The High Holy Days—or, High Holidays as they are also called—consist of two autumn holidays called Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In Hebrew, “Rosh Hashanah” means “Head of the Year” and it’s the Jewish New Year. Ten days later comes Yom Kippur, which is Hebrew for the “Day of Atonement.” It is the most solemn day of the Jewish year, and many adults fast as a spiritual practice for the duration of the day. Because of differences between the Hebrew and Western calendars, the High Holy Days move around a bit on the Western calendar, but they always fall sometime in September or October.
These holidays, and the stretch of days in between them, are sometimes referred to as the “Days of Awe” or the “Days of Repentance.” They’re serious but also joyful, and they are the one time of year when the largest number of people in the Jewish community attend synagogue services. The main reason these are considered the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar is because they are about self-examination, forgiveness, the repairing of broken relationships and giving ourselves a fresh new start. People of all faiths, including people who identify as non-religious, are completely welcome to attend and participate in these holidays.
The High Holy Days are a time of year when the Jewish people as a whole are asked to engage in a process of doing a moral self-assessment; seeking forgiveness from others for harms we’ve done; making amends as appropriate; and resolving to do better in the future. The Hebrew word that refers to this entire process is Teshuvah, pronounced teh-shoo-vah. The expression people sometimes use is, “making Teshuvah.”
Although Teshuvah is really the “big idea” of the High Holy Days, another important theme of these holidays is the celebration of the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah, the first of the High Holy Days, marks the beginning of a new Jewish calendar year. It’s actually celebrated for two days in most, but not all, Jewish communities.
The mood of the Jewish New Year is a mix of reflection on the year that has just ended, hope for the year that’s begun, gratitude for the goodness in our lives, and general celebration. Ten days after we celebrate the Jewish New Year, we gather together again for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). “Atonement” means acknowledging our misdeeds during the past year, looking for opportunities to apologize or make things right and asking God for forgiveness and a fresh start. It’s the holiest day of the Jewish year, and most Jewish people who participate in any Jewish holidays, regardless of personal religious beliefs, participate in observing Yom Kippur in some way. Many take the day off work and/or attend at least one of the synagogue services of the day.
All Jewish holidays begin at sunset, so when the sun goes down to begin Yom Kippur, the next 24 hours take on a focus of gathering with community to acknowledge our wrongdoings and seek God’s forgiveness together. There are many special, well-loved Hebrew prayers and melodies sung in synagogue on Yom Kippur, and many adults in the community follow the practice of fasting (abstaining from all food and drink) for the duration of the day, from sundown of the night it begins until the sun goes down the next day. When the sun finally sets at the end of Yom Kippur, the mood shifts from somber self-reflection to joy and release. We have a potluck break-the-fast meal and specific information regarding what to bring is in our printed program.
The ten days beginning with the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and ending with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) are known as the “Ten Days of Teshuvah” (you’ll sometimes see this translated as the “Ten Days of Repentance”). During this stretch of time, the tradition encourages all of us to think about who we may have harmed over the course of the last year, whether intentionally or by accident, and whether by word or by deed. We’re invited to take time to reach out to people personally and take responsibility for our mistakes. The idea is to talk privately with family members, friends or anyone else we feel we may have wronged. We do our best to admit our mistakes, seek forgiveness from those we have hurt, and offer to make amends. This can be a really powerful exercise for families, including families with young kids.
There’s another major aspect of these holidays, and it is that these are the Jewish holidays when Jewish people, and their family members of all backgrounds, come out of the woodwork every year and gather in large numbers in synagogues.(The other most popular Jewish holidays—Passover and Hanukkah—take place mainly in peoples’ homes, not in the synagogue.)
The High Holy Days have been part of the rhythm of marking time for centuries, and the fact that Jewish communities all over the world are similarly gathering during these holidays gives a lot of people in the Jewish community a warm feeling of connection and solidarity.
Our services for the most part follow a ritual that includes music, prayer, Torah readings, and other readings assigned to various congregants, that blend the traditional with the very modern. Our rabbi will explain what’s going on as we go from one ritual or prayer to the next in an attempt to keep everyone engaged and not lost. A large part of our service is our wonderful music, with many opportunities for audience participation.
