Jewish High Holy Days Explained

All you need to know about the upcoming Jewish holidays so you can holler “L’shanah tovah!” without looking like a shmendrick.

Happy 5775! At sundown on Wednesday (September 24), Jews around the world will turn the page on the Jewish calendar to begin the new year, Rosh Hashanah. What starts with a feast at home will end 10 days later with a fast in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This time is referred to as “The Days of Awe” as Jews move between repentance and forgiveness, reflection and renewal.

Here’s everything goyim need to know about the High Holy Days so they can holler “L’shanah tovah!” — or “Happy New Year!” — without looking like a shmendrick.

Q: What do Jews celebrate on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

A: The new year is celebrated with family and friends, but Jews are also expected to think about the meaning and direction of their lives. How could they have been better Jews? Better human beings? That comes full circle on Yom Kippur, when Jews fast for a whole day and reflect on their faults and the ways they have wronged people throughout the year. It is a holiday for making amends, for seeking and giving forgiveness.

Q: Well, ain’t that a party? Sign me up. KIDDING!

A: The High Holy Days really are fun and quite beautiful. Rosh Hashanah starts with a family meal that includes a lot of yummies, like apples dipped in honey and honey cake. The emphasis is on sweetness in the hopes a little sugar on the tongue will bring a lot of goodness in the new year. And many Jews grow emotional over the beauty of the Yom Kippur service, especially the Kol Nidre, a sung recitation of universal forgiveness. “May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault,” the song says in Aramaic. “O pardon the iniquities of this people, according to Thy abundant mercy, just as Thou forgave this people ever since they left Egypt.”

Q: I saw a bunch of people from the synagogue tossing things in a river. Are they litterbugs?

A: Hardly. That was the practice of “tashlich” (or “tashlikh”), the ritual casting away of sins by throwing bread crumbs into a body of water. Traditionally performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the ritual was inspired by Micah 7:19 — “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities. You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.” The thought is that you start the new year with a clean slate. That symbolic emphasis on sinlessness is carried over to Yom Kippur, when Jews wear all white to services.

Q: What is that crazy sound I hear coming out of the synagogue on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

A: That would be the shofar, the trumpet made from the horn of a ram or some other kosher animal and blown during the services. On Rosh Hashanah, the sound is meant to awaken the hearers from a spiritual slumber, to make them aware of their actions and their repercussions. Its sound reminds Jews of the story of Abraham, who substituted a ram for his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. When the shofar is blown on Yom Kippur, it signifies a “closing of the gates” of heaven . . . and it will be another year before they open again.

Q: Do all Jews celebrate the High Holy Days the same way?

A: Yes and no. Some Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah for two days, while others mark it only on one. Generally, Reform Jews — the more liberal of the branches of Judaism — celebrate a single day of Rosh Hashanah, while Conservative and Orthodox Jews observe it for two days. In Israel, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated for two days; schools, banks and other businesses usually close. But one thing all Jews do the same during the High Holy Days: they eat.

This article is part of The ‘Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do”), an occasional feature in which Kimberly Winston and other RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at a cocktail party.

Image courtesy of ChameleonsEye /

  • Martin Hughes

    Completely uncritical reflections on religion can get a bit wearing. The Kol Nidre text has worried many Christians and indeed some Jewish people for some time, with its reference not just to forgiveness but, seemingly, to annulment of all vows and contracts. In medieval times some explanations were, I understand, offered, such as that it did not apply to vows made by Jewish to non-Jewish people – but these seem to have little foundation in the text. Of course we Christians have some ‘splaining of our own to do about both the complete prohibition on oaths in Matthew 5 and also the complete disregard in which this verse has normally been held. I suppose that both Kol Nidre and the Matthaean prohibition come out of the same rather worrying theological root. I wonder if it all started when Jews and Christians were serving in the Roman army, which it is clear they did in some numbers, and wanted to protect their consciences from the pagan oaths that played such a big part in army life.