High Holy Days in Judaism: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Monday, April 20, 2009

The most solemn of Jewish holidays are known as the “High Holy Days”. They are the New Year and the day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Both fall in the month of Tishrei, which is just as the summer is about to end and autumn begins. Usually, these holidays would fall in the month of September, and sometimes early October.

Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is considered the yearly Day of Judgement. God is projected as King of Judge of all mankind, not just of Israel. So, while Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday, there is a universal aspect to this day. The prayers of Rosh Hasanah actually describe how all of mankind literally parades before God in some sort of a Judgement, and he deals with them.

Along with extended prayer, the most outstanding element of the service in the New Year, is the blowing of a ram’s horn. The Hebrew word is shofar. A ram’s horn is used to remember that story of Isaac’s binding on the altar and his almost sacrifice. At the last moment, Isaac was replaced by a ram. God chose a ram. So, we blow the ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah, among other things, to remind God of Abraham’s faith.

The fact is that medieval Jewish scholars considered this blowing of the horn as a wake up call, arousing mankind from its moral slumber. This is the day of Judgement, this is the day when people should change their lives.

Ten days are counted from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These are designated as the days of repentance. This is a period of personal introspection. The ideal being to take stock of your life, in particular behavior with others. These ten days of introspection reach their peak on the tenth day of Tishrei, which is the Day of Atonement. This is a day of total fast, from sunset on the day before until the end of the following day.

Yom Kippur is not intended as a sad day. People sometimes get this wrong. They assume that if you fast you must be sad. Not at all. It’s a solemn one, ending with one final blast of the ram’s horn, and affirming that God is the Lord. The whole day is taken up by ongoing prayer. Technically, you are only required to fast from the age 13. Women are required to fast from the age of 12. One of the great rights of passage is when a child for the first time begins fasting on Yom Kippur.