The High Holidays

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Although the High Holidays themselves--the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)--occupy three days only, they lie within a web of liturgy and customs that extend from the beginning of the preceding Hebrew month of Elul through Yom Kippur. The focus of this entire period is the process of teshuvah, or repentance, whereby a Jew admits to sins, asks for forgiveness, and resolves not to repeat the sins. Recognizing the psychological difficulty of self-examination and personal change, the rabbis instituted a 40-day period whose intensity spirals toward its culmination on Yom Kippur, a day devoted entirely to fasting and repentance.

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The Cycle Begins

The High Holiday period begins on the first day of the Jewish month of Elul. In the Ashkenazi tradition, during this month of soul searching, the shofar, or ram’s horn, is

Rosh Hashanah quizblown each morning except on the Sabbath, to call upon listeners to begin the difficult process of repentance. Also in Elul special haftarot--prophetic portions--focusing on consolation acknowledge the vulnerability of an individual grappling with personal change. During the week before Rosh Hashanah, intensity increases as traditional Jews begin reciting selichot, prayers that involve confessing sins and requesting God’s forgiveness and help. On the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah, the selichot are chanted at midnight, rather than their usual early morning hour.

A New Year, a New Start

The culmination of the High Holiday period occurs during the Ten Days of Repentance, which begin on 1 Tishri with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur. During this period, human beings have the chance to tip the scales of divine judgment in their favor through repentance, prayer, and tzedakah (performing righteous deeds and giving money to charitable causes).

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