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High Holy Days: the Basics

Summer’s Ending, So Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur Must Be Arriving 

Maybe you’re wondering, “What are the High Holidays, anyway?” Or maybe you grew up celebrating these holidays but need a hand explaining them to your partner who’s joining you for the first time. The High Holidays, also called High Holy Days, consist of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The 10 days that encompass Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the time between them are also sometimes referred to as the “days of awe.” For many Jews who do not typically go to synagogue or observe many Jewish holidays, this may be the one or two times a year when they go.  

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year and is a time to celebrate—but it’s taken a bit more seriously than the secular new year or than new year’s traditions in some other cultures since it’s the start of a series of holidays. And Yom Kippur is even more somber: It’s a day of repentance, and is a time for reflecting on the past year, apologizing for any wrongdoings, asking forgiveness and planning to do better in the new year.  

The High Holidays are perhaps the most holy days on the Jewish calendar, and they give us an opportunity to talk to family members about their interfaith backgrounds and to start conversations about multicultural differences and similarities.  

How does your family celebrate the new year? If you or your partner grew up in another faith, what does that religion have to say about sin and forgiveness? And how do these experiences impact how your family will mark these Jewish holidays? There’s no one-size-fits-all to Jewish holidays. Experiment. Enjoy. Approach it in a way that feels right for your family. 

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah  

Rosh Hashanah literally means “head of the year,” and like all Jewish holidays, it starts at sundown. One big idea of the holiday is the Book of Life, which is said to decide a person’s fate for the next year. The idea is that you are in control of your upcoming year, and you can take actions to make it better. If you’re wondering when the new year is, exactly, it’s different every year on the Gregorian calendar. (If you find that confusing, you’re not alone.) You can find upcoming dates for Rosh Hashanah here

Reform synagogues may have services for only one day of Rosh Hashanah, while other denominations of Judaism typically have services for two days. Synagogues use a special High Holiday prayer book called a machzor, which includes prayers and other readings that can provide helpful explanations. If you don’t know Hebrew—don’t worry! Most prayer books have translations in English, and transliterations so you can sing along with the Hebrew if you want to.  

What Happens in Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah?  

The truth is, there’s no one answer to this question as it entirely depends on where you go. One aspect that is pretty consistent is the importance of the “shofar.” Maybe you’ve heard of a “shofar,” a ram’s horn that is traditionally blown on Rosh Hashanah. Some say it’s the highlight of the service, and it’s certainly one way to keep the kids awake. It’s a little like playing a trumpet, and it’s way harder than it looks. 

On Rosh Hashanah, we read the stories of the Patriarchs—Abraham and Isaac—from the Torah. You or your partner may be familiar with these stories because they are also part of other religious traditions. Maybe you want to compare how they are presented here to how you first learned about them? There’s also usually a lot of singing (some led by the cantor or prayer leader, and some participatory), a variety of English readings on themes of the day and a sermon from the rabbi.  

Celebrating the Jewish New Year at Home 

The new year is a time to send cards, connect to the holiday’s themes through outdoor activities and to celebrate with a festive meal and invite family and friends of different religions to join you. This is the time when a round challah is customary to symbolize the cycle of the year, and sweet foods as a blessing for a sweet year. Apples are dipped in honey (in Ashkenazi tradition) or sugar (in Sephardic tradition) to start the meal. You can personalize your menu with sweet foods, pomegranates or round foods from your family’s various cultural backgrounds.   

Special Blessings for Rosh Hashanah 

Like Shabbat and so many Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah begins with candle lighting and blessings over wine (kiddush) and bread (ha-motzi). Many people also say a special prayer called the Shehecheyanu, which thanks God for bringing us to this moment. Feel free to add personal prayers and reflections to these moments as well, and do anything that feels meaningful to you. You can find the blessings here

A Time of Reflection and Meditation: Yom Kippur 

Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is the holiest day of the Jewish year: Yom Kippur (you can find upcoming dates here). Also called the Day of Atonement, this is a day for seeking forgiveness from God, yourself and/or each other. Whether or not you are Jewish or believe in God, you can join this process of seeking forgiveness. Many people, religious or not, find solace in the idea of introspection and thinking about how they can be better people in the year ahead. 

The Book of Life, which is metaphorically opened and written on Rosh Hashanah, is sealed on Yom Kippur. Essentially, the idea is that you have the opportunity to be “inscribed in the Book of Life” by the time Yom Kippur concludes through all of your repentance. The Book of Life can be thought of as a symbol to continue looking forward and continuing to grow and learn as a person. A well-known saying on Yom Kippur is “G’mar chatima tova,” may you be inscribed in the Book of Life. 

