The High Holidays

All About the Jewish High Holidays (Holy Days)

Sounding the shofar, c 1910.
Sounding the shofar, circa 1910. Heritage Images/Getty Images

The Jewish High Holidays, also called the High Holy Days, comprise the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and encompass the 10 days from the beginning of Rosh Hashanah through the end of Yom Kippur.

Rosh Hashanah

The High Holidays begin with Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה), which translates from Hebrew as "the head of the year." Although it is just one of four Jewish new years, it is generally referred to as the Jewish New Year.

It is observed for two days in starting on the 1st of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, usually in late September.

In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the creation of the world as described in the Torah. It is also the day on which God inscribes the fate of each person in either the "Book of Life" or the "Book of Death," determining both if they will have a good or bad year and whether individuals will live or die.

Rosh Hashanah also marks the beginning of a 10-day period on the Jewish calendar that focuses on repentance or teshuvah. Jews mark the holiday with festive meals and prayer services and greetings of other L'shanah tovah tikateiv v'techateim, which means "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year."

The 10 "Days of Awe"

The 10-day period known as the "Days of Awe" (Yamim Nora’im, ימים נוראים) or the "Ten Days of Repentance" (Aseret Yamei Teshuvah, עשרת ימי תשובה) begins with Rosh Hashanah and ends with Yom Kippur.

The time between these two main holidays is special in the Jewish calendar, because Jews focus intently on repentance and atonement. While God passes judgment on Rosh Hashanah, the books of life and death remain open during the Days of Awe so that Jews have the opportunity to change which book they are in before it is sealed on Yom Kippur.

Jews spend these days working to amend their behavior and seeking forgiveness for wrongs done during the past year.

The Shabbat that falls during this period is called Shabbat Shuvah (שבת שובה) or Shabbat Yeshivah (שבת תשובה), which translates as "Sabbath of Return" or "Sabbath of Repentance," respectively. This Shabbat is ascribed special importance as a day during which Jews can reflect on their mistakes and focus on teshuvah even more than on the other "Days of Awe" between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur

Often referred to as the "Day of Atonement," Yom Kippur (יום כיפור) is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and concludes the period of the High Holidays and 10 "Days of Awe." The focus of the holiday is on repentance and final atonement before the books of life and death are sealed.

As part of this day of atonement, adult Jews who are physically able are required to fast for the entire day and abstain from other forms of pleasure (such as wearing leather, washing, and wearing perfumes). Most Jews, even many secular Jews, will attend prayer services for much of the day on Yom Kippur. 

There are several greetings on Yom Kippur. Because it is a fast day, it is appropriate to wish your Jewish friends an "Easy Fast," or, in Hebrew, a Tzom Kal (צוֹם קַל).

Likewise, the traditional greeting for Yom Kippur is "G'mar Chatimah Tovah" (גמר חתימה טובה) or "May You Be Sealed for a Good Year (in the Book of Life)."

At the end of Yom Kippur, Jews who have atoned consider themselves absolved of their sins from the previous year, thus beginning the new year with a clean slate in God's eyes and a renewed sense of purpose to live a more moral and just life in the year to come.

Bonus Fact

Although it is believed that the Book of Life and the Book of Death are sealed on Yom Kippur, the Jewish mystical belief of kabbalah says that judgment is not officially registered until the seventh day of Sukkot, the feast of booths or tabernacles. This day, known as Hoshana Rabbah (הוֹשַׁעְנָא רַבָּא, Aramaic for "the Great Salvation"), is viewed as one final opportunity to repent.

According to the Midrash, God told Abraham:

“If atonement is not granted to your children on Rosh Hashanah, I will grant it on Yom Kippur; if they do not attain atonement on Yom Kippur, it will be given on Hoshana Rabbah.”

This article was updated on April 13, 2016 by Chaviva Gordon-Bennett.