Ask an expert - Sherri Cook, Rosh Hashanah celebrant

What should we know about Rosh Hashanah?


That is the central theme of Rosh Hashanah, the annual two-day celebration that marks the start of the Jewish New Year.

Rosh Hashanah, a occasion blending self-reflection with future hope that means "head of the year" in Hebrew, begins this Saturday. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day in Judaism, follows 10 days later.

As a child going to the synagogue with her family for Rosh Hashanah services, Hinsdale's Sherri Cook remembers experiencing the distinctive cry of the shofar, or ram's horn.

"The shofar is blown during the service at least 30 times," Cook said. "It reflects both earthly and divine sounds, and it represents a call to attention and fulfills the commandment from the Torah."

Shofar players are trained and typically own one of the valuable and sacred horns, she said.

"They blow it every year until he or she is not able to any longer. There was always the same guy who got up there on the Bimah every Rosh Hashanah to blow the shofar," Cook said.

Tradition holds that the Jewish New Year was set to coincide with the fall harvest. Cook said families gather after the service to enjoy nature's yield.

"You have extended family that comes together for a big meal. Special foods like apples and honey or honey cake symbolize our wishes for a sweet year ahead," she said.

Challah bread is made in a round shape to call to mind the circle of life. Loved ones exchange "Shanah Tovah" greetings for a good year as they consider missteps in the last one.

"In this period of reflection and turning and looking back, it's almost like a reconciliation," Cook commented. "Basically we ask God for forgiveness for all of our sins or any transgressions. We make amends for those and ask to be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year."

Children delight in tossing pebbles into nearby waterways as a gesture of casting away sins.

"Sometimes you write down something on the rock and you cast it away and hope that God will forgive that transgression," she said.

Kids walking around blowing toy shofars is also a favorite activity, and joyful singing helps lighten the solemn aspects of the day.

"We look and we think about what was good and not so good and promise to do better," Cook remarked.

Because synagogue attendance customarily swells on Rosh Hashanah, services are being streamed in observance of COVID-19 safety measures.

Cook will gather with her family in the area and looks forward to sharing the meal, which begins with a ritual prayer.

She said the events of 2020 has presented an abundance of prayer material, both for herself and on behalf of the larger society.

With fond memories of cooking for Rosh Hashanah alongside her mom, aunt and grandmother in her youth, Cook now enjoys enlisting her offspring in the preparations.

"I'm going to make honey cake with my kids," she said. "The holiday is very meaningful. It's a chance to really take stock of your year and where you've been."

- by Ken Knutson

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean