Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur and the Days of Awe

The ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur are commonly known as the “Days of Awe” or “the days of repentance”.  These are a period of days when people give time to serious introspection, a time to consider their sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur.

It is believed that on Rosh Hashanah the destiny of all mankind is recorded by God in books.  Who will live and who will die, who will have a good life or a bad life for the next year.  While these books are written on Rosh Hashanah our actions (specifically repentance, prayer and good deeds – charity) during the Days of Awe (10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) can alter Gods decree.  The belief is that the books are sealed on Yom Kippur.

A Jewish day begins at sunset and typically ends when it becomes dark out, approximately 1 hour after sunset.  Though this may seem strange to many of us, the story of creation in Genesis chapter 1 explains “ And there was evening, and there was morning, one day.”  All Jewish holidays begin the evening before the date specified on most calendars.  Holidays typically end at nightfall (when it becomes dark outside, usually about an hour after sunset) of the date specified on most calendars.

~ Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown on September 29th and ends    October 1st at nightfall ~

Rosh Hashanah means “head of the year” or “first of the year”.  This Jewish Holiday is widely known and celebrated as the New Years Day of the Jewish calendar.

Are you a little confused?  Possibly you thought that Passover was the Jewish new year?  Well, you’re not wrong!  Judaism has several different “new years,” just as we do in western culture.  Think about it like this, the United States celebrates the “new year” on January 1st, but the “new school year” usually begins in September and many businesses have “fiscal years” that begin at various times of the year.  In Judaism Passover is considered to be the “new year” for the purpose of counting the reigns of kings and months of the calendar.  There is another new year in August for the tithing of animals and yet another new year in February used for determining when first fruits can be eaten – new year for trees.  Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of the civil new year, the new year for years – they increase the year number as well as count Sabbatical and Jubilee years beginning with this time.

Rosh Hashanah actually has a fourfold meaning – It is the Jewish New Year, the Day of Judgement, the Day of Remembrance, and the Day of Shofar Blowing.

  • It is the Day of Judgement:  As Jews worldwide examine their past deeds and asks for forgiveness for their sins
  • It is the Day of Shofar Blowing:  As the Shofar is blown in temple to herald the beginning of the 10 day period known as the High Holy Days
  • It is the Day of Remembrance:  As Jews review the history of their people and pray for Israel
  • And of course it is New Year’s DayCelebrated with its holiday greeting cards, special prayers, and festive and sweet foods (to ensure sweetness in the New Year). A favorite is apples dipped in honey!

Modern Rosh Hashanah is traced back to the “Feast of Trumpets,” the sounding of the trumpets on the first day of the seventh month (Tishri) of the religious calendar year (Lev. 23:24; Num. 29:1).

The traditions of Rosh Hashanah are simple as the only commandment specified for the holiday is the blowing of the shofar. This is done in the temple on Rosh Hashanah to herald the beginning of the High Holy Days or Days of Awe.  Common custom is to seek reconciliation with people you may have wronged during the course of the year.

After Rosh Hashanah services, as the congregants leave the synagogue they say to each other…  “May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year” and “Shana Tova!” (A Good Year).

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, after the afternoon services, Jews visit a body of water or pond, containing live fish*, to symbolically “cast away” their sins into the river.

*The fish’s dependence on water symbolizes the Jews dependence on God, as a fish’s eyes never close, God’s watchful eyes never cease.

May the Lord bless you with all of His blessings that He has stored for you in heavenly places!

~ Yom Kippur begins at sundown on October 8th and ends at nightfall October 9th, 2008 ~

Yom Kippur is probably the most important and observed holiday of the Jewish year.  The holiday is found in Leviticus 23:26

Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement”.  At Rosh Hashanah it is thought that God inscribes all of our names in the books.  On Yom Kippur, the judgment entered into those books is sealed for the year.  This day is your last chance to appeal to God and change His judgment, to demonstrate your repentance and to make amends.

An important fact about Yom Kippur is that it only atones for sins between man and God, not sins between you and other people.  Before Yom Kippur we should reconcile with other people whom we have sinned against during the previous year so that we are cleaned of man to man sin and then can approach our Merciful God for reconciliation with Him.

No work is allowed to be performed on Yom Kippur.  In fact, it is treated as a complete Sabbath.  Typically people complete a 25 hour fast, refraining from food and even water, beginning just before sunset on the evening before and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur.  Most of the holiday is spend in synagogue and prayer.  It is customary to wear white on this holiday to symbolize purity and recalls the promise that our sins shall be made white as snow!  Isaiah 1:18.

Yom Kippur

Level: Basic

Yom Kippur (in Hebrew)

…In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work … For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the L-RD. -Leviticus 16:29-30

Yom Kippur is probably the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast and/or attend synagogue services on this day. Yom Kippur occurs on the 10th day ofTishri. The holiday is instituted at Leviticus 23:26 et seq.

