Our 40 Favorite Stories of 2018

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iStock.com/ViewApart

Like parents with their children, Mental Floss's editors and writers don't want to have to choose a “favorite” story during any given year. But also like parents with their children, we do tend to play favorites (sorry, kids—it’s true for your parents, too). Whether it’s a piece we wrote, a story we edited, or just something we read on the site and loved, our team agreed to share some of their favorite stories of the year (listed in chronological order). Just in case you missed them.

How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Lucas Reilly is probably best known for his impeccably-researched long form stories, but he’s just as adept at offering a quick glimpse of a situation few have stopped to ponder: How does one tidy up the rooms of an ice hotel in Sweden? (Hint: Maids carry ice picks instead of feather dusters.) I like this story because it presents a totally alien situation, piques the reader’s curiosity, and then summarizes the logistics involved. Also: Having “manager of ice hotel” in your list of contacts is a very Mental Floss thing to do. —Jake Rossen, Senior Staff Writer

14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists

I just loved the details of how Hollywood food stylists accomplish their goals: mashed potatoes as ice cream (it doesn't melt under hot lights)! Ground-up Oreos to stand in for Pakistani dirt! Prosciutto slices when you need to mimic slivers of a human arm for Hannibal! It's all here! —Bess Lovejoy, Staff Editor

The Enigma of Edinburgh’s Miniature Coffins

National Museums Scotland

I've long been fascinated by the 17 miniature coffins a group of rabbit-hunting boys found in Edinburgh in 1836. Were they connected to some sort of spellwork, like a Scottish version of voodoo dolls? Or an eerie homage to the Burke and Hare murders? I love how Allison Meier laid out the various bizarre theories and delved into the the scholarly analysis of what must be some of the stranger museum artifacts on display in the world. —BL

Bizarre as Hell: The Disappearance of the Yuba County Five

The disappearance of the Yuba County 5 was a tragedy for their families. But when I found mention of it deep in a Reddit thread over the holiday break of 2017, I knew we had to cover it. Young men driven into the forest for no apparent reason, only to meet their icy doom? It seemed like something out of Twin Peaks, or, as some have said, like an American Dyatlov Pass incident (a reference to the mysterious deaths of nine Soviet students in 1959 while camping). And even though I knew the whole story, Jake Rossen still spooked me retelling it. The sense of atmosphere and mystery he created here is, to me, far darker and more interesting than the average blood-soaked murder—perhaps because, when left to its own imaginings, the mind often creates something much worse than the truth. —BL

When The Day After Terrorized 100 Million Viewers With a Vision of Nuclear War

Several years ago, before we had ever worked together, Jake Rossen wrote a story for Mental Floss about the awesomely terrible little-kid-is-a-robot sitcom Small Wonder. Jake and I had never spoken, emailed, or in any other way communicated (we were both freelancers at the time), but I was determined to see him make some of my bizarre, half-formed story ideas come to life. When we both came aboard as staffers, I set about putting my devious plan into motion. And it worked (this is the part where Jake would add that he got the raw end of that deal). In addition to sharing a rather warped sense of humor and desperate love of Cobra Kai (seriously—go watch it), Jake has a knack for turning my random emails—“Stop the Insanity!” “John Wayne Bobbitt”—into fully fleshed out stories (no pun intended, John) that go beyond the surface or just some kitschy “hey, remember this?” kind of thing. His piece on The Day After—which scared the sh** out of me as a kid, and 100 million other people—is the perfect example of this. I’m still not sure why my parents let me and my siblings watch it. But I’m glad that Jake suggested a deep dive into how it came to be. —Jennifer M. Wood, Senior Editor

How Jeremy Bentham Finally Came to America, Nearly 200 Years After His Death

Mental Floss

Can you fangirl over a skeleton? Well, I did this year. Jeremy Bentham is my favorite preserved dead philosopher, and not only because he's the only preserved dead philosopher in the world—or at least, the only one who left such specific instructions. For me, the joy of this story was to talk to the curators involved in displaying Bentham's auto-icon (as his articulated, stuffed skeleton topped with wax head is known) on both sides of the Atlantic. I could hear Luke Syson at The Met Breuer positively beaming delight down through the phone wires, and thought about how weird—but beautiful—it is that this corpse brings so much joy to people, including me. Part of that is because Bentham himself was so iconoclastic, and his attempt to make a political, or at least ethical, statement with his own body feels very modern. Not to mention wonderfully eccentric. —BL

5 Ways to Define a Sandwich, According to the Law

Michele Debczak always manages to answer questions I didn’t even know I had. Can I get paid to eat Nutella? What does Uranus smell like? Why do tumbleweeds tumble? But I’m especially thankful for this jewel: This was a huge debate in the Mental Floss office back in 2014, and I’m glad somebody finally put it to bed. —Lucas Reilly, Features Writer

The Typo That Helped End World War II

In our line of work, typos are a very, very bad thing. So when a typo mistakenly landed a cryptogamist (a person who studies algae) instead of a cryptogramist (a codebreaker) a job at Bletchley Park in 1939, it seemed like one big embarrassing mistake. But when Allied forces managed to salvage a bunch of critical—albeit waterlogged—documents from some German U-boats they had torpedoed, it turned out that having a cryptogamist on hand was just the thing they needed to salvage the documents. Once dried, the Bletchley codebreakers were able to use the information to crack German communication, which likely hastened the end of the war by two to four years, saving millions of lives in the process. And all because of a seemingly embarrassing typo! —JMW

The Canadian Village Where Sasquatches Are Said to Roam

iStock

As a child of British Columbia, sasquatches are close to my heart. In this piece, I particularly admired the primacy of indigenous knowledge: A lesser writer could easily paint the whole thing as "weird," or dismiss it due to lack of evidence, but Kat explores the role of the sasquatch as a member of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais community. The result is a much fuller account of what this creature means for the people of the Pacific Northwest than you usually see. She also paints a rich picture of the land where she reported—something that's all too rare in our mostly desk-bound days. —BL

25 Foreign Words with Hilarious Literal Meanings

I studied Vietnamese for about a year while living in Hanoi, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t learn anything during the animal lesson because I couldn’t get past the hilarious literal translations. For example, a crocodile is literally called an “ugly fish” and a skunk is a “stink fox," which is actually a pretty perfect naming system, in my opinion. This inspired me to research some of the amusing literal translations in other languages, and I wasn’t disappointed. My personal favorite is "paper vampire" for stapler in Afrikaans. —Emily Petsko, Staff Writer

The Wild, Wild Story of the 'Sex Guru' at the Center of Wild Wild Country

When Netflix dropped the docuseries Wild Wild Country in March, I was instantly hooked. A true crime series with a sex cult at the center? Sign me up! Though I binge-watched all six hours in one sitting, Emily Petsko managed to reveal even more about Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the man at the center of the documentary, offering an even deeper understanding about who he was and why he was compelled to do the things he did. If you haven’t seen the series or read the story, I won’t give too much away. But I will say that pairing a binge-watch with this article is one great way to spend a weekend. —JMW

9 The Shining References Buried in Pixar Films

Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Woody Image: iStock. Background: IFC Midnight

One of the things people seem to love about Pixar films is how they speak to adults as much as they do kids. One possible reason to explain this could be Pixar mainstay Lee Unkrich’s love of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. As such, Unkrich—who has directed and/or co-directed a handful of films for the animation company, including Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo, and Coco—has hidden subtle nods to the iconic Stephen King adaptation (which, ironically, King doesn't like) into the Pixar world. Rebecca Pahle had some fun sharing some of them here. —JMW

Traumatic License: An Oral History of Action Park

It’s hard to believe that a place like Action Park actually existed, and it’s even harder to believe that it remained open for nearly two decades. I’m simultaneously relieved and a little disappointed that I never got to experience the “Cannonball Loop.” —EP

8 Professional Translators Choose Their Favorite 'Untranslatable' Words

I’ve been trying to work Hellhörig into conversation ever since I read this piece, which—in addition to that delightfully German word—is full of other terms you’ll want to start using immediately. —Erin McCarthy, Editor-in-Chief

