A Guide to the High Holy Days

What are the “Days of Awe / High Holy Days?”

Rosh Hashanah is the first of the “High Holy Days,” and begins the most spiritually intense part of the Jewish year, the “yamin nora’im,” the “Days of Awe.” The Days of Awe begin on Rosh Hashanah and conclude on Yom Kippur, a total of 10 days. According to tradition, on Rosh Hashanah the wholly righteous are inscribed in the Book of Life. For the rest of us, judgment is suspended until Yom Kippur, when our good works and acts of repentance during those 10 days can tilt the balance in our favor so that we may live. These 10 days are devoted to a careful examination of who we are in an attempt to become cognizant of the ways we have fallen short by failing others, ourselves and God. This is also the time given to ask forgiveness to those we might have hurt or offended during the past year. During this period, emphasis is placed on the sincerity of one’s repentance.

 What do the words “Rosh Hashanah” mean?

Rosh Hashanah is Hebrew for “head of the year” (literally) or “beginning of the year” (figuratively).

Why do we say that this is the year 5780? Isn’t the earth over 4 billion years old?

The traditional Jewish understanding is that the world is 5780 years old this year (some say 5780 years since the time of Adam and Eve). As modern Jews, we mark this as a theological date, not a scientific date.

What is Tashlich?

The word tashlich means to “cast/throw” and is symbolic of self-purification. On Rosh Hashanah it is a tradition to throw pocket lint or bread crumbs into a river or a stream to symbolically cast away our sins.

What does Yom Kippur mean?

Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.” It is a day set aside to atone for the sins of the past year. This day is essentially our last appeal, our last chance to change God’s judgment, to demonstrate our repentance and make amends so that we may be written in the Book of Life.

Why is Yom Kippur considered the most serious of Jewish Holidays?

Yom Kippur emphasizes human failings and the need to do teshuvah (repentance). As we focus on teshuvah, we disengage from the life affirming activities of our daily routines, such as eating, and we undergo a process of intense self-reflection. We ask ourselves how we can do better in the eyes of God and other human beings; and we search for wisdom, willpower, and compassion. The process of teshuvah helps to set right some of our wrongdoings, and in so doing, helps us to be partners with God in the creation of a better world.

What is the Jewish definition of sin?

In Judaism, the word “sin” has different connotations than it does in our wider culture. “Sin” in Judaism is generally not something for which a person will be punished in the afterlife, but is rather an improper act for which one can ask forgiveness — not just of God, but (importantly) of other human beings as well.

How do we atone for our sins?

Yom Kippur atones only for sins between humanity and God, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, we must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs we committed against them if possible. This must all be done before the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

How do we greet people during the High Holy Days?

Prior to and during Rosh Hashanah we wish each other “L’Shanah Tovah Tikatayvu” — “May you be inscribed for a good year.” Sometimes we shorten it to “Shanah Tovah” and even the Yiddish, “Gut Yontiff.” Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we often say “G’mar Hatimah Tovah” – “May you be sealed for a good year.”