The name “Yom Kippur” means “Day of Atonement,” and that pretty much explains what the holiday is. It is a day set aside to “afflict the soul,” to atone for the sins of the past year. In Days of Awe, I mentioned the “books” in which G-d inscribes all of our names. On Yom Kippur, the judgment entered in these books is sealed. This day is, essentially, your last appeal, your last chance to change the judgment, to demonstrate your repentance and make amends.

As I noted in Days of Awe, Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and G-d, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible. That must all be done before Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath; no work can be performed on that day. It is well-known that you are supposed to refrain from eating and drinking (even water) on Yom Kippur. It is a complete, 25-hour fast beginning before sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. The Talmud also specifies additional restrictions that are less well-known: washing and bathing, anointing one’s body (with cosmetics, deodorants, etc.), wearing leather shoes (Orthodox Jews routinely wear canvas sneakers under their dress clothes on Yom Kippur), and engaging in sexual relations are all prohibited on Yom Kippur.

As always, any of these restrictions can be lifted where a threat to life or health is involved. In fact, children under the age of nine and women in childbirth (from the time labor begins until three days after birth) are not permitted to fast, even if they want to. Older children and women from the third to the seventh day after childbirth are permitted to fast, but are permitted to break the fast if they feel the need to do so. People with other illnesses should consult a physician and a rabbi for advice.

Most of the holiday is spent in the synagogue, in prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, services begin early in the morning (8 or 9 AM) and continue until about 3 PM. People then usually go home for an afternoon nap and return around 5 or 6 PM for the afternoon and evening services, which continue until nightfall. The services end at nightfall, with the blowing of the tekiah gedolah, a long blast on the shofar. See Rosh Hashanah for more about the shofar and its characteristic blasts.

It is customary to wear white on the holiday, which symbolizes purity and calls to mind the promise that our sins shall be made as white as snow (Is. 1:18). Some people wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried.

Yom Kippur Liturgy

See also Jewish Liturgy generally.
The liturgy for Yom Kippur is much more extensive than for any other day of the year. Liturgical changes are so far-reaching that a separate, special prayer book for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. This prayer book is called the machzor.
Play MusicThe evening service that begins Yom Kippur is commonly known as Kol Nidre, named for the prayer that begins the service. “Kol nidre” means “all vows,” and in this prayer, we ask G-d to annul all personal vows we may make in the next year. It refers only to vows between the person making them and G-d, such as “If I pass this test, I’ll pray every day for the next 6 months!” Click the musical notes to hear a portion of the traditional tune for this prayer.

This prayer has often been held up by anti-Semites as proof that Jews are untrustworthy (we do not keep our vows), and for this reason the Reform movement removed it from the liturgy for a while. In fact, the reverse is true: we make this prayer because we take vows so seriously that we consider ourselves bound even if we make the vows under duress or in times of stress when we are not thinking straight. This prayer gave comfort to those who were converted to Christianity by torture in various inquisitions, yet felt unable to break their vow to follow Christianity. In recognition of this history, the Reform movement restored this prayer to its liturgy.

There are many additions to the regular liturgy (there would have to be, to get such a long service <grin>). Perhaps the most important addition is the confession of the sins of the community, which is inserted into the Shemoneh Esrei (Amidah) prayer. Note that all sins are confessed in the plural (we have done this, we have done that), emphasizing communal responsibility for sins.

There are two basic parts of this confession: Ashamnu, a shorter, more general list (we have been treasonable, we have been aggressive, we have been slanderous…), and Al Cheit, a longer and more specific list (for the sin we sinned before you forcibly or willingly, and for the sin we sinned before you by acting callously…) Frequent petitions for forgiveness are interspersed in these prayers. There’s also a catch-all confession: “Forgive us the breach of positive commands and negative commands, whether or not they involve an act, whether or not they are known to us.”

It is interesting to note that these confessions do not specifically address the kinds of ritual sins that some people think are the be-all-and-end-all of Judaism. There is no “for the sin we have sinned before you by eating pork, and for the sin we have sinned against you by driving on Shabbat” (though obviously these are implicitly included in the catch-all). The vast majority of the sins enumerated involve mistreatment of other people, most of them by speech (offensive speech, scoffing, slander, talebearing, and swearing falsely, to name a few). These all come into the category of sin known as “lashon ha-ra” (lit: the evil tongue), which is considered a very serious sin in Judaism.

The concluding service of Yom Kippur, known as Ne’ilah, is one unique to the day. It usually runs about 1 hour long. The ark (a cabinet where the scrolls of the Torah are kept) is kept open throughout this service, thus you must stand throughout the service. There is a tone of desperation in the prayers of this service. The service is sometimes referred to as the closing of the gates; think of it as the “last chance” to get in a good word before the holiday ends. The service ends with a very long blast of the shofar. See Rosh Hashanah for more about the shofar and its characteristic blasts.

After Yom Kippur, one should begin preparing for the next holiday, Sukkot, which begins five days later.