The High Holidays

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Not only is Rosh Hashanah the Jewish New Year, which commemorates God’s creation of the world, but also the Day of Judgment, when God remembers and judges shofarsall human deeds. Except on Shabbat, services are punctuated with the call of the shofar, which according to Maimonides, is saying, “Awake, you sleepers, from your slumber…examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator.” Human beings are believed to be in mortal danger at this time, with their lives hinging on the decision to repent. Only those who choose to forego sin are inscribed in the symbolic “book of life” that is a central liturgical image of Rosh Hashanah. On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the theological bent of the morning services is reinforced in a concrete way during the Tashlikh ceremony, during which individuals symbolically cast away their personal sins by throwing breadcrumbs into a flowing body of water. This action is accompanied by the recitation of biblical verses that evoke the human capacity for repentance and the beneficence of Divine forgiveness through the metaphor of casting sins into depths of the waters.

Repenting and Returning

The Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return, or Repentance, after a verse from the haftarah declaring “Return O Israel to the Lord, your God” (Hosea 14:2).

The transition to Yom Kippur begins the in the hours preceding the evening onset of the festival with the recitation of the first vidui, or communal confession of sins, at the afternoon service. Some Jews choose to go to the mikveh, or ritual bath, to purify themselves before the holiday. The striving toward inner purity is also reflected in the white outfits traditional for the day. In traditional congregations, men will don a white robe called a kittel over their holiday clothes. In some liberal congregation, both men and women might choose to wear white garments to symbolize this quest for spiritual purity.

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