The holiday also starts with candle lighting, then many adults fast for the next 25 hours, avoiding all food and drink. Fasting can provide more opportunity to reflect and repent. If fasting poses any health risks, though, it’s actually forbidden. Some people avoid wearing leather and may dress completely in white—like a blank slate for the coming year.  

Yom Kippur can be a tough day for a lot of people who grew up Jewish, between the fast and remembering loved ones who have passed, but it can be even more challenging if you didn’t grow up with these traditions. You can compare different religions’ fasting traditions, like Ramadan or Lent. 

What Happens in Synagogue During Yom Kippur?  

Synagogue services are notoriously long. They are the longest services of any day of the year. Unlike in many church services, people often come and go throughout the day in synagogue, and not everyone stays for the whole service. 

What Happens During Services on Yom Kippur 

  • Kol Nidrei is a special evening service that begins Yom Kippur at sundown. 
  • Shacharit, the morning service, includes silent and communal prayers. The morning service also includes Torah reading and likely a rabbi’s sermon.  
  • Musaf happens right after Shacharit and includes a section on remembering Jews who have been murdered for their religion.  
  • Yizkor is a memorial service for loved ones who have died. You may want to think about how your family’s traditions include different ways to honor those who have passed. 
  • Minchah, the afternoon service, typically takes place after a short break, and includes reading the Book of Jonah.  
  • Ne’ilah is the concluding service of Yom Kippur and frequently references the image of a closing gate as sundown approaches. Many people stand for this entire service, which ends with one long shofar blast. Afterwards, people typically gather in the synagogue or at home with loved ones for “break fast,” the meal that follows fasting. Everyone is welcome to eat at a break fast, even if you didn’t fast. Find recipes here

An Opportunity for Reflection 

Yom Kippur is a long, exhausting and intense day for many worshippers all over the world—regardless of denomination and religious views. For some people, listening to, participating in and spending the day in services provides the right headspace for reflection. For others, a walk in the woods or time alone reading or journaling can feel more meaningful. However you choose to spend the day, consider giving yourself some time to think about the year gone by, relationships that may be in need of repair, what kind of person you want to be and where you hope to see yourself next Yom Kippur.  

Getting the Kids Involved 

Phew, we’ve thrown a lot of information at you already and you’re probably wondering, where do kids fit in to all this heavy stuff? Long days in synagogue and thoughts of being a better person aren’t always easy to deal with if you have kids at home. First, let go of any expectations you have for what the holidays “should” look like, and accept and acknowledge where your family is this year.  

If you have a baby or young toddler, it’s fine to keep them in services with you as long as they’re quiet but it’s also perfectly understandable if you want to leave them with a caregiver. Many synagogues offer family services or babysitting rooms for slightly older children. These days, you can even livestream services from the comfort of your home if the thought of childcare is too stressful.   

There are many great children’s books about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with child-friendly ways to talk about forgiveness and apologies. Our website has links to books and activities to help your child connect with the holidays.  

Tashlich is a short ceremony that can be done anytime between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, where you symbolically cast your sins into a body of water. This can be adapted for children and is a fun and tangible way to introduce them to the High Holidays. People often throw animal-friendly items such as pebbles or oats the water. 

Helpful Terms   

  • High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 
  • L’shanah tovah: Traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting that means “To a good year.” 
  • G’mar chatima tova: Tradition Yom Kippur greeting that means to “finish well,” sometimes shortened to g’mar tov
  • Machzor: High Holy Day prayer book. 
  • Shofar: Made from the horn of a ram, the shofar is a basic instrument that is blown daily in the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, on Rosh Hashanah and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. 
  • Tallit: A prayer shawl traditionally used during prayer services that include Torah reading and at the Kol Nidrei service. 
  • Teshuvah: Translated as “returning,” a Hebrew term for repentance; think of it as “turning a new leaf” or “turning over.” 
  • Yahrzeit candle: Memorial candle lit on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, on Yom Kippur and whenever Yizkor is recited. 
  • Yom Tov: Translated as “a good day” in Hebrew, is often pronounced yuntiff (the Yiddish pronunciation). And is used as a synonym for “holiday;” a standard holiday greeting is “Gut Yuntiff.” 

18Doors

18Doors is here to support interfaith couples and families exploring Jewish life. We offer educational content; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship provides offerings for couples in cities nationwide. If you have questions, please contact info@18doors.org.

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Author: 18Doors