20 Character Actors Who Make Everything They’re in Better

When Scott Beggs pitched me this idea, I had just one question: Will Walton Goggins be included? He swore he was already at the top of the list, and I was sold. But I could have very well asked the same question about every actor he included here, each of whom really does elevate every project they’re in—even if it’s already great to begin with. Side note: It hardly seems coincidental that a handful of the actors in here have appeared in the television version of Fargo (or, in the case of Peter Stormare, the original film). Yes, that’s a total plug for Fargo. No, I have no affiliation with the series beyond loving it and always being amazed by the casts they manage to assemble. —JMW

The Quest to Break America's Most Mysterious Code—and Find $60 Million in Treasure

Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Image: iStock.

A lot has been written about Beale’s treasure, and people love debating whether it’s real or not. But what’s most real to me is that people can get so wrapped up in solving this mystery that they become utterly consumed by it. This isn’t so much a story about treasure; it’s a story about the people who hunt it—and how their passion transforms their lives, for better and worse. (Treasure hunters, by the way, are incredibly fun people to interview!) —LR

The Best Way to Wipe Your Butt, According to Experts

Wiping your butt seems like something you shouldn’t be able to mess up, but here’s a dirty little secret: You totally can. I love that we spoke to an expert who walked us through how it's done properly (wet wipes are a no-no!) and introduced us to the frankly horrifying Polished Anus Syndrome. —EM

12 Facts About Japanese Internment in the United States

While we tend to steer clear of modern-day politics in our everyday coverage, it’s always interesting to see how so many of our historical stories have a resonance in the world today. Scott Beggs’s excellent story about FDR’s Executive Order 9066, which sanctioned the removal of Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese heritage from their homes to be imprisoned in internment camps throughout the country, is a perfect example of that. And a great read—particularly when you consider that it happened in 1942, which is really not that long ago. —JMW

The 1925 Cave Rescue that Captivated the Nation

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

I loved the sense of tension and suspense that Lucas wrought from a simple question: Will the man trapped in the cave survive? He brought the long hours of stillness and tedium within the pitch-black cave to life, and gave readers a thread—like the weak flame of Collins's lamp—on which they could cling to hope. The contrast between those scenes and the crass, party-like atmosphere outside the cave captured a time in American history that held a mirror to today's sensationalizing of disasters. —Kat Long, Staff Editor

10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories

Though I rarely buy into fan theories, I love reading about them. And Kristin Hunt has really become our go-to writer for digging up some truly bizarre ones on everything from Mary Poppins to The Sopranos. As a rabid Sesame Street fan (yes, even as an adult—and I’ve got the socks to prove it), the idea that Count von Count occasionally gives into his vampiric need for human blood or that Oscar the Grouch’s trash can is actually a TARDIS gave me a lot to think, and laugh, about. (Yes, I’m also a Doctor Who nerd.) —JMW

Amazing Automata and Mechanical Musical Instruments

Librarians and archivists are my rock stars, so the whole video series we did at little-known local museums this year had me fangirling. But the highlight may have been in June, when we went to the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey, and the conservator, Jere Ryder, opened up the deep storage. While the automata and musical instruments upstairs in the museum are sublime (think ornate and expensive), these not-quite-ready for primetime players, including a taxidermy cat playing a harp and meowing "kittens" playing cards, were so incredibly awkward and sweet I think I squealed. The place is definitely worth a trip to New Jersey, even if a child on a previous visit did scream "This is going to give me nightmares!" —BL

15 Essential Midnight Movies Every Film Fan Needs to See

Though movie theaters had a very good year in 2018, their so-called “comeback” was due in large part to major blockbusters like Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Which makes me long for the days when even the smallest towns seemed to have a repertory theater, where midnight screenings of movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, El Topo, and The Warriors were a standard option on a Saturday night. Matthew Jackson wrote about some of the best of them here, and what made them perfect for late-night moviegoers. —JMW

The Tiny "Spite Triangle" That Marks a Century-Old Grudge Against New York City

Jason Eppink, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Over the years we’ve written about spite houses and spite fences, but Shaunacy Ferro’s exploration of a teeny tiny mosaic tile that sits in the ground in New York City’s West Village might be the ultimate middle finger—if only because it largely goes unnoticed, and will hopefully remain there forever. —JMW

