Understanding the High Holy Days: A Primer for Partners New to Judaism

This High Holy Days Primer will tell you everything you need to know about holidays around the Jewish New Year.

“Why are Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur so important to my Jewish partner? He almost never attends services the rest of the year, isn’t observant and doesn’t even know what he believes about God. Yet, at this time of year, he insists on attending services. What’s the big deal with these holidays?”

There are both “official” and “unofficial” answers to these questions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the unofficial explanations are often the more significant ones. The official answers (to which I’ll return shortly) speak in terms like judgement, sin, repentance, life and death. The unofficial answers have something to do with the complicated puzzle of American Jewish identity.

For many Jews in this country, attending High Holy Day services (particularly, the first evening service of Yom Kippur) is a way of affirming that we still are part of the Jewish people. Finding our way to a synagogue during these days is a way of demonstrating that we haven’t yielded to assimilation, haven’t broken the ancient chain of the Jewish people’s survival and continuity. Being with our people at services says that no matter how far we may have drifted from active involvement with the Jewish religion, we’re still proud to be Jews. We still belong. We still care about being Jewish–even if we’re not very religious and are not sure how we feel about the content of those services. Many times, our participation also says that we’re still connected with the values of parents and grandparents, for whom our attendance (or absence!) is a very powerful symbol.

Notice that these “unofficial” answers have little to do with theology or even with the religious significance of the prayers and rituals. That’s because for many American Jews, their “Jewishness” is not first and foremost a matter of religion. Many American Jews will tell you that their Jewish identity is primarily ethnic or cultural or communal. They speak about Jewish holiday customs or Jewish ethical values or a feeling of connection they associate with being Jewish that seems, to them, to be somewhat separate from the Jewish religion. While I take issue with that perspective, I’ll save my objections for another time. What’s important for understanding this High Holy Day commitment is that in the mind of your loved one, the urgency of attending services may not be primarily about the religious significance of the ritual.

Nonetheless, if you will be joining your partner to sit through an unusually long and crowded synagogue service, you might want to know a little more about what to expect and what the ritual means officially. For most Jews, the term, “High Holy Days” is the title given to a period of ten days that stretch between the holy day of Rosh Hashanah–which means, literally, “head of the year”–and Yom Kippur–the day of atonement. Both holy days have their earliest roots in the Hebrew Bible (see, for instance, Leviticus 23:23-32), though the name Rosh Hashanah was not used until significantly later in Jewish history.

Rosh Hashanah ushers in the Jewish new year and with it a period of profound self-examination and repentance. It is, therefore, a day of joyous celebration balanced against a humbling and solemn consideration of how well (or poorly) we have used the gift of the previous year. Tradition teaches that God judges each of us individually and our community as a whole on Rosh Hashanah. Tradition also teaches that the result of God’s judgement will be a matter of life and death (either figurative or literal, depending on your theological orientation). Our prayers, songs and rituals, therefore, focus on confessing the ways in which we’ve gone astray, asking forgiveness for occasions on which we’ve missed the mark, and committing ourselves to acts of repentance (Hebrew word: t’shuvah).

Note that we go through this process collectively. We ask for forgiveness and repent almost exclusively in the first person plural! This use of “we” versus “I” reflects Judaism’s emphasis on community. Our first concern is how well the Jewish community as a whole has fulfilled its covenant (sacred agreement) with God. Our first responsibility is to live in such a way that we help the community be the kind of holy people God has challenged us to become. Of course, our Rosh Hashanah observances also celebrate the possibility of a new beginning that comes with the new year–God’s gift to us if we engage in this cleansing process with sincerity.

Some distinctive observances to watch and listen for on Rosh Hashanah: the extensive ritual for sounding of the shofar (ram’s horn) during the morning service, which is mandated by the Torah and serves as a deeply moving call to renewed awareness and action; eating apples and honey for a sweet year, and greeting others by expressing the hope that they will be judged for a good year (in Hebrew, it’s “Shanah tovah.”). Depending on the congregation you join, you also may participate in Tashlich–an outdoor, afternoon ceremony in which we symbolically cast away our sins by throwing bread crumbs (or other, less traditional things such as little stones) into a body of water.

Yom Kippur begins in the evening 10 days later. Its mood is one of deep solemnity, contrition and humility. According to tradition, the judgments begun on Rosh Hashanah are sealed and finalized on Yom Kippur. Because Leviticus (23:27) instructs that self-affliction should be part of this day dedicated to repentance, most Jews will observe a complete fast for at least part of the day. In fact, many Jews will spend almost the entire day at the synagogue (from sundown to sundown) engaged in fasting, prayer, reflection and repentance. The observance ends with the setting of the sun, a final sounding of the shofar–dramatically marking the end of this intensely spiritual day and as a reminder of ancient practice in the Jerusalem Temple–and then, gatherings to break the fast together.

The heart of Yom Kippur observances is its liturgy. The opening, evening service centers around an ancient formula known as Kol Nidre. Kol Nidre is actually an ancient legal formula that absolves us of vows and oaths we may take between this Yom Kippur and the next one. I suspect that the prayer is revered as much for its haunting and powerful music as for its somewhat complicated message.

While Yom Kippur services may vary somewhat from synagogue to synagogue, all will center around communal confessions and introspection, requests for forgiveness and the effort to obtain perspective on our present lives by placing them in the context of the past. More specifically, synagogues hold a special Yizkor, or memorial, Service to honor loved ones who have died and to gain important insight from both their lives and deaths. Many synagogues also honor the martyrs of the Jewish people throughout history and, again, seek to learn important lessons from the humbling example of their sacrifices. Then, as Yom Kippur draws to a close, the observance concludes with the Neilah, or locking, service–a final chance to repent before the symbolic gates of repentance are closed and locked to us.

Of course, there are many interesting and important details for which I haven’t had room here in this High Holy Days primer. I also realize that the details I have provided may raise as many questions as they answer. If you are interested in doing further reading, two of my favorite starting places are: The Jewish Holidays by Michael Strassfeld and Seasons of Our Joy by Arthur Waskow. For now, let me be one of the first to wish you a year that is healthy, happy and fulfilling. Shanah Tovah!

Rabbi Jonathan Kraus

Rabbi Jonathan Kraus is rabbi of Beth El Temple Center in Belmont, MA.