The importance of High Holy Days

The Jewish High Holy Days or High Holidays consist of two fall holidays called Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The High Holy Days move around a bit on the Western calendar, but they always fall sometime in September or October. This year they fell in October, Rosh Hashanah on the evening of Oct. 2 through 4 and Yom Kippur on Oct. 12.

In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means “Head of the Year” or Jewish New Year. Ten days later arrives Yom Kippur, which is Hebrew for the “Day of Atonement.” It is the most solemn day of the Jewish year, and many people fast as a spiritual preparation for the entire day. These holidays, and the days in between, are sometimes referred to as the “Days of Repentance” or the “Days of Awe.”

All Jewish holidays begin at sunset, so once the sun goes down to begin Yom Kippur, the next 24 hours focus on gathering with the community to acknowledge our wrongdoings and seek forgiveness together. There are many special Hebrew prayers and melodies sung in synagogues on Yom Kippur, and many in the community follow the practice of fasting (abstaining from all food and drinks) for the duration of the day (from sundown on the first night until the sun goes down the next day). When the sun finally sets at the end of Yom Kippur, the mood shifts from sincere self-reflection to joy and celebration. Some families and synagogues prepare loads of delicious foods to break the fast.

The purpose of the fast—which traditionally embraces abstaining from food, drinks, and sex—is to cleanse the spirit and focus the mind on the idea of forgiveness and moral renewal. This holiday is the time of year where the largest number of people in the Jewish community attends synagogue services.

The main reason these are considered the most significant holidays on the Jewish calendar is because they are about examining our own selves including forgiveness, the rebuilding of broken relationships, and giving ourselves a fresh start.

This holiday is also a time for resolving to do better in the future. The Hebrew word that refers to this entire process is Teshuvah, which means “to return,” and is used to describe the concept of repentance in Judaism. Only by atoning for our sins can we restore balance to our relationship with God and with our relationships with others. People of all faiths, including those who identify as non-religious, are completely welcome to attend and participate in these holidays to have a great time.

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