13 Secrets of Crime Scene Cleaners

I love covering professions many people don't think much about, like the companies brought in to clean up after violent deaths. Deanna Cioppa focused both on the memorable details—like the training set-ups made out of sheet rock and pig's blood—and the emotional heart of the story, which I think is the immense satisfaction people get from doing this job. As one interviewee put it, "It's the beat of another human being's heart against yours, thanking you for helping them on the worst day of their lives." —BL

When Missing Kids Could Be Found on Milk Cartons

Any kid who ever ate a bowl of cereal in the 1980s probably remembers staring at the back of the milk carton and being confronted with the haunting faces of “missing” children. To a child, it was slightly alarming—and it’s a tactic that has long confounded me, mostly because I wondered just how effective it really was. The answer, it turns out, is: not very. But the genesis of the concept and how milk cartons came to be the vessel of choice for spreading the word about missing children makes for a wonderful read. —JMW

The Mysterious Bronze Objects That Have Baffled Archaeologists for Centuries

Any story about a mysterious artifact that confounds experts instantly has my attention. This piece doesn't give a definitive explanation for dodecahedrons—the intricate, 12-sided objects that have been dug up across northern Europe—but it does offer some plausible theories that don't involve extraterrestrials. —Michele Debczak, Senior Staff Writer

How Lewis Keseberg Was Branded the Killer Cannibal of the Donner Party

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most people are probably familiar with the horrific tale of the Donner Party, but this part of the story—in which Lewis Keseberg was accused of not just cannibalism, but of murder—I was not familiar with. Michele Debczak does a great job telling a story that's fascinating and tragic in equal measure, and a must read for those who love history. —EM

The Most Influential Parasite in History

Erin McCarthy talked to a boatload of malaria experts and pieced together this great feature detailing just how acutely malaria has changed the course of world history—it’s changed human evolution, it’s changed America’s government, and it’s now helping drive scientific research in directions that are beyond our wildest imaginations. This thoroughly reported piece is enlightening. —LR

The Time Congress Banned the Braille Edition of Playboy

Sometimes I just want to open up Jake Rossen’s brain so I can see where he gets all of his ideas. He always finds the most unusual and unbelievable stories to tell! Usually, they sound like the set-up to a weird joke. Take this one: "Did you hear about the time a politician who crusaded against an edition for Playboy made for blind people?" It sounds too wacky to be true. But, alas, here it is. —LR

12 Reasons We Love True Crime, According to the Experts

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.com/Customdesigner (TV), iStock.com/D-Keine (crime scene)

Who among us hasn’t paused our binge-watch of Making a Murderer to wonder whether the current deluge of true crime content is healthy? Erin McCarthy’s breakdown of the psychology behind our addiction to morbid subject matter is both reassuring and informative. There’s nothing wrong with getting lost in a criminal narrative. There’s even a case for an evolutionary benefit to hearing these disturbing tales. —JR

The 19th Century "Gang of Ghosts" That Terrorized Chicago's North Side

I love a good ghost story, and this one by Shaunacy Ferro—featuring a Chicago ghost gang, a man of the cloth, a lawsuit, and a hilariously angry New York newspaper that declared "Chicago is not old enough to have ghosts"—is a good one. —EM

The Bloody History of Fangoria

In many ways, I owe my career to Fangoria. The legendary horror movie magazine—which recently made a comeback—was a must-read for any serious horror movie fan back in the 1980s and 1990s. And while its covers made it clear that blood and guts were on the menu, its dedication to going behind the scenes of the movies they covered—to speak not just with the actors and directors, but the special effects and makeup teams and the many other artists who were essential in bringing these films to life—instilled in its readers a serious appreciation for the moviemaking process as a whole (which too few magazines do today). The magazine has gone through a few different iterations, and Jake Rossen took the time to speak with several of the people who were there and make it all happen. Also: Props to my brother for allowing me to dig into his full collection of mint-condition copies for a few photo ops. —JMW

