The High Holidays


The High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

If you’ve read some of my earlier blogs, you know that while I am Jewish, my family always practiced what I call “Jewish lite.” Thus, when asked to write about two major Jewish holidays that fall in September — the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — I was initially a bit baffled.

What could I do to add some personalized content before diving into the specifics of these special days? Hmmm… I called my mom. Truth be told, she wasn’t much help. I asked her if she remembered anything our family did to celebrate Rosh Hashanah — the New Year according to the Jewish calendar — or Yom Kippur — the day of atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. She didn’t.

She thought we probably went to the homes of “more Jewish” friends, and maybe we did, but neither of us has much of a recollection of it. It’s probably a good thing that I believe if we face judgment at the end of our lives, it’s based on what kind of a life we led — in particular how we treated others — rather than how religious we were. I certainly get a failing grade as a Jew.

However, personal experiences aside, I’m certainly able to provide some details about these important days for Jews, so here we go.

Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah, translated as the “head of the year,” is the Jewish New Year. Unlike the New Year most of us are familiar with, which is always on January 1, this time of inner renewal and divine atonement doesn’t always fall on the same day. This year, it starts at sunset on September 9 and ends at nightfall on September 11.

In case you’re curious — or need to plan really far ahead — the sundown start and nightfall end dates for 2019, 2020, and 2021 are September 29 and October 1, September 18 and September 20, and September 6 and September 8, respectively.

In stark contrast to the revelry we typically associate with New Year’s celebrations, Rosh Hashanah is focused on prayer, a time to ask the Almighty to grant a year of peace, prosperity and blessing. There is some horn blowing, but not the kind you might think; the shofar or ram’s horn, is sounded on both days of the holiday — unless the first day is Shabbat, on which it’s not blown.

What’s Shabbat? It’s the Jewish Sabbath, which takes place from nightfall on Friday until nightfall on Saturday, every week. On this day of rest, the most religious Jews will adhere to the 39 categories of activity prohibited on the Sabbath, which have been modernized to include switching off an electric light (extinguishing a fire); using the telephone (kindling a fire); painting, drawing, or typing (making durable marks on a durable material); and drawing blood for a blood test (slaughtering).

But I digress. Back to Rosh Hashanah.

Like all things Jewish, blowing the shofar has a deeper meaning; it represents the trumpet blast sounded at a king’s coronation and also serves as a call to repentance. The shofar itself reflects the Binding of Isaac, and event that occurred on Rosh Hashanah when a ram took Isaac’s place as an offering to God.

Rosh Hashanah includes specific greetings, including, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” I’ll spare you the Hebrew. Candles are lit on both nights while reciting blessings, and on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah — if it’s not Shabbat — it’s customary to go into a body of water and perform a Tashlich ceremony, to ceremoniously cast your sins into the water. I don't think a bathtub of water would work; the intent is to go into the ocean, a river, a pond, etc.

What about food? Jewish holidays are well known for including feasts, and Rosh Hashanah is no exception. Round challah loaves, often sprinkled with raisins, are dipped into honey to express a wish for a sweet year. Furthering that theme, the first night’s feast traditionally begins with slices of apple dipped in honey.

The main course for the first night is often parts of the head of a fish or a ram, to express the wish that “we be a head and not a tail.” Other traditional foods include pomegranates — so “our merits may be like the seeds of the pomegranate” — and tzimmes, a sweet carrot-based dish eaten because its Yiddish name — merren — means “carrot” and “increase,” symbolizing a wish for an abundant year.

By the way, Rosh Hashanah has been celebrated for way, way longer than 2,018 years. This New Year is 5779, considered the birthday of the universe, the day God created Adam and Eve.

Yom Kippur

The 10-day period of repentance that begins with Rosh Hashanah ends with Yom Kippur, which begins this year on the evening of September 18 and ends on the evening of the next day, September 19. During this time, Jews ask God for forgiveness for their sins to secure their fate. (Sounds a bit like confession, eh?) It’s also known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths.

While a feast takes place before Yom Kippur starts, during the observance itself, religious Jews fast — including not drinking any water. Fasting is considered a vehicle for reflecting and repenting for your sins. The pre-Yom Kippur meal often includes rice, kreplach (stuffed dumplings), challah (dipped in honey as is done on Rosh Hashanah), chicken, and fish. Preparations are done with a minimum of salt, which can cause dehydration during the fast.

Outside of praying and repenting, little else is done on Yom Kippur. The idea is to put aside the physical to focus on more spiritual things, atoning for your sins to start the New Year with a clean slate. The same rules as the Sabbath apply, which can mean anything from not going to work to not using any form of electricity — depending on level of observance — and Jewish practice also forbids wearing leather shoes, washing, and having sex. The most observant Jews may stand all day and not even sleep.

This is not very uplifting, so how about ending with some things you probably don’t know about Yom Kippur (amaze your friends!):

  • The word “scapegoat” comes from an ancient Yom Kippur ritual.

  • Another animal ritual — swinging a chicken around one’s head — has sparked considerable controversy from traditional Jews and animal rights activists.

  • Yom Kippur was once a big matchmaking day.

  • In Israel, Yom Kippur is the most bike-friendly day of the year.

  • Eating a big meal before the holiday begins will make your fast harder, not easier.

  • Even in the midst of bombing by the Nazis, on Yom Kippur 1940, London’s Jews kept calm and carried on.

  • Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidrei services are the only night of the entire Jewish calendar where a prayer shawl is worn for evening prayers.

Are there any “more Jewish” Jews who’d like to share their memories of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? אנא עשה or please do!


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