Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year, begins this week. But what is it, and how can Christians speak to their Jewish friends and neighbours about the festival? Joseph Steinberg explains



Rosh Hashanah takes place on 1st Tishri and will be celebrated for 48 hours from sunset on Friday 15 September to nightfall on 17 September 2023. As Jewish people around the world celebrate the dawn of another New Year, the traditional greeting: “May your name be inscribed in the book of life” will ring out from Jewish homes and synagogues for the next ten days. Rosh Hashanah is also the first of the High Holy Days (the Ten Days of Awe, or Repentance) and culminates with the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur - on 10th Tishri.

Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of the creation of the world and marks a fresh start. It is a time for people to reflect on the past year and to ask forgiveness for anything they have done wrong. People are also encouraged to think about life’s priorities and what is important to them. Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah also marks a time of judgment, when Jewish people believe that God balances a person’s good acts over the past year with their bad, and decides what the coming 12 months will bring.

A time for reflection

In biblical times, Rosh Hashanah was a special day for worship and celebration: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a Sabbath-rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do not do any of your ordinary work, but present a food offering to the Lord” (Leviticus 23:23-25). The trumpet used was the Shofar, the ram’s horn, which is an essential feature of Rosh Hashanah.

During Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people are searching for forgiveness

Though it is a solemn time of reflection and resolve, Rosh Hashanah is not observed as a sad festival. Before the festive meal at home, pieces of apple dipped in honey are eaten with the prayer: “May it be thy will, O Lord our God, and God of our fathers, to renew unto us a happy and pleasant year.” Sour and pickled foods are avoided to keep unpleasant thoughts away.

A day of judgement

Rosh Hashanah, say the rabbis, is the great day of judgement, on which all mankind passes before God. The records are opened to reveal all known and secret thoughts and deeds, and God decrees the destiny of his creatures. Repentance, justice and prayer, they say, help to avert the divine decree, and, on this day, forgiveness must be sought for the past, and good resolutions made for the future.

Some Jewish people observe “Tashlich” or “casting”. Mindful of Micah 7:19 - “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” - they shake their garments out over flowing water, dispensing their sins into the current.

New Beginnings

In ancient Israel, when the shofar was blown, you knew you needed to pay attention – something big was happening. The Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah is much like that. The horn is blown in order to remind us that something big is happening in heaven: King Messiah is coming, and when he comes, he will bring judgement to the world.

The shofar of the New Testament heralds the era of new beginnings when, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Messiah, and He shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). Messiah Jesus gave himself once and for all, so his people might be permanently cleansed and welcomed into God’s presence for eternity.

King Messiah is coming, and when he comes, he will bring judgement to the world

In Romans 1, Paul writes: “I have complete confidence in the gospel; it is God’s power to save all who believe, first the Jews and also the Gentiles“.

International Mission to Jewish People is seeing Jewish people from all walks of life - from Holocaust survivors to drug addicts and Ukrainian refugees - receive Jesus into their lives and receive the peace and forgiveness that only Jesus can bring. During Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people are searching for forgiveness, so let us encourage one another to pray for Jewish people and tell them about Jesus so that they can receive the love and fulfilment that he offers.

Sadly however, many Jewish still have not understood the salvation that Jesus freely offers. In the Bible, watchmen played a crucial role in keeping people safe and warning of impending danger. Today, Christians can still be watchmen for Jewish people, warning of danger and pointing them to Jesus and the love and fulfilment that he offers.