14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Haunted House Actors

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, so it was fun to learn about what’s actually happening behind the scenes at a haunted house. I have newfound respect for these actors, who work extremely hard and wear themselves out scaring the crap out of their patrons (quite literally, as you’ll see in fact #8). —EP

The Most Dangerous Job: The Murder of America's First Bird Warden

iStock.com/NicolasMcComber

Not everyone knows this, but Lucas Reilly is an alchemist: You can give him a one-page scan of a book, or an old newspaper article, and he'll turn it into gold. This beautifully written story is ostensibly about a murder of a man in the Everglades, but what you feel most deeply (at least I did) is the murder of all the birds the man was sent to protect. All of Lucas's stories have these layers, which are always revealed at just the right moment. This one is also a sadly timely story given the rollback in protections for migratory birds, not to mention other species, and a reminder that humans are the most dangerous animal of all. —BL

Alone in the Dark: An Oral History of MTV's Fear

As a teen, there were few things I found scarier than MTV’s Fear—so I naturally loved this oral history about how the show came together (and, frankly, ended way before it should have). Some of the stories included in it are as scary as the show itself! —EM

Does a Realtor Have to Disclose That a House Is Supposedly Haunted?

If you asked me if I believe in ghosts, I’d probably say “no.” But, perhaps contradictorily, I somehow believe that houses can be haunted. And am pretty sure that I’ll be the person who one day buys one. Thanks to Michele Debczak, I now know which states must disclose if a house is “stigmatized” and have learned that a site called DiedInHouse.com exists, so am feeling much better about my chances of not moving into a Poltergeist situation. —JMW

Mary Frith, 17th-Century London's Smoking, Thieving, Foul-Mouthed "Roaring Girl"

It's easy to fall into the idea that women of the past were always obedient homemakers. Then comes along someone like Mary Frith, who in 1600s England was dressing in men's clothing, smoking, stealing, singing, having plays written about her, and generally doing whatever she pleased. I love how Meg Van Huygen resuscitates her story and tells it even with its complexity (some of her biography may be invented) and gaps. It's a reminder that history is messy, non-linear, and often so much more interesting than we've been taught. —BL

How the World's Only Feudal Lord Outclassed the Nazis to Save Her People

Housewife, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

I was lucky enough to visit Sark and interview Dame Sibyl’s great-grandson and current Seigneur, Michael Beaumont. I admit I’ve never interviewed a feudal lord before. He invited me into the Seigneurie, the feudal mansion, and we chatted in the same plush personal library that the Dame used. Afterward, the seigneur gave me a tour of the house and casually showed me the centuries-old, yellowing charters that granted Sark its fiefdom—all signed by long-dead monarchs! It was surreal to explore the building where Dame Sibyl confronted the Nazis. —LR

The Story Behind Keith Richards's Most Famous Birthday Gift

I'm always looking for “flossy” music stories to run, and when a Rolling Stone gets to celebrate a birthday, wedding anniversary, and the anniversary of his most famous accessory all on the same day? I just couldn't resist. —Erika Berlin, Senior Editor

6 Explosive Fart Controversies

At Mental Floss, we sometimes write sweeping features about defeating Nazis. We sometimes write about fun facts and trivia, or useful how-tos that allow our readers to live smarter. And sometimes, we write about fart-based controversies. You can’t tell me this isn’t the best job in the world. —EM

Save Up to 93 Percent on 8 Gaming Accessories and Enter to Win a Free Nintendo Switch Bundle

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Stackcommerce

The Nintendo Switch is one of the hottest video game consoles of the past few decades, with worldwide sales topping 55 million (that's more than the Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64, and it's only a few million behind the original NES). The problem with a console being so popular is that it's not always easy to spot one on store shelves. If you haven't had luck finding one in recent months, you can enter this contest to win your very own Nintendo Switch, along with a copy of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a pair of Switch-compatible Logitech wireless headphones, and a $300 Nintendo gift card. Head here for more details.

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11 Things You Should Know About Rosh Hashanah

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iStock

The first Rosh Hashanah supposedly occurred in the Garden of Eden. But what does this important Jewish holiday—which will take place from September 18 through September 20 in 2020—involve today?

