The Jewish High Holidays are the peak spiritual season of the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur serve as bookends to an intense, reflective time known as the 10 Days of Repentance. During this period, we engage in the inner work of change, of returning to our essence and our highest potential as holy human beings.
Learn more about the High Holidays.
Moving Toward Healing: A Conversation with Our Community Clergy
Tuesday, September 13
We invite you to watch and listen to this year’s Roundtable presentation below.
The Jewish New Year is called Rosh Hashanah, translated as “the head of the year.” It begins on the first day of the month of Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar. This date typically occurs during September or early October. On Rosh Hashanah we look forward with hope and joy to a year full of blessings. Shanah (year) is derived from the Hebrew words for “change” and “repetition.” As we look back on our actions, words and relationships from the past year, we try to notice patterns and habits that need to change to better support our relationships and our greater world.
The Day of Repentance is called Yom Kippur. Taking place 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, it is considered the most important holy day of the Jewish year. From lighting candles at sundown until seeing a dark sky the following night, this is a time for prayer and contemplation of the most vulnerable and courageous variety. By refraining from eating and drinking, work responsibilities, media consumption and other activities that turn our attention to the transactional world, we give ourselves the gift of truly focusing on a personal moral inventory. Jewish tradition requires that we ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt and offer it to others who have hurt us. We acknowledge the hurts we have caused in our relationships, the ways in which we have caused ourselves to stumble, and the large and small behaviors that have hurt our community and our planet. If we have done this work of repair, of Teshuvah (repentance or return), by Yom Kippur, then we can honestly ask to be written in the proverbial “Book of Life” for another year.
Blowing of the Shofar
The shofar, or ram’s horn, is sounded every day during the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, 100 times during the Rosh Hashanah prayer services, and again to end the Yom Kippur fast. Its sound has been compared to a wailing trumpet, a mother’s cry, and even a call to battle. The Shofar has been called a “spiritual alarm clock,” a wake-up call that says: Pay attention and make things better!
A critical part of this season is engaging in the process of Teshuvah, repairing relationships through our words and acknowledging the impact of our speech. The 10 Days of Repair (in Hebrew, Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah) offer inspiration and encouragement to all of us to acknowledge the impact of our speech. We can tell ourselves the truth, stop making excuses, take responsibility for our behavior, and then decide with commitment that we will make different choices going forward. To say the words “I’m sorry” is to take a step of responsibility and reconciliation and healing that will rebuild trust and love in our relationships.
Rosh Hashanah has a special cleansing ceremony called tashlich, which means to “cast” or “throw away.” It is a chance to symbolically get rid of our mistakes and missteps by throwing breadcrumbs into a body of moving water, as another step toward reconciliation and renewal. By invoking the cleansing power of water, we feel a fresh and clean start to the new year. We can participate in Tashlich any time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Many cultures and religions embrace special foods to symbolize and serve as a reminder of important aspects of a holiday. During the High Holidays, these foods include apples dipped in honey for a sweet year, round challah for the interwoven, ever-continuing cycle of life, and pomegranates for the bright jewels of positive actions that make our world a better place.
During the High Holiday season, it is customary to offer meaningful greetings that express our caring connection and hopes for a joyful and blessed new year. You can greet Jewish friends with any of these suggested phrases:
Shanah Tovah: A good new year!
Shanah Tovah u’metukah: A good and sweet new year!
G’mar Chatimah Tovah: May you be sealed in the Book of Life!
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.