High Holiday Guide
A guide to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days in between from MyJewishLearning.com
Although the High Holidays — the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) — occupy three days only, they lie within a web of liturgy and customs that extend from the beginning of the preceding Hebrew month of Elul through Yom Kippur. The focus of this entire period is the process of teshuvah, or repentance, whereby a Jew admits to sins, asks for forgiveness, and resolves not to repeat the sins. Recognizing the psychological difficulty of self-examination and personal change, the rabbis instituted a 40-day period whose intensity spirals toward its culmination on Yom Kippur, a day devoted entirely to fasting and repentance.
When Does the High Holidays Season Begin?
The High Holiday period begins on the first day of the Jewish month of Elul. In the Ashkenazi tradition, during this month of soul searching, the shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown each morning except on the Sabbath, to call upon listeners to begin the difficult process of repentance. Also in Elul special haftarot — prophetic portions — focusing on consolation acknowledge the vulnerability of an individual grappling with personal change. During the week before Rosh Hashanah, intensity increases as traditional Jews begin reciting selichot, prayers that involve confessing sins and requesting God’s forgiveness and help. On the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah, the selichot are chanted at midnight, rather than their usual early morning hour.
What Are the 10 Days of Repentance?
The culmination of the High Holiday period occurs during the Ten Days of Repentance, which begins on 1 Tishrei with Rosh Hashanah and ends with Yom Kippur. During this period, human beings have the chance to tip the scales of divine judgment in their favor through repentance, prayer, and tzedakah (performing righteous deeds and giving money to charitable causes).
Not only is Rosh Hashanah the Jewish New Year, which commemorates God’s creation of the world, but also the Day of Judgment, when God remembers and judges all human deeds. Except on Shabbat, services are punctuated with the call of the shofar, which according to Maimonides, is saying, “Awake, you sleepers, from your slumber…examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator.” Human beings are believed to be in mortal danger at this time, with their lives hinging on the decision to repent. Only those who choose to forego sin are inscribed in the symbolic “book of life” that is a central liturgical image of Rosh Hashanah.
On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the theological bent of the morning services is reinforced in a concrete way during the Tashlikh ceremony, during which individuals symbolically cast away their personal sins by throwing breadcrumbs into a flowing body of water. This action is accompanied by the recitation of biblical verses that evoke the human capacity for repentance and the beneficence of divine forgiveness through the metaphor of casting sins into depths of the waters.
What is Shabbat Shuvah, and What Happens on Yom Kippur?
The Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return (or Repentance), after a verse from the haftarah declaring “Return O Israel to the Lord, your God” (Hosea 14:2).
The transition to Yom Kippur begins the in the hours preceding the evening onset of the festival with the recitation of the first viddui, or communal confession of sins, at the afternoon service. Some Jews choose to go to the mikveh, or ritual bath, to purify themselves before the holiday. The striving toward inner purity is also reflected in the white outfits traditional for the day. In traditional congregations, men will don a white robe called a kittel over their holiday clothes. In some liberal congregation, both men and women might choose to wear white garments to symbolize this quest for spiritual purity.
Within the Ten Days of Repentance, Yom Kippur is the pinnacle of intensity, moving toward the decisive moment at its close when God is imagined as sealing the books of life and death. The day’s total focus on spiritual concerns is exemplified by fasting and abstaining from everyday activities such as bathing, sexual relations, and the wearing of leather shoes.
The day of Yom Kippur, also known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths, begins with the Kol Nidre service immediately prior to sunset. The heartrending poems and prayers of the Machzor, the prayer book used for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which express the themes of repentance, human frailty, and humility before God, combine with the nusah, or musical style of the service, to express the momentousness of the day.
Liturgical elements that distinguish the Yom Kippur services include a recounting of the Temple service on Yom Kippur, a description of the suffering of rabbis martyred by the Romans, and the reading of the Book of Jonah. The day closes with the Neilah service, during which penitents pray before the open ark, with one last chance to repent before the book of life is sealed. The very name of the service, Neilah (locking), refers to the imagery that the gates of repentance, open during the High Holidays, are now shutting. A lengthy sounding of the shofar, called a tekiah gedolah, releases the Jew back into the realm of the everyday bolstered by a final echo of the call to repentance.
Experiences, tools for your virtual celebration, and more.
Video to watch with the whole family: ROSH HASHANAH
A basic primer on what Rosh Hashanah is, for everyone. This video explains what the holiday is about, how different communities celebrate it, what the special foods and traditions are, and the spiritual connection. A great intro for Jews and non-Jews alike – share with your curious coworker or family member.
Video to watch with the whole family: YOM KIPPUR
Learn the basics of the Day of Atonement in 3 minutes. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year and it is full of spiritual opportunity if you open yourself up to its customs, prayers, and melodies. This short video is a basic primer on what Yom Kippur is, for everyone. It explains what the holiday is about, where it comes from, what to expect at a service and how to break the fast! A great intro for Jews and non-Jews alike – share with your curious coworker or family member.
Video to watch with the whole family: SUKKOT
Learn the basics of the Jewish holiday called Sukkot, including festival huts, lulavs, etrogs, foods, prayers, and the spiritual meaning of all the unique rituals. This LEGO® stop motion animation is a great intro to the holiday for Jews and non-Jews alike – make it part of your holiday emails and party invitations, or show it to your kids to get them inspired about building their own sukkahs this year!
Looking for a creative idea to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot with kids? Click HERE to check out this fabulous Sukkot activity!
This can be a fun way to celebrate sukkot with your kids, and can be developed even further by having them present their work, describing their guests, explaining why they chose to create and “invite” them into their sukkah.
And since we are currently in the Jewish high-holidays season, I also invite you to put a note in the Kotel – the Western Wall with your own prayers.
This beautiful new PJ Library guide explores ways for your family to connect with the High Holidays at home:
What is PJ Library? If you like this guide, make sure you are signed up for PJ Library, and we will send your child an age-appropriate, expertly curated Jewish children’s book every month. PJ Library is a free program for families raising Jewish kids from birth through 12 years old, offering books that capture children’s imaginations with fun characters and vibrant illustrations. PJ Library stories are a fun, easy way to share Jewish culture and values with your child.
For High Holiday playlists, music videos, and podcast episodes, check out PJ Library Listen.
Want to join a Broward High Holiday Service?
Click the link below to learn more about what our community partners are offering this holiday season: