The Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Days In Between
Someone who’s been following my NPE journey and exploration of Judaism asked me what was so awe-inspiring about the Days of Awe? Hopefully, after reading my response, he’ll understand. You know the craziness many start to feel towards the end of November regardless of whether you’re a Christian or not? This starts for Jews in October with the Jewish High Holidays. Although, the holiday can sometimes fall in September since Judaism follows a lunar-based calendar (I wrote about that before: https://unexpectedlyjewish.com/understanding-the-jewish-calendar/), therefore holidays are not on a specific day of the Gregorian calendar each year. Regardless of when these holidays start, this is an emotional and busy time.
So what are the Days of Awe? These are the High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the ten days in between. Rosh Hashanah is the start of a new year in the Jewish calendar and means “head of the year.” Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and is often called the Day of Atonement. But these two titles do little to explain what these holidays are really all about.
I was happy TBT, the Temple I’ve been attending, decided tickets to High Holidays services would be free. I was surprised to learn, many temples charge for attendance to these services. Two of my sons attended Rosh Hashanah services with me this year, a first for all of us. And while I enjoyed the service, I will say it was a bit long and felt a bit antiquated compared to the lively Shabbat services I’ve attended. My entire family joined me for a shortened interfaith service, which everyone thoroughly enjoyed.
After my new year services experience, I felt it best to attend Yom Kippur on my own and I’m glad I did. This was a solemn experience. I’ve heard it mentioned the High Holidays are like Easter and Christmas for Christians — the two holiday services each year everyone tries to attend. If that was a Jew’s only experience with services, I can see why they might limit their attendance to just these two days a year.
Let me explain a bit more about what the High Holidays are. While Rosh Hashanah is a time of celebrating, the holiday has more serious roots than its Gregorian counterpart. To me, it embodies a much stronger sense of reflection on our past year. On this day, the gates of heaven swing open allowing the book of Judgment to open. (Ok, I know I used the “H” here and I’ll devote a blog post to this later. For now, you should know that just like a lack of consensus on what God is for Jews besides the fact there is only one, there is much debate about the afterlife too. I will note now, Jews do not believe in hell.) Jews stand before the gates with our deeds from the year before.
You are inscribed in the book of the living if you are righteous or the book of death if the past year hasn’t been your best. The month before Rosh Hashanah starts is Elul, and this is really the time to start your reflection on the past year. You reflect early so you may enter the gates on Rosh Hashanah full of love and forgiveness to make sure your name is written in the book of the living.
On Rosh Hashanah when you approach the gates, all is not lost if you haven’t yet made time for reflection because your fate is not sealed for the year until 10 days later on Yom Kippur. During this time, you should think about how could you improve yourself in the year to come and seek forgiveness for where you fell short during the past year. For those 10 days, you face the scrutiny of God.
Rosh Hashanah is a two-day celebration. We eat apples and honey to signify a sweet new year. Challah is baked in a round symbolizing a wish for a year of blessing with no end or beginning. And if you’re wondering what to say, “Shana Tova” means have a good year. The holiday really has three main components:
- Teshuvah — Return: spiritual realignment. You remember who you really are and strive to return your innermost self through repentance, prayer, and charity.
- Tefillah — connecting through prayer. The shofar, a ram’s horn, is blown 100 times. Hearing the shofar is a mitzvah (commandment) and is meant to awaken you — literally jar you awake so you know the period of judgment has begun. Part of connecting through prayer is the Tashlich prayer ceremony, where breadcrumbs are tossed into flowing water to symbolically cast away old habits and mistakes.
- Tzedakah — Bring justice in the world through community involvement. You do this by taking a stand on important issues and giving charity either financially or with your time.
