It is a universal aspect of the human condition that time marches on. Jewish tradition seeks not only to mark the passage of time, but to make it holy. In the fall, Jewish communities the world over observe what is known in Hebrew as Hayamim Hanoraim (the Days of Awe). This 10-day period opens with Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) celebrated for two days, and concludes with the one-day observance of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). The 10 days are a time for reflecting on the past year, making amends and celebrating hope for the future.
“One grand lesson of Rosh Hashanah is not that we have to be perfect, but that we are, and can continue to be, very good. It is sufficient if we strive to achieve our potential. It is only when we fail to be the fullness of who we are that we are held accountable.” —Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, The Tapestry of Jewish Time: A Spiritual Guide to Holidays and Lifecycle Events
The themes and theology of Rosh Hashanah are perhaps best expressed through its symbols: apples and honey, the pomegranate, a round challah, the shofar or ram’s horn, and fish. Apples and honey express the wish for a sweet new year. Due to the elaborate and somewhat mysterious process by which honey is created, it has the additional symbolism as the spiritual exercise of self-improvement. The pomegranate, with its many seeds, and the fish both symbolize the desire for a plentiful year. In addition, Jewish tradition likens the number of seeds in a pomegranate to the number of mitzvot (good deeds or sacred obligations) we hope to perform in the upcoming year. The round challah symbolizes the cyclical nature of life while the ram’s horn serves as a “wake-up call” for individuals to begin the process of intense introspection.
Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of celebration and introspection. For many in the American Jewish community, this includes synagogue attendance, where special prayers are said. The celebration also includes festive meals with symbolic foods. Some participate in a ceremony called tashlich whereby misdeeds of the past year (symbolized by bread crumbs) are symbolically thrown into a flowing body of water. It is also customary to exchange New Year cards.
Yom Kippur is the most solemn and introspective day on the Jewish calendar. It emphasizes personal responsibility for one’s actions. Jewish tradition teaches that to atone for deeds committed against another person you must approach that person directly and apologize. The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the traditional time to ask forgiveness from one’s friends and neighbors, so that on Yom Kippur one can attain forgiveness and purification for all misdeeds. The act of atonement makes the claim that as human beings we are able to change and improve ourselves. On Yom Kippur we strive to improve our relationships both with other human beings and with God.
The most prominent tradition of the Yom Kippur holiday is a 25-hour fast from all food and drink from sunset to sundown the next day. Many spend the entire day in synagogue engaged in study and prayer. The holiday ends with a festive break-the-fast meal.
Yom Kippur section adapted from MyJewishLearning.com.
The ten days from Rosh HaShanah (the Jewish New Year) to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are known as “The Ten Days of Repentance.” Together with the Hebrew month of Elul, which immediately precedes them, they form a 40-day period during which we are invited to engage in the practice of teshuvah (repentance). During this time, we reflect on our actions of the past year, ask forgiveness from people we have hurt, and ponder how we may better our moral and ethical behavior.
MyJewishLearning is an excellent web source for learning all things Jewish, from the meaning of Jewish holidays to important Jewish values and ideas to excellent recipes. These two articles provide an explanation about the month of Elul and its importance, and explain the basics of teshuvah, repentance.
JudaismUnbound is a great podcast that features interesting Jewish thinkers and discussions. You might also like ElulUnbound, which offers short podcasts about Elul as well as questions, short readings, and meditations to help you in your self-reflection.
InterfaithFamily has wonderful educational material, as well as personal stories, from a variety of people who are contemplating how to engage in meaningful Jewish traditions and celebrations. Read some of their stories about the special time of Elul at their website.
Aleph is the organization that represents and promotes Jewish Renewal. This is a growing movement in the Jewish community that seeks to uncover and renew the profound spiritual ideas and practices found in traditional Jewish life. Rabbi Marcia Prager’s piece is her interpretation of what teshuvah can mean.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (aka the Velveteen Rabbi), one of the freshest voices in Jewish Renewal, writes a regular blog about the meaning and practice of Jewish life. Her Elul blog posts contain both her wisdom and gentle suggestions for making Jewish meaning. Also included is her beautiful poetry.
Change doesn’t come easily. We hope these resources will help you along the way. Make this time of year a time of personal renewal for yourself and your loved ones.