clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

6 things you need to know to understand the Jewish High Holy Days

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and often the intervening period more informally, are known as the High Holy Days within Judaism.

Tashlich Ceremony Observed By Jews During Rosh Hashanah
Jews pray while symbolically casting off their sins in the Rosh Hashan tashlich ceremony
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Sunday, September 9, marks the beginning of the most sacred annual period in Judaism — the 10 days between the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The two holidays, and often the intervening period more informally, are known as the High Holy Days within Judaism.

For many secular Jews, the period is an opportunity to reconnect with family members or get in touch with cultural traditions — they’re by far the best-attended holidays at most synagogues. But the theological import of the holiday and the different ways it has changed or solidified over time can tell us a lot about the development of Jewish culture and values: the story of a group of people for whom the tension between assimilation and preserving tradition has long been a major part of their culture.

Whether you grew up in a Jewish household or have never even attended a seder, here are six things you might not know about Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the High Holy Days.

1) Rosh Hashanah is the “Jewish New Year,” but it’s not the only Jewish New Year. And the story behind it says a lot about Jewish identity.

Wednesday night marks the beginning of Rosh Hashanah (“head of the year”), which is the traditional start of the Jewish New Year. This Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the year 5779 according to the Hebrew calendar, which represents the number of years since God’s creation of the heavens and the earth.

More specifically, “Rosh Hashanah" refers to the first two days of the month of Tishri, one of the 12 months (usually 12 — sometimes there are “leap months”) that comprise the Hebrew calendar. Because of the lunisolar nature of the Hebrew calendar, the precise dates of Tishri, Rosh Hashanah, and the High Holy Days vary each year but tend to take place in September or October.

But the beginning of Tishri wasn’t always the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Throughout the Torah — the most important Hebrew Scriptures — we find references to the start of the year in the spring, in the month of Nisan. Only in later rabbinic literature, known as the Mishnah, which dates back to the second century CE, do we find the idea that the start of the year should be counted from Tishri, and that this should be considered a religious holiday.

So why the change? The answer, drawing on the work of some 20th-century scholars like Norman Snaith, could lie in the experience of the Israelites in exile in Babylon, a foundational time in the history of Judaism as we know it today. Before the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, worshipping the God of Israel (also known as “Yahweh”) was part of a conflation of ethnic and religious identity common in the ancient Near East. The Babylonians worshipped Baal and Marduk, Sumerians worshipped Annat and Asherah, and so forth.

If a population was taken over or defeated in battle, their gods were often wiped out from history or, alternatively, would become combined in pantheons with the gods of the conquerors. (Fun fact: In some areas where there was Canaanite/Israelite overlap, Asherah was worshipped as Yahweh’s wife.)

So when most Israelites were exiled to Babylon after being conquered by King Nebuchadnezzar in the late sixth century BCE, it would stand to reason that Yahweh would have vanished from history, just as, ultimately, Baal and Marduk did. That the worship of Yahweh survived — through first Judaism and then Christianity — is something of a historical miracle. But the Israelites were able to hold on to their traditions and beliefs, sometimes through insularity (the Hebrew Bible is full of passages condemning people who worshipped other cultures’ gods) but sometimes through compromise.

Moving new year celebrations could have been one such compromise. While most ancient biblical history is contested by various scholars, as rabbi and legal affairs columnist Jay Michaelson writes at the Daily Beast, the Jews of Babylon may well have been influenced by religious practices in Babylon itself: The naming of the month of Tishri may derive from the Akkadian word “tirshritu,” or “beginning,” and Rosh Hashanah may have been influenced by the Bablyonian akitu religious new year’s festival, which seems to have taken place in both the spring and fall.

This is significant because, as Michaelson notes, we have a tendency to think of the history of Judaism — and, particularly, of the Jewish God — as static: a god who has been worshipped in the same way by the same people through millennia. The history of Rosh Hashanah, by contrast, shows us that the Jewish religion as we know it today was likely influenced by a number of other ancient traditions.

As Michaelson writes, “[T]he very occasion of the ‘Jewish New Year’ is a result of the Jews’ experiences as immigrants to Babylonian society, and their blending of Jewish and Babylonian traditions. Ancient Judaism was not nearly as insular and fearful of ‘foreign’ influences as some Biblical texts suggest.”

2) Jews celebrate the High Holy Days with both religious and familial rituals

One of the most recognizable indications of the Rosh Hashanah celebrations is the repeated blowing of the shofar, or horn, at the synagogue to herald the coming of the new year. This is done on both mornings of Rosh Hashanah, unless the first morning falls on Shabbat, or Sabbath, in which case the shofar is blown on one day only. Hearing the shofar is a mitzvah, or divine commandment, for all adult Jewish men.