Fasting on Yom Kippur One of the things Yom Kippur is best known for is the practice of fasting for the duration of the holiday. The purpose of the fast—which mostly includes abstaining from food or drink—is to purify the spirit and concentrate the mind on the theme of forgiveness and moral renewal. The fast begins at sundown when the holy day begins, and it ends at sundown the following evening, often with synagogues offering a small spread of food.
In traditional Jewish practice, children under 13 are not expected to fast. Neither are pregnant women, or anyone with a medical condition that fasting would exacerbate. The idea isn’t to create a health hazard—it’s a spiritual practice and nothing more.
Judaism doesn’t have many holidays that involve intentionally creating physical discomfort for ourselves in order to create a special state of consciousness, so Yom Kippur stands out for most Jews as a very unique day of the year. People at synagogue services will ask one another how their fast is going, and it’s perfectly OK to say, “I’m not able to fast this year, how is yours going?” If you decide to participate in fasting for the first time, it’s a good idea to get well hydrated in the hour or two before the beginning of Yom Kippur.
The first meal everyone eats after Yom Kippur has ended is often called the “Break-the-Fast” or “Break Fast” and sometimes people issue invitations to host friends for this meal. Conventional wisdom about resuming eating and drinking is to take things slow and avoid overdoing it.
The most famous ritual object connected with the High Holy Days is a ram’s horn. The ram’s horn, or shofar in Hebrew, is an ancient musical instrument that is blown like a trumpet. During synagogue services for Rosh Hashanah, there are several points during which someone will sound the shofar according to a prescribed series of blasts. On Yom Kippur the shofar is not sounded, except to mark the holy day’s conclusion.
Shofars come in various sizes and shapes, though they’re always curved. People who are good at playing horns usually can figure out how to get a strong sound out of a shofar, and in many synagogues different community members volunteer to do some of the shofar blowing. The sound of the shofar is memorable and unique. For many people, it evokes of a variety of feelings. Its origins go back to ancient rituals in Jerusalem. In antiquity, shofars were also used to send urgent messages across great distances.
During the High Holy Days, there’s a tradition for people to dress in white clothes. It’s not required and not everyone does it, but many people do. The idea is that we’re working on purifying ourselves ethically and morally during the High Holy Days, and by wearing white we symbolize that aspiration. Some people like to wear a simple white linen robe over their clothes during the High Holy Days. This robe is called a kittel. In our congregation you’re most likely to see only the rabbi and/or cantor wearing a kittel, and possibly a small number of congregants.
There are some other traditions regarding clothing that are observed to varying degrees in different synagogues. One tradition is to refrain from wearing anything made out of leather on Yom Kippur. Why? Because at the time this tradition was established, only the well-off could afford clothes and shoes of leather, and so wearing leather was seen as an act of showing off. Since the purpose of the High Holy Days is to encourage humility, self-examination and self-improvement, Jews of an earlier era decided that leather (and other symbols of wealth and privilege) shouldn’t be worn on this particular day. If you happen to wear leather to synagogue, don’t worry about it. Not everyone observes these practices, and it’s OK if you don’t. But if you happen to notice people wearing dressy clothes with canvas sneakers that don’t match, now you’ll know why.
Throughout the High Holy Days season, it’s always appropriate to say “Happy New Year” to others in the Jewish community. Sometimes people will greet each other with different versions of “Happy New Year” in Hebrew. The most common of these Hebrew greetings, which means “May you have a good year,” is Shana Tovah or L’shana Tovah
It can be fun for people new to these holidays to practice these greetings, but rest assured that you can’t go wrong with “Happy New Year” in English, at any time throughout the High Holy Days season.
During the Rosh Hashanah holiday, we observe a fun outdoor tradition whose origins go back to the Middle Ages. It’s called Tashlich (pronounced tash-leekh), which is the Hebrew word for “casting off / throwing off.” People gather together at a body of flowing water—often a nearby river or creek—and they bring bread crumbs with them in bags. The leader of the ceremony invites everyone to grab a handful of bread crumbs and imagine that the crumbs represent all of our misdeeds over the course of the past year. Then, we’re invited to toss the crumbs into the water, symbolically “casting our sins upon the waters.”
Like many of the other symbols and rituals of these holidays, many Jews participate in the ritual without taking the metaphor literally. Often, the person leading Tashlich will offer some words of hope and encouragement to everyone to continue doing the work of Teshuvah—of moral self-examination, of offering apologies when appropriate, of seeking to improve ourselves going forward.
