Jewish High Holy Days

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Jewish High Holy Days

Also known as the Days of Awe or Ten Days of Repentance, the High Holy Days, beginning on 1 Tishri (September to early October) with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ending on 10 Tishri with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, have their biblical origins in Numbers 29:1–11 and Leviticus 16:29–34. Many American Jews who are not otherwise particularly observant participate in synagogue worship during these sacred days. Unlike other Jewish holidays, the High Holy Days have little connection to nature or Jewish history. Rather, they are a time for individual reflection on the past year, for seeking forgiveness, and for communal prayers of repentance. Jews wish others a happy New Year, and a good inscription in the divine book of judgment, based on the belief that God examines humanity on Rosh Hashanah and enters individuals for life or death; the final decision remains suspended until Yom Kippur. During Elul, the month preceding the High Holy Days, numerous special prayers and rituals culminate in Selikhot, a midnight service of penitential invocations the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment, and Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance, indicative of the account-taking and spiritual resolution characterizing the entire ten-day period. Most American Jews observe Rosh Hashanah for two days (as do Jews worldwide), although some Reform Jews celebrate only one day. Rosh Hashanah observance encompasses domestic ritual, including a festive meal at which apples are dipped in honey in hopes of a sweet New Year, and synagogue worship, on the evening Rosh Hashanah begins and during the two days of the holiday. This season's uniqueness is emphasized in the synagogue by white vestments for the Holy Ark and the Torah, as well as by distinct prayer melodies. Liturgical language incorporating poetic passages stresses God's sovereignty, human repentance, and divine judgment and forgiveness. Rosh Hashanah worship includes varied soundings of the shofar, the ram's horn, which invokes the revelation on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:19), metaphorically summons the congregation to repentance, announces the advent of divine judgment, and reminds worshipers of the messianic age that will be ushered in by the shofar's blast. On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, many Jews observe the custom of tashlikh ("casting off") at a body of running water, symbolically throwing their sins away in the context of a brief worship service. Shabbat Shuvah ("Sabbath of Penitence"), between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is built around the theme of teshuvah ("repentance"), based on the traditional prophetic reading from Hosea 14.

Yom Kippur, extending from sunset to sunset, is marked by physical abstinence for adults, including no food or drink, no displays of luxury or physical adornment, and no marital relations. These prohibitions reinforce the supremacy of prayer and repentance over any other human need on this day. Yom Kippur ritual takes place entirely in the synagogue; just as the synagogue vestments are white, so some people wear white robes, symbolizing the efficacy of repentance (Isaiah 1:18). The initial evening service, beginning at sunset, is named for the introductory prayer, Kol Nidre ("all vows"), which cancels personal commitments unfulfilled during the past year. Liturgical themes stress the enormity of human transgressions but affirm that repentance is possible and that God will grant forgiveness. Litanies of human infractions and moral violations are recited in the plural, reflecting the communal nature of this day of judgment and redemption. Since Judaism insists that divine clemency is possible only when harmony has been restored between people, it is considered essential for individuals to ask forgiveness prior to Yom Kippur from all those they may have treated badly, knowingly or unknowingly, and to compensate for wrongs.

Worship throughout the day of Yom Kippur recalls ancient rites of expiation undertaken by the high priest when the Temple stood in Jerusalem and invokes the prophet Isaiah's call for a sincere return to God and God's laws. An afternoon memorial service (Yizkor) remembers deceased family members as well as martyrs from various epochs in Jewish history. Yom Kippur concludes after sunset with the Ne'ilah service, vice, which ends with a final declaration of faith and one long blast of the shofar, followed by hopes for ultimate redemption and peace for all humanity. The Yom Kippur greeting is "May you be sealed for good" [in God's book of judgment]. Families and friends often gather at the end of Yom Kippur to break the fast with a light meal.

See alsoJewish Identity; Jewish Observance; Judaism; Liturgy and Worship; Prayer; Synagogue; Temple.


Agnon, Samuel Joseph. Days of Awe: A Treasury of Traditions, Legends and Commentary on Rosh Hashanah,Yom Kippur and the Days Between. 1965.

Dosick, Wayne. Living Judaism: The Complete Guide toJewish Belief, Tradition and Practice. 1995.

Ross, Lesli Koppelman. Celebrate! The Complete JewishHolidays Handbook. 1994.

Judith R. Baskin

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Jewish High Holy Days

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