Rosh Hashanah Theology and Themes

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With the model of Adam and Eve before us, we remember that the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit included exile from the Garden of Eden, toiling the earth for food, and the labor of bearing and raising children. Likewise, the destinies that God decrees for the coming year may include changes in livelihood, fertility, and family harmony. For example, whether or not we prosper financially in the coming year is included in the Divine decrees. This scenario may seem to raise questions of predetermination, i.e., if all is decided on Rosh Hashanah, then what difference do our actions make? However, the element of partnering in our destiny comes to the fore with the intention and action of repentance. The idea is not to simply live out the Divine decree, but to mitigate and ultimately change it in our favor.

Another theme of Rosh Hashanah comes from a literal translation of the term. Rosh in Hebrew means "head." It is the head of the year and bears with it all the connotations that the head or mind has in human thought. In this way we wish for excellence in the coming year and not simply survival. In some Sephardic communities, it is traditional to eat foods that convey this image, such as cooking with the heads of the fish while avoiding the tails.

Other traditional food customs likewise convey several themes of the holiday. It is customary to partake of a new food item, usually a new fruit, on Rosh Hashanah. This invokes the image of newness and a fresh beginning, which is embodied in the holiday. Also, Jews traditionally dip apples into honey on Rosh Hashanah. The apple, reminiscent of the fruit of the Garden of Eden, reminds us of the creation theme that infuses Rosh Hashanah. The honey, an ancient symbol of strength and a source of sweetness, embodies our wishes for the coming year. Honey is also the sweet product of the collective within the beehive and therefore can be seen as symbolic of the potential sweetness and strength found within community. Thus, dipping the singular piece of apple into the honey bowl can be symbolic of ourselves as individuals immersed within the community and all the positive aspects it contains.

Together, these themes speak of renewal, celebration, creation, evaluation, accountability, and responsibility: a complex holiday filled with joy and trepidation.

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