In some traditions, worshippers will perform tashlich, the symbolic casting out and “washing off" of misdeeds at a body of water, reflecting the holiday’s tradition as a time of repentance, reflections, and renewal.

Families also celebrate by lighting candles at home, and by eating a traditional Rosh Hashanah meal, which usually includes apples and honey: sweet foods to welcome the sweetness of the year ahead. Additional common foods served on the holiday include the head of either a ram or a fish (reflecting a proverbial injunction to be “the head and not the tail”), pomegranate seeds, and a round challah bread, the circle reflecting the eternity of life. You can also expect to hear exhortations to have “l’shanah tovah,” or “good year!"

However, not all Jewish movements celebrate the High Holy Days in precisely the same way. Orthodox Jews typically attend longer synagogue services that are primarily in Hebrew, while Reform Jews often attend shorter, English-language services. Reform Jews may also only celebrate the first day of Rosh Hashanah, rather than attending services on both days.

There are also minor differences in custom between Jews hailing from different parts of the world. For example, Ashkenazi Jews, who hail from Eastern Europe, often wear a symbolic takhrikh — a death shroud — on Yom Kippur and, more rarely, on Rosh Hashanah to signify atonement, while Sephardic Jews, who generally hail from North Africa or Spain, simply wear white.

3) The High Holy Days are a theologically important time of repentance and renewal

The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as the “Ten Days of Repentance” (“Aseret Yemei Teshuvah”). According to traditional Jewish teaching, God opens the Book of Life each year on Rosh Hashanah to inscribe a person’s fate for the coming year, but does not seal that fate until Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement.” The Days of Repentance thus offer an observant Jew the opportunity to atone for past misdeeds, seek forgiveness, and mend his or her behavior through the practice of teshuvah, or “return.”

Thus, a popular form of well-wishing throughout the holiday period is to wish that somebody be “written in the Book of Life.”

Prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as the intervening period, often take the form of recognizing and confessing past deeds. For example, the shorter Vidui Ashamnu (“we are guilty”) prayer is recited or sung repeatedly throughout the period, while the longer Al-Cheyt is sung only on Yom Kippur itself.

4) Yom Kippur is a much more somber day than Rosh Hashanah. And its defining prayer has been controversial.

While Rosh Hashanah tends to be a day of celebration, Yom Kippur is a far more somber holiday.

Traditionally, the Yom Kippur services begin at sundown with the “Kol Nidre” prayer, an affirmation in ancient Aramaic that “all vows” (or “kol nidre”) made to God in the coming year are null and void. The idea behind this annulment is to prevent a religious Jew from making an overly optimistic promise to God he or she cannot keep by recognizing that human beings are fallible, and that nobody, however well intentioned, can guarantee perfect behavior. (Some scholars have also interpreted the Kol Nidre as a preemptive strike against the common medieval practice of forced conversion to Christianity or Islam, although the Kol Nidre seems to predate such practices.)

Throughout history, however, the Kol Nidre has been somewhat controversial. Anti-Semites from the medieval era through the 20th century have used the Kol Nidre as “evidence” that Jews could not be trusted to keep their word, even though the Kol Nidre refers only to pacts between the individual and God. As a result, the Jewish Reform Movement briefly suspended the practice, only for it to return to common usage in 1961. The haunting and distinctive melody of the Kol Nidre is one of the best-known melodies within the Jewish tradition: something that has contributed to its lasting appeal.

Like the date of the new year, therefore, the debate over Kol Nidre — and whether its spiritual significance outweighed its outsize negative influence on anti-Semitic groups — reflects perennial questions in Jewish history about balancing tradition, culture, assimilation, and identity.

The Kol Nidre is followed by a day’s worth of services at the synagogue, the precise hours of which vary from denomination to denomination.

Traditionally, worshippers (excepting children, the infirm, and pregnant women) abstain from food, drink, and sex for a 25-hour period — from just before sunset on the 10th day of Tishri (September 18 this year) to just after sunset the following day.

5) Be prepared to buy a ticket for the service

While levels of observance vary among Jews, the High Holiday services are often attended by Jews who do not otherwise consider themselves observant but wish to keep in touch with familial traditions — much in the same vein as Christians who go to church only on Christmas and Easter.

This has led to controversial practices like the selling of often-expensive tickets to nonmembers (members, by contrast, traditionally pay annual dues to their local synagogue) for services at crowded synagogues, which often rely on the funds to subsidize practices for the rest of the year. At expensive synagogues, such as New York City’s Temple Emanu-El, prices for the top High Holiday seats can reach $2,970.

Some denominations, such as the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement, sharply decry the practice and do not charge for admission.

In practice, though, it means that, while non-Jews are not officially barred from synagogue services on High Holy Days, attending a service — whether to support a partner or out of personal interest — on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur may be an impractical endeavor.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.