1. Rosh Hashanah literally translates to "head of the year."

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Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, can fall any time between the fifth of September and the fifth of October on the Gregorian Calendar. On the Jewish calendar, it is the first day of the month of Tishrei and marks the start of the High Holy Days. These days are also known as the days of awe, ushering in the final phase of atonement. The holiday celebrates the anniversary of the creation of the world.

2. For the month before rosh Hashanah, Jews ask for forgiveness from family and friends.

In order to have a clean slate going into the New Year, Jews ask for forgiveness from those close to them. The idea here is that God cannot forgive transgressions against people until those wronged have forgiven.

3. Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah happens over two days.

These days are combined into the yoma arichta, or "long day." At sunset on the first evening, candles are lit by the lady of the house. Then blessings are recited: a traditional holiday blessing over the candles, followed by the shehecheyanu, a thanksgiving prayer for special occasions. Both evenings also feature a festive meal.

4. Unlike December 31, the Jewish new year is a time of serious reflection and repentance.

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Even Jews who go to synagogue at no other time of year will often go on the high holidays, which include Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Religious poems called piyyutim are recited and a special high holy day prayer book called the machzor is used. The service is often longer than Sabbath services, and centers around the theme of God’s sovereignty, remembrance, and blasts of the shofar (see below).

5. Despite not being a huge party, Jews are expected to enjoy the yom tov, or holiday.

People often get fresh haircuts and new clothes in order to celebrate. The tradition is to wear white clothing as a sign of purity and renewal. Some avoid wearing red, since it's the color of blood.

6. According to the Talmud, God inscribes everyone's names into one of three books on Rosh Hashanah.

The metaphorical understanding is that good people go into the Book of Life, and evil ones into the Book of Death; those who are in the middle are put in an intermediate one and have judgment put off until Yom Kippur. Since virtually no one is all good or all evil, you're supposed to assume you fall somewhere in the middle, and in order to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year, it is important to do everything possible to atone before Yom Kippur.

7. The sounding of the shofar is Rosh Hashanah's most iconic image.

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The shofar is a ram’s horn that is curved and bent. It is hollowed out and blown during religious ceremonies to make three different sounds. Hearing it is meant to call you to repent.

8. While some Jewish holidays involve fasting, Rosh Hashanah involves a feast.

It is traditional to eat apples dipped in honey to represent having a sweet year ahead. A round challah bread symbolizes the cycle of the year (another interpretation is that it represents a crown and thus God’s sovereignty). Sometimes a fish, or just its head, is included, possibly to represent that as fish cannot survive without water, Jews cannot survive without the Torah. Pomegranates contain many seeds, which have long been associated with the commandments that Jews follow, so by eating them they remind themselves to be good in the coming year. Other common foods include dates, leeks, gourds, and black-eyed peas, all of which are mentioned in the Talmud as foods to eat on New Year’s.

9. Some branches of Judaism participate in the ritual of Tashlikh, or "casting off."

The ritual involves standing near water, like a river, and reciting prayers. Then participants symbolically cast away their sins by throwing bread crumbs or stones into the water. This is supposedly derived from the Biblical passage “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19), although most Jewish sources trace it back to 15th century Germany. In New York City, large groups gather on the Brooklyn Bridge, while in Israel—where there is much less open water—people might use something as small as a fish pond.

10. There are various traditional greetings for Rosh Hashanah.

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L'Shana Tova Tea-ka-tayvu is Hebrew for “May you be inscribed for a good year,” referring to that person’s name being put in the Book of Life. This is often shortened to Shana Tova, which just means “Good Year.” This isn’t to be confused with wishing each other a “Happy New Year.” Happy implies a level of superficiality, while the Jewish wish for a good year hopes the person will achieve their purpose.

11. The Havdalah prayer is performed as night falls on the second and last day of Rosh Hashanah.

It involves saying blessings over a full cup of kosher wine or grape juice, although other drinks can be used in a pinch. After this, Rosh Hashanah is over.

This story has been updated for 2020.