offering to G-d.
The blast of the shofar is intended to awaken souls from their spiritual slumbers and alert them to the coming judgment. It is a reminder to dedicate one’s life to serving the Almighty and to follow His commandments.
No work is permitted on Rosh Hashanah. Much of the day is spent in synagogue with prayers and readings from the Torah. The readings recall the life of Isaac and the theme of G-d’s eternal love for His people.
Festivities begin at nightfall as families gather to enjoy a feast of home cooked ritual dishes. Rosh Hashanah meals start with apple slices dipped in honey, to symbolize wishes for a sweet new year. Other symbolic foods include dates, beans, beets, leek, spinach and squash, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud.
Pomegranates also hold symbolic importance on Rosh Hashanah. Deuteronomy chapter 8, verse 8 refers to pomegranates as a native fruit of Israel. Their tightly-packed seeds symbolize unity between people. The number of seeds is thought to be 613, which corresponds to the number of commandments in the Torah.
Typically, a round challah bread is served at Rosh Hashana meals. The round shape symbolizes the cycle of the year. Some communities have their own unique customs, and serve ritual dishes such as the head of a fish, to symbolize the “head” of the year and a reminder to strive to live life as a head not a tail.
Gefilte fish and Lekach, a Jewish honey cake, are commonly served by Ashkenazi Jews on this holiday. On the second night, new fruits are served in a special ritual blessing, thanking the Almighty for a bountiful harvest of fruit.
Every Rosh Hashana, there is a major pilgrimage to Uman – a city in central Ukraine. Jews from around the world travel to Uman to pray at the burial site of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov who lived from 1772 until 1810. As believed by the Breslov Hasidim, before his death the rebbe solemnly promised to intercede on behalf of anyone who would come to pray on his grave on Rosh Hashana. Thus, a pilgrimage to his grave provides the best chance of getting unscathed through the stern judgement which, according to Jewish faith, G-d passes on everybody on Yom Kippur.
The Uman pilgrimage dates back to 1811. It it attracted hundreds of Hasidic Jews annually from Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland until the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution sealed the border.
In the following decades, savage repressions by the Bolsheviks, Nazis and Soviets forced the Chassidim in Ukraine underground.
The Bolsheviks and Soviet communists tried to stamp out the pilgrimage as part of its atheist agenda. During the 1930s, access to Uman was strictly forbidden to Jewish pilgrims. So pilgrims secretly visited apartments near Rebbe Nachman’s burial site. They risked arrest and deportation to Siberian gulags, where many perished.
During World War II the Nazis decimated Uman’s Jewish population of 17,000. In 1948 the soviet regime relented and let the pilgrimage resume, albeit nominally. Only tiny numbers of closely watched Soviet Jews were allowed to make the trip.
In the 1960s, American and Israeli Hasidim began to make the pilgrimage to Uman. Some travelled legally, others not.
In the 1980s, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, the Soviet Union began to reopen access to Uman for pilgrims from Israel and the United States. In 1988, the Kremlin granted about 250 visas to visit Uman.
In 1989, over one thousand Hasidim gathered in Uman for Rosh Hashana. In 1990, after the fall of communism, the number had grown to two thousand. By 2019, upwards of thirty thousand pilgrims were gathering in Uman.
Unfortunately, this progress did not last. In 2020, the two-century old pilgrimage was officially cancelled. Ukraine closed its borders in August 2020 due to coronavirus concerns. This blocked most pilgrims from entering the country.
But for the past century, overcoming obstacles had become part and parcel of the pilgrimage to Uman. So not surprisingly, some pilgrims had anticipated potential problems and arrived early, before the border was closed. Others coming later tried, unsuccessfully, to enter via Belarus. Some 2500 hopefuls were turned back at the Ukrainian border, after having been stranded in Belarus in airports and buses for days. This situation inevitably sparked tensions between Ukraine and Belarus. The govt in Belarus had recently been crushing pro-democracy protests. Ukraine supported the protesters. So Belarus president Lukashenko, who was facing criticism in the West for his brutal crack downs, used the occasion to accuse Ukraine of human rights violations for barring the pilgrims. Ukraine accused Lukashenko of manufacturing the crisis by giving the pilgrims false hope of transport across the border in retaliation against Ukraine for supporting the protests against his regime.
In 2021, Ukraine lifted travel restrictions and allowed international travelers to attend the pilgrimage in Uman. For this to happen, health and govt officials worked closely with religious leaders to ensure that the gathering of some 30,000 expected pilgrims would not turn into a covid superspreader. It didn’t.
This year, 2022, Ukrainian govt officials again tried to cancel the pilgrimage… this time citing concerns, quite legitimate, for the safety of pilgrims due to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials fear that that the Russian army will deliberately fire missiles at Uman while Jews are gathered there. In March Russia accused Ukraine of using a synagogue in Uman for military purposes, including storing military supplies. The accusations were vehemently rejected by the local Jewish community and Kyiv.
Rabbi Moshe Azman, the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, also called on Jewish pilgrims to refrain from traveling to Uman this year due to fear of Russian attacks.
But to no avail. Pilgrims have been flocking to Uman already. Up to 10,000 are expected in total this year. Ukrainian security forces have been carrying out intensive training drills in preparation for the arrival of pilgrims to Uman. Plans have been made for “additional restrictions” in the city already under curfew. They include a ban on street vending and public gatherings.
Some Israelis shrug off the war dangers, saying that it’s no different from home where a defacto war has been going on for years. So, they follow timeless tradition and come to Uman for Rosh Hashana.
One of Rebbe Nachman’s most famous sayings is: If you believe you can damage, believe you can repair.
Such a sentiment surely ties together the call for repentance and the promise of redemption given during the Jewish High Holidays. At its core Rebbe Nachman’s famous saying is a message of wisdom with universal application for all of humankind.
To our Jewish listeners, Shanah Tovah … wishing you a Happy Rosh Hashana on behalf of all of us here at Nash Holos. And together let us pray for the safety of Jewish pilgrims in Uman.
This is Pawlina, producer and host of Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio. Until next time, Shalom!
Links to three Rosh Hashana songs featured on the full episode of Nash Holos: