Celebrating High Holy Days, Time of Insight and Atonement
By Elliot Goldenberg / November, December 2012

They are, for Jews, the most introspective days of the year -- a time for personal insight and the reexamination of one's life.

Evolving over the centuries, the High Holy Days, also called the Jewish High Holidays, consist of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanah starts, this year, at sundown, September 16, while -- following the "Ten Days of Awe" (and repentance) -- Yom Kippur begins on sundown, September 25.

According to the Hebrew calendar -- the Hebrew New Year is 5723 -- the holiday extends from the first to the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishri.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, simply put, the most important of all the Jewish holidays. They are, essentially, about the rebuilding and renewal of Jewish lives and are the only holidays that are not related to any natural or historic event.
"The word 'Rosh Hashanah' literally means 'the head of the year,' " explained Rabbi Charles Aronson, who plans to open a Hebrew center in Parkland. "It is a day of judgment, when the deeds of each person, over the past year, are weighed, and his or her fate is decided."

The traditions of Rosh Hashanah remain simple in that the only commandment for the holiday is the blowing of the shofar (ram's horn). The shofar is blown in temple to herald the beginning of the High Holy Days. It is also believed that, on Rosh Hashanah, God records the destiny of all mankind and congregants will hear the words from the rabbi, "May you be inscribed in the Book of Life."

It is a time of family gatherings, special meals, sweet-tasting food, and blowing the shofar. Jews believe, also, that, while God passes judgment on Rosh Hashanah, the book of life and death remains open during the "Days of Awe," so that Jews have the opportunity for atonement, at least until the book is sealed on Yom Kippur.

"On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, tradition states that all the totally righteous and totally evil are inscribed for good or for bad, although almost all of us are in-between," said Rabbi Paul Plotkin, of Temple Beth Am in Margate. "The remaining days of repentance are the chance for repair, and to earn a spot in the book of life for the coming year. I believe this is a metaphor for the idea that, once a year, we do an inventory of ourselves. The choices are ours, and so the ten days of repentance are when we decide on our path."

Unlike Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur -- the day of asking forgiveness for promises broken to God -- is a day of "not doing." There is no blowing of the shofar, for instance, and observant Jews do not eat or drink. Some say that to fast on Yom Kippur is to emulate the angels, who also do not eat or drink.

"The origins of fasting on Yom Kippur come from the Hebrew Bible, which states that one must afflict oneself on this day," said David Baum, of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh in Boca Raton. "The rabbis interpreted this affliction as self-denial."

"Yom Kippur is also devoted to individual and communal repentance," Rabbi Aronson added.

An important part of the Yom Kippur service is, in fact, the confession, which serves to help one to reflect on his or her misdeeds. However, because community is such an important part of Jewish life, confessions are always said in the plural, not the singular.

"We also don't engage in marital relations, we don't bathe, and we don't wear shoes with leather soles," Rabbi Baum said. "By doing these things, we are able to transcend our humanity and reach a higher spiritual level, so we can then focus on the themes of the holiest day of the year for us -- repentance and forgiveness."

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