After our shortened Rosh Hashanah service my boys, who are still trying to figure out what it means to each of them to now be Jewish, and I decided to have our own Tashlich ceremony. I purchased biodegradable dissolvable paper and asked the boys to write three things they wished to let go of and leave in the past; three actions or personality traits they no longer wanted to be associated with who they are for the new year. We walked to a nearby lake and said the Tashlich prayer as we cast our unwanted actions into the water and watched them dissolve. Then we went for gelato for something sweet to precipitate the sweetness of the new year. It was a great afternoon.
Days of Awe
One of my favorite things about Judaism is if you’ve wronged someone, you don’t ask God for forgiveness, you ask the person you hurt. This makes a lot more sense to me than asking God. How does that help the person you’ve hurt? Some start out the Days of Awe by sending a mass email to all of their friends in case they’ve unknowingly hurt any of them. If you know you’ve hurt someone though, you need to apologize directly to him or her. You must feel sincere remorse for your wrongdoing. And, you should try to learn from your mistake so you do not repeat your wrongdoing. These there parts: apology, remorse, and non-repetition of your mistakes are key to atonement.
Your apology should specify your wrongdoing for which you’re asking for forgiveness (unless this would further embarrass the person you’ve hurt) and do so without any excuses. This means the word “but” should not be part of your apology. If the person refuses to grant forgiveness you should try and approach them two more times. Once you’ve apologized and requested forgiveness three times, you’re considered to have atoned even if you’re not forgiven. If it’s impossible to contact the person, then you should make a resolution to ask them for forgiveness the next time you’re able.
What isn’t more awe-inspiring than apologizing? It can reestablish relationships that have perhaps laid dormant for a while. A heartfelt apology accompanied by an offer of restitution can help the person you’ve hurt regain their dignity and move on. Apologizing also helps you to find peace. And more importantly, to learn from our mistakes to grow as a person. These are the days of awe.
After your ten days of self-introspection and atonement, it is time for repentance. Yom Kippur is a time to make amends and ask for forgiveness from God, and to think about our own demise. We fast from food and drink to liberate our bodies from this world, a mimicking of death when you no longer feed the body. Many Jews wear white to Yom Kippur services, as this is the color for death. I look at it as a time to think about what I would want to be written in my eulogy. This is a day for doing business with God. Yom Kippur services include:
- Kol Nidre: this is a public apology for falling short, admitting we are not perfect and a beautiful, strikingly moving song. It is haunting, beautiful, try listening here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8lUE6y9euY
- Vidui: this includes is an alphabetical list of all of humankind’s sins or transgressions (Ashamnu) and we ask for forgiveness from God as a community. The list is archaic, let’s face it, the Torah was written a long time ago, so some make modern-day additions to the list.
- Yizkor (May God Remember): a public memorial service honoring the dead.
During Yizkor service, you light a candle and remember those who have passed away. Since I’ve never been to such a service before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. My rabbi conducted a visualization where she asked us to picture a deceased loved one in a place we found safe. When we entered our safe space, we found our loved one sitting in a chair waiting to hear from us. It was incredibly moving and cathartic for an NPE who never met her biological father.
By Yom Kippur, you’ve hopefully made amends and your name is ascribed in the book of life. The shofar is blown again symbolizing the certainty that we’ve been granted divine forgiveness and are inscribed in the book of life for a good new year. One way to really think about the Days of Awe is on Rosh Hashanah your fate for the new year is written and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed. The gist of this idea is from a line in the poem, Unetanah Tokef (let us speak of awesomeness) which is read on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and is the epitome of the High Holidays.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many will pass and how many will be created?
Who will live and who will die?
Who in their time, and who not their time?
Who by fire and who by water?
Who by sword and who by beast?
Who by hunger and who by thirst?
Who by earthquake and who by drowning?
Who by strangling and who by stoning?
Who will rest and who will wander?
Who will be safe and who will be torn?
Who will be calm and who will be tormented?
Who will become poor and who will get rich?
Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?
But teshuvah (repentance) and tefillah (prayer) and tzedakah (righteous acts)
avert the severe decree.