For most Jews, the term “High Holy Days” is the title
given to a period of 10 days that stretch between Rosh Hashanah, which means the
first or “head” of the year, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Both holidays
have their basis in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 23:23-32) although the name
Rosh Hashanah was not used until significantly later in Jewish history.
Rosh Hashanah ushers in the Jewish New Year with a period
of profound self-examination and repentance. It is 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 us 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 judgment will be a matter of life or death
(either figurative or literal, depending on your theological orientation).
Our prayers, songs, and rituals focus on confessing the
ways we have gone astray, asking forgiveness for the occasions on which we have
missed the mark, and committing ourselves to acts of repentance (in Hebrew
called t’shuvah). We go through this process collectively; the emphasis being
on “we” rather than “I,” which reflects the importance of community in Judaism.
On Rosh Hashanah, listen for the sounding of the ram’s
horn, the shofar, during the morning service. The sound of the shofar is a
deeply moving call to renewed awareness and action. We eat apples and honey for
a sweet new year, and greet others with the words “shanah tovah,” a good year.
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. Many
Jews fast on Yom Kippur, and spend almost the entire day in the synagogue. The
observance ends with the setting of the sun. A final sounding of the shofar
marks the end of this intensely spiritual day.
The heart of Yom Kippur observance is its liturgy. The
opening, evening service centers on an ancient formula known as Kol Nidre. Kol
Nidre is actually an ancient legal formula that absolves us of vows and oaths
(between God and ourselves, but not between ourselves and others) that we may
take between this Yom Kippur and the next one. For many people, it is the music of Kol Nidre that is the
most moving and powerful part of this service.
At the end of the day of Yom Kippur, a memorial service
called Yizkor is observed. This service honors loved ones who have died. As Yom
Kippur draws to a close, the observance concludes with the Neilah, or locking,
service. This is a final chance to repent before the symbolic gates of repentance
are closed and locked to us.
There are many details that I have left out. If you would
like to learn more about the holidays, please feel free to call me. Rabbi Susan
Warshaw, Temple Bat Yam, 410-641-4311. May I be the first to wish each of you a
happy new year. Shanah Tovah!