High Holy Days in 1000 Words or Less

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It’s September. School has FINALLY started. We’re about to get back into a groove. When — wait — what’s this? Why do we have two days off one week and another day off the following? Rosh Hashanah? Yom Kippur? What kind of holidays are those, anyway?

This is a great, quick primer on the Jewish High Holy Days!

Whether you’re the unsuspecting non-Jewish parent in a school district that accommodates major Jewish holidays, you simply notice a higher rate of absenteeism in school right after school starts, or you just noticed those strange sounding holidays on the calendar and wondered what they were about, this post is for you.  I will attempt to provide a very succinct summary of these holidays, complete with links to more details. (Please remember I’m not a Judaic studies scholar, so this is most certainly a layman’s description!)

Apples and honey are a staple during the High Holy Days! We like going apple picking before Rosh Hoshanah and serving different kinds of apples to taste test.
Apples and honey are a staple during the High Holy Days! We like going apple picking before Rosh Hoshanah and serving different kinds of apples to taste test.

We’re in the midst of them now: Rosh Hoshanah has ended; Yom Kippur is looming around the corner. They are one of the major sets of Jewish holidays. These are the holidays that, even if you are generally not an observant Jew, you are likely to observe these two.  Like all Jewish holidays, there’s a little bit of happy, a little bit of sad, and a whole lot of food.

Rosh Hashanah comes first and is the joyous part of this holiday duo.  It celebrates the Jewish New Year; the birthday of the world. It’s celebrated for two days, largely in the synagogue. It has it’s origins in agriculture and is associated with a time of sowing seeds and beginning a cycle that will end with a harvest.  

Shofars may come in all sizes, but they are ALL very difficult to blow!
Shofars may come in all sizes, but they are ALL very difficult to blow!

Religiously, it’s known as the day everyone’s fate for the next year is inscribed in the book of life. (No worries, though – we have ten days to repent and seek forgiveness before our fate is sealed!)  Synagogue services during Rosh Hashanah (and Yom Kippur) are lengthy, but beautiful; the culmination of months of preparation by the clergy.  During the service, a shofar (ram’s horn) is blown at certain times in a specific cadence. One of my favorite Rosh Hashanah customs is Tashlikh. On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we pray near a flowing body of water, throwing bread or pebbles into the water to symbolize the casting off of our sins.

My own round challah from this year. I usually make one plain and one with raisins.
My own round challah from this year. I usually make one plain and one with raisins.

Like all Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah begins the night before. Many have a large meal on Erev (Eve of) Rosh Hashanah and again the following evening.   The menu varies, but the Jewish standards can usually be found: brisket, roast chicken, potatoes, tsimmes, kugel.  We usually have a roast chicken the first night and fish the second. Apples dipped in honey are the key traditional foods, as are apple cake and honey cake. Challah is a must, but is braided in a circle to represent the cycle of the year.  Before the dinner begins, blessings are said in honor of the holiday.   If you know someone who observes Rosh Hashanah, a common greeting is “Shana Tova”, or “have a good year”. After Rosh Hashanah and before Yom Kippur, the greeting is “G’mar chatimah Tova”, or “A good final sealing”.

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, begins ten days after Rosh Hashanah. It definitely has a more somber air, as it’s the time at which our judgement is sealed by God.  Yom Kippur is considered the “Sabbath of Sabbaths”, and as such has a few additional observances: no eating or drinking, no wearing of leather shoes, no bathing, no use of perfumes, and no marital relations.  The purpose of these rules is to make yourself feel uncomfortable and, therefore, feel empathy towards others who are in pain.  While not a rule, a common custom is to wear white clothing on Yom Kippur as a symbol of purity.  The services are just as beautiful – if not more so – as those on Rosh Hoshanah and also a bit longer. They contain an additional service and elements to allow for repentance and confession.

Bagels: a staple of so many Jewish holidays! Photo courtsey of http://www.jamesbeard.org/blog/yom-kippur-break-fast-menu.
Bagels: a staple of so many Jewish holidays! Photo courtsey of http://www.jamesbeard.org/blog/yom-kippur-break-fast-menu.

Fasting on Yom Kippur begins on sundown and ends after sundown on the following day.  To support a full day of fasting, a large meal is eaten before the evening services on Erev Yom Kippur.  After the last service has ended and the sun has set, Jews break the fast by having a light dairy meal.  Bagels and cream cheese, salads, fruits, desserts, and drinks compose a typical menu.

Now, for a couple of my favorite children’s books for the high holy days:

The PJ Library has a great, more comprehensive list, as well.

And a few links to High Holy Days children’s activities:

True to my promise, this description is wrapping up at just over 800 words.  I hope it demystifies these holidays a bit for those of you who are curious.   

G’mar chatimah tovah to you all!

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2 comments

  1. Rebecca wiese says:

    Nice Emily! This is a wonderful blog. Still confused about the dates of the holidays…I seem to never know what we are celebrating until I read it in the Omaha world herald

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