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The High Holidays
Preparing for Judaism's Holiest Days
The High Holy Days are the most spiritual holidays on the Jewish calendar, made up of the Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
Elul: The Jewish Month Of Repentance
According to the Talmud, the word “Elul” is an acronym for Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li – a phrase from the Song of Songs which translates to “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” where beloved allegorically refers to God.
As such, it is a time to reshape our lives and return to God. Elul is a month of deep introspection, where we ask for forgiveness so we can come into the New Year – Rosh Hashanah – with a clean slate.
Traditions for the Month of Elul
- Shofar blowing every morning (except for Sabbath) from Rosh Chodesh Elul until the day before Rosh Hashanah. The shofar blasts are meant to inspire us to begin our soul searching and repentance in preparation for the High Holy Days.
- Many recite Psalm 27 every day from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Sukkot.
- Special penitential prayers called Selichot are added to prayer services before Rosh HaShanah, on either the first Saturday night beforehand or the Saturday night prior to that, depending on what day of week Rosh Hashanah falls out.
The 10 Days Of Repentance
Rosh Hashanah is the day we crown God as King of the universe. On that day, our fate for the upcoming year is “written” in a Divine book of judgments. That fate is then held in balance for 10 days wherein everyone has the chance to repent and alter their verdict until it is “sealed” on Yom Kippur.
This period is known as the 10 Days of Repentance and they occur in the first 10 days of Tishrei. It is a time of intense repentance, prayer, and charity – the three things said to remove the evil decree.
What Are The High Holidays About?
Rosh Hashanah, which translates literally to “head of the year,” is the Jewish New Year. It is the new year for people, animals, and for legal contracts. According to commentators of the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of man (Tractate Rosh Hashanah).
Rosh Hashanah is celebrated as a two-day holiday, beginning on the first day of the month of Tishrei. According to the Torah, however, Rosh Hashanah is a one-day celebration.
Since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, it became more difficult to determine the date of Rosh Hashanah in the same way it had been determined prior, so a second day was added to Rosh Hashanah to account for the unclarity. The two days of Rosh Hashanah are referred to as a Yoma Arichtah, one long day.
The Talmud teaches us that three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah, where the fate of the righteous, the wicked, and the intermediate individuals are recorded.
The Bible refers to this holiday as Zichron Teruah and Yom Teruah, “day of blowing the horn” (Leviticus 23:24, Numbers 29:1). In Jewish prayerbooks, Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom HaZikaron, “a day of remembrance.” The Mishnah refers to Rosh Hashanah as the day of judgment.
The prayers for Rosh Hashanah are broken up into three parts: Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofrot. The overarching theme of the prayers and of the holiday is the coronation of God as King of the universe.
Since Hebrew days begin at sundown, the beginning of Rosh Hashanah is at sundown at the end of 29 Elul, going into 1 Tishrei.
Yom Kippur, or “Day of Atonement,” is the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. It is a fast day filled with intense prayer. According to tradition, a person’s fate for the upcoming year is “sealed” on Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is the 10th day of Tishrei and it marks the end of the 10 Days of Repentance, which began with Rosh Hashanah on the first of Tishrei.
Preparing For The High Holidays
Erev Rosh Hashanah
Before Rosh Hashanah we should ask forgiveness from anyone we may have wronged. Similarly, we should forgive anyone who might have wronged us. Many have the custom to go to a Mikveh to cleanse themselves in preparation. Some have the custom of visiting cemeteries to appeal to God to hear our prayers in the merit of those more righteous. We also perform Hatarat Nedarim, annulment of vows, so we can go into the new year with a clean slate.
There is a commandment for all to hear the shofar blasts from a horn, customarily a ram’s horn, on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Saadiah Gaon offers 10 reasons for this commandment:
- God completed Creation on Rosh Hashanah, establishing His sovereignty over the Universe. We blow the shofar as a renewal God’s coronation as King.
- Since Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance, we blow the shofar so that its cries will awaken us to repent.
- The shofar was blown at Mt. Sinai when the Torah was received.
- The blasts of the Shofar are compared to the exhortations of the Prophets; on Rosh Hashanah we are reminded of the importance of their words.
- The broken blasts, shevarim, remind us of the destroyed Temple.
- Abraham displayed incredible zeal to do the will of God, even when it meant sacrificing his son, Isaac. In the end, a ram was sacrificed in his stead. The ram’s horn reminds us of Abraham’s readiness to perform God’s will.
- The powerful sounds of the shofar stir our hearts will feelings of awe towards God.
- The intense blasts help us recognize the solemnity of the day.
- The ingathering of Jews into the Land of Israel during Messianic times will be heralded by the blasts of the shofar.
- The resurrection of the dead in Messianic times will also be heralded by the shofar sounds.
Rosh Hashanah Greetings
It is customary to greet one another with the blessing: Leshanah tovah tikateiv veteichateim, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”
A special prayer said near a body of water, symbolically casting our sins into the sea.
Symbolic Foods Eaten on Rosh Hashanah
- Round Challah: During all of the High Holidays we eat round challah, symbolizing fullness and completion. The challah is dipped into honey.
- Honey: Challah is dipped into honey and we also dip apples into honey, symbolically praying for a “sweet” new year.
- Pomegranates: Pomegranates are one of the Seven Species of Israel. It is traditionally used as the new fruit for the Shehechiyanu blessing. The pomegranate is said to have 613 seeds, corresponding to the 613 mitzvoth.
- Carrots: The hebrew word for carrot, gezer, sounds like the hebrew word for decree, g’zar. We eat carrots on Rosh Hashanah to express our desire that God strike any negative decrees against us.
- Beets: The hebrew word for beets is similar to the word for “remove.” Eating beets expresses our hope that God will remove our enemies.
- Fish Head or Sheep’s Head: We eat the head of an animal so that “we will be as the head and not as the tail.”
Erev Yom Kippur
On the afternoon before Yom Kippur, it is customary to eat a large meal before the fast begins at sundown.
Yom Kippur Traditions
- It is customary to wear white clothing as a symbol of purity.
- Before sundown, the prayer of Kol Nidre is recited, releasing those present of al vows.
- The additional prayer of Neilah is added to the Yom Kippur prayer services. Neilah is the last opportunity to pray before the “gates of prayer” are closed.
- The recitation of Shema Yisrael and the blowing of the shofar mark the end of the fast.
Rules for Yom Kippur
The Torah provides instructions to "afflict" ourselves on Yom Kippur, which is primarily practiced by abstaining from pleasurable activities.
The five main prohibitions on Yom Kippur include the following pleasures:
- Eating and drinking
- Wearing leather shoes
- Bathing or washing
- Anointing oneself with perfumes or lotions
- Marital relations