Rosh Hashanah Oneg. Our evening Rosh Hashanah service is immediately followed by an oneg which is a social hour featuring snacks and treats provided by our congregants.
Round Sweet Challah. The tradition is to start the meal with challah bread dipped in honey. Challah is the special, braided bread that is generally used as part of meals on the Jewish Sabbath. It’s usually oblong and braided. Because Rosh Hashanah celebrates the Jewish New Year, the custom is to use a round challah bread often times with raisins. The circular shape symbolizes the cycle of the years and the raisins represent a sweet new year.
During Jewish holidays, the start of a celebratory meal begins with a blessing giving thanks for bread, followed by everyone enjoying some challah. At all other times of year, the custom is to sprinkle some salt on the challah before everyone has a piece. But, at a Rosh Hashanah meal, the custom is to dip the pieces of challah in honey, again, in order to symbolize everyone’s hopes for a sweet new year!
Our Rosh Hashanah Breakfast. One of the highlights of our High Holy Days is our complimentary Lox & Bagel Breakfast on the morning of Rosh Hashanah. The purpose of this event is mostly social, but also is aimed at getting people to services early and to find a good parking spot. The breakfast usually includes lox, bagels, sweet rolls, juices, coffee, and a variety of other goodies.
One of the High Holy Days decisions parents face is whether to keep their kids home from school on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Many Jewish parents, even if they aren’t particularly religious, take off work and have kids stay home from school for some or all of these holidays. Most parents who do this go to synagogue services for at least some part of the day, and often kids go with them and may even attend special children’s services.
If you decide to keep your kids home from school for any part of the High Holy Days, it’s a good idea to ask the school if they are familiar with these holidays and what kind of communication they require in order to make the absence an excused absence. While many schools in major North American cities are experienced and comfortable with allowing students to miss class for these holidays, many aren’t, so your best bet is to speak with other parents who are planning to keep their kids home, and to communicate pro-actively with school administrators. For middle and high school age kids, it can be a good idea to clarify what accommodations their teachers will make for these absences, especially regarding homework or quizzes, etc.
Because we expect a lot of people who aren’t members to come to services for these holidays, and because we have space and seating limitations, we require non-members to buy reserved tickets in advance in order to attend some or all of the services.
For some in the Jewish community, the tickets system feels disappointing and off-putting. A common complaint is that selling tickets for High Holy Days services seems to conflict with some of the core values of Judaism. And even though we have a policy that no one will be denied tickets due to lack of ability to pay, for many people the prospect of asking a stranger for a reduced ticket fee because of inability to pay is deeply uncomfortable.
However, without this source of income we’d have to reduce services and programs. It’s important to remember that we don’t “pass the plate” during Shabbat services to collect monetary offerings. Congregations of any religion have budgets, and they do need reliable ways of sustaining their operations.
Something to bear in mind is that, for a lot of people, this particular set of holidays brings up memories of loved ones who have passed away. One reason for this is that on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), there is a special memorial service called “Yizkor” (Remembrance), in which everyone in the sanctuary is invited to take some time to reflect on the memories of lost loved ones, and special prayers for the dead are chanted. You have the opportunity to have the names of your loved one put into our Yizkor book, printed right before Yom Kippur.
There are other reasons why this particular set of holidays evokes memories of love and loss, as well as the passing of time and generations. The themes of the holidays ask us to mark the transition of time, from one year to the next. For older congregants especially, there’s a good chance that they have memories of many years of marking the Jewish New Year and coming to synagogue for the High Holy Days with spouses, family, and friends. Finally, the music of many of the prayers evokes feelings of poignancy, solemnity as well as a mix of both sorrow and hope. For people who are newcomers to High Holy Days services, it’s good to know that some of the people present at services may be feeling a heightened sense of vulnerability as these once-a-year melodies and traditions trigger memories of life, love and loss.
Jewish Year 5778: sunset September 20, 2017 – nightfall September 22, 2017
Jewish Year 5779: sunset September 9, 2018 – nightfall September 11, 2018
Jewish Year 5780: sunset September 29, 2019 – nightfall October 1, 2019
Jewish Year 5781: sunset September 18, 2020 – nightfall September 20, 2020