Even though they may not celebrate them, many people are aware of Passover and Chanukah because they coincide with other religious observances in spring and winter. Where the Christian observances are usually Gregorian calendar-related, Christmas on December 25, always falling on the same date, most others, including Easter, Passover, and Chanukah are celebrated according to a lunar calendar.
Also falling according to a lunar calendar, each year in the fall, Jews around the world celebrate the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This year, Rosh Hashanah begins the Hebrew year 5778 at sundown on Wednesday, September 20. It will last through sundown on Friday, September 22, though some observe it for only one day. The New Year is celebrated at this time, in the Jewish month of Tishrei, according to the tradition that this was when God created the heavens and the earth and the Book of Life was written.
Rosh Hashanah is a formal, solemn observance during which work is prohibited. After religious services, a festive meal is served. Many people begin afresh with new clothes for the occasion, and use their finest table linens, dishes, crystal, and flatware. Only the best foods are served, including the traditional round, braided challah, and apple slices dipped in honey. The ancient Jews, who knew a lot about what could affect our health and well-being, knew that apples had healing properties - “an apple a day.” Along with them, the honey signifies the sweetness of life and the hope for a sweet year ahead.
The days of Rosh Hashanah are spent in prayer and anticipation of a new year, and are followed, in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, by a time of self-examination and repentance. As observed and manifested in the various confessional rites of many of the world’s religions, there is introspection, assumption of responsibility, shame and regret, and asking of forgiveness, leading to a promise to atone.
In Leviticus 23:27-28, we read: “the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you. You shall practice self-denial. And you shall do no work that same day because it is the Day of Atonement.” The strong words associated with this observance: introspection, repentance, shame, regret, responsibility, self-denial, and atonement, indicate the great importance of Judaism’s holiest, most solemn day, Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur begins with fasting, after a traditional meal before sundown, when services begin on the eve (erev) before, and ends at sundown the next day. Kol Nidre, meaning “all vows” is both the title of a song or chant, and the name given to the first part of the Yom Kippur services. The presentation of the Torah scrolls is part of the traditional customs and rituals for the observance that also include prayer, preferably in congregation, solemn music, and the wearing of white as a symbol of atonement and purification.
The sound of a ram’s horn, the shofar, is heard before and throughout the High Holy Days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. This last day, this time of atonement, this time of vowing to do better, is brought to a close with a final blast.