The High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mark the start of the Jewish New Year. Learn more about how we celebrate these holidays, traditional greetings, and all the great holiday programming at the J.
What is it?
The holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known collectively as the High Holidays (they’re basically the Superbowl of the Jewish calendar). Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. It is both a time of rejoicing and of serious introspection, a time to celebrate the completion of another year while also taking stock of one’s life. This year, Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on Monday, September 6, and ends at sundown on Wednesday, September 8.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, known as “The Day of Atonement.” The day is devoted to communal repentance for sins committed over the course of the previous year. Because of the nature of Yom Kippur and its associated rituals, it is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar. In 2021, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on September 15 (also known as Kol Nidre) and ends at sundown on September 16.
How do we celebrate Rosh Hashanah?
Blowing the Shofar: The shofar (ram’s horn) serves as a reminder of the covenant between G-d and the people of Israel, carrying with them the message of sacrifice, hope, and continuity. The shofar is blown more than 100 times over the course of Rosh Hashanah services. There are three types of blasts: “tekiah,” a long sob-like blast; “shevarim,” a series of three short wails; and “teruah,” at least nine piercing staccato bursts. Hear the shofar >>
Round Challah & Sweet Treats: On Rosh Hashanah, we eat round challah, symbolizing the eternal cycle of life. We also eat apples dipped in honey (we dip the challah in honey too!) to symbolize the hopes for a sweet new year. It is traditional to avoid nuts and vinegar-based, sharp foods since we don’t want a bitter year.
Tashlich: translates to “cast away.” This is a ceremony where people throw crumbs or pieces of bread, symbolizing their sins, into flowing water. This is a ceremony performed on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Water is a metaphor for kindness, and the lidless eyes of the fish symbolize our hope that G‑d’s watchful eye should always be upon us.
Rosh Hashanah Services: Much of Rosh Hashanah is spent in the synagogue and there are two distinct Torah readings for each day. On the first day, we read about Isaac’s birth and the subsequent banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. Appropriately, the reading is followed by a haftarah reading about the birth of Samuel the Prophet. Both readings contain the theme of prayers for children being answered, and both of these births took place on Rosh Hashanah. On the second morning, we read about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. As mentioned above, the shofar blowing recalls the ram, which figures prominently in this story as a powerful display of Abraham’s devotion to G‑d that has characterized His children ever since. The haftarah tells of G‑d’s eternal love for His people.
Mitzvah: Extra charity is given during the High Holidays.
How do we celebrate Yom Kippur?
Yom Kippur Services: Kol Nidre, which mean “all vows,” is the first night of Yom Kipuur. The name refers to the special liturgical formulation chanted solely at the Yom Kippur evening service. The next day is spent entirely in synagogue. The liturgy for the day of Yom Kippur includes powerful readings from the Torah, the core of Jewish teaching and practice, and Yizkor, a memorial service to remember our loved ones who have died and, perhaps, to draw from their memories the inspiration to be the best of what we can yet be.
Eating, then fasting, then eating again for Yom Kippur: There are two festive meals, one in the early afternoon and another right before the commencement of the fast. On Yom Kippur we abstain from food and drink, do not wash or apply lotions or creams, do not wear leather footwear, and abstain from marital relations. Instead, we spend the day in synagogue, praying for forgiveness. At the end of the fast, we gather for a festive “break the fast” meal.
Honor the Dead: It is customary on Yom Kippur to perpetuate the memory of loved ones. To do so, many Jews visit the cemetery the day before Yom Kippur and light 24-hour yahrzeit candles in memory of loved ones who have died. During the Middle Ages, this custom was seen as a means of atonement for the dead. Today, however, it is a beautiful expression of tribute and remembrance.
Traditional Holiday Greetings
For Rosh Hashanah, people wish each other “Shana Tova,” which means “good year” in Hebrew. The final Yom Kippur service traditionally ends with the congregation exclaiming, “L’Shana Haba’ah bi’Yerushalayim” or “Next year in Jerusalem!”
There is a custom that after Yom Kippur, we immediately begin planning the construction of the sukkah, which we will use for the joyous holiday of Sukkot, which follows in just five days.
- High Holiday Meditation with Rabbi Olivier BenHaim | Sept 1
- Rosh Hashanah To Go Kits | Sept 2
- Rosh Hashanah Arts + Crafts | Sept 2
- Holiday Cooking Demo with Honey + Co | Sept 12
Mental Health for the New Year
- Virtual Book Fest for Kids: “Ezra’s Invisible Backpack” | Sept 9
- Youth Mental Health First Aid | Sept 10
- Back to School Worries: Tools & Tips for Caregivers Supporting Elementary Aged Children | Sept 14