The High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar

The High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar

What are the High Holy Days?

The high holy days of the Jewish calendar are Rosh Hashanah and ten days later, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

This is a time of year when the Jewish people as a whole are asked to engage in a process of moral self-assessment; seeking forgiveness from others for harms we’ve done; making amends as appropriate; and resolving to do better in the future. The Hebrew word that refers to this entire process is Teshuvah, pronounced teh-shoo-vah.  

For example, you might hear someone say: “Ronnie and I hadn’t talked to each other for months, and to be honest I’m still kind of upset with him, but at this time of year we are encouraged to make Teshuvah, so we did.” 

Although Teshuvah is really the “big idea” of the High Holy Days, another important theme of these holidays is the celebration of the Jewish New Year.

How do you and your family celebrate?
My family traditionally start the holiday with an evening meal. Jewish holidays begin at sunset before the day of the holiday. Menus vary from house to house, but two customs are widely followed. 

  • We make or buy a round challah; the roundness of this traditional loaf of bread symbolizes the never-ending cycle of time.
  • We eat apple dipped in honey, to symbolise the hope that the coming year will be a sweet one.

We are also mindful of the harm we have done to friends and loved ones and express our regret and ask forgiveness. 

We go to our house of prayer to mark the two days of the festival and the afternoon of the first day we cast off our sins called Tashlich, which is the Hebrew word for “send off” or “cast away.” 

It is traditional to go to a body of moving water, such as a lake, river for a ceremony in which we symbolically cast off our sins by emptying crumbs from our pockets into the water and saying a small prayer. 

I especially like this festival as it is a time of reflection and we have family around to share it. 

More about the high holy days

Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah is the first of the High Holy Days and marks the beginning of a new Jewish calendar year.

It’s actually celebrated for two days in most, but not all, Jewish communities.

The mood of the Jewish New Year is a mix of reflection on the year that has just ended, hope for the year that’s begun, gratitude for the goodness in our lives, and general celebration.

Yom Kippur
Ten days after we celebrate the Jewish New Year, we gather together again for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).

“Atonement” means acknowledging our misdeeds during the past year, looking for opportunities to apologize or make things right and asking God for forgiveness and a fresh start.

It’s one of the holiest days of the Jewish year .All Jewish holidays begin at sunset, so when the sun goes down to begin Yom Kippur, the next 24 hours take on a focus of gathering with community to acknowledge our wrongdoings and seek God’s forgiveness together.

Many adults in the community follow the practice of fasting (abstaining from all food and drink) for the duration of the day, from sundown of the night it begins until the sun goes down the next day.

When the sun finally sets at the end of Yom Kippur, the mood shifts from somber self-reflection to joy and release.

Some families and synagogues prepare delicious meals to break the fast.