Learn About the Jewish High Holy Days

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By Amy Taylor

Sponsored by Congregation Ner Shalom

There are many celebrations in the Jewish faith. Their High Holy Days of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are coming up this fall. Sukkot and Simchat Torah are other important holidays that follow the High Holy Days. Learn more about the origins of these holidays and how they are celebrated.

“I would love to invite folks to come visit us on our joyful communal festivals of Sukkot and Simchat Torah! Come see how Jews celebrate and take part!” said Rabbi Lizz Goldstein of Congregation Ner Shalom.

Rosh HaShana

“Rosh HaShana is the new year of years, even though the Torah specifies it falls in the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. It is referred to as a day for complete rest and a day to hear the blasts of the Shofar (ram’s horn),” said Goldstein.

Rosh HaShana is a time of reflection and prayer for Jewish people.

“Whereas in secular culture, ‘New Year’s Resolutions’ tend to be treated pretty flippantly and the focus of the turn of the year is on celebration, for us Rosh HaShana is all about the new year’s resolutions. For some time leading up to these ten days. Jews around the world take the time to offer apologies to those they’ve hurt, make amends and take accountability for all their wrongdoings of the past year, and resolve to do better in concrete ways in the year to come,” Goldstein said.

At Congregation Ner Shalom, they visit Bull Run Marina on Rosh HaShana afternoon and have a service where they throw breadcrumbs or seeds into the water to symbolically cast away their sins.

“We spend most of our days in synagogue together on these holy days, and there is singing and community and study together. On Rosh HaShana we eat apples and honey and sweet round challah bread,” Goldstein said.

Yom Kippur

“Yom Kippur falls 10 days later [after Rosh HaShana]and is the Day of Atonement. The Torah tells us that on this day we must ‘afflict’ ourselves and make expiation for our sins,” Goldstein said.

“Only after we’ve done the work to fix our relationships and take responsibility for our own behaviors in the world, are we prepared to stand before God for Yom Kippur. On that day we are left to account for the misdeeds of our hearts and minds, which only God knows about. Our tradition tells us that each year God opens up the Books of Judgement and on Rosh HaShana writes down the names of those are judged as righteous into the Book of Life. On Yom Kippur those judgements are sealed for the year,” Goldstein said.

This is a day of reflection, prayer and fasting.

“On Yom Kippur, though we fast all day, in the evening after our final service of the day, we have a break-fast together. It is wonderful to break bread with a whole room of hungry people having come through 25 hours of spiritual catharsis,” Goldstein said.


“Sukkot follows just days after Yom Kippur and is specified in the Torah in the following verses after the Yom Kippur commandments. Sukkot is celebrated by building huts (which is what the word Sukkot means in Hebrew) to dwell in as much as possible,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein explained that these huts must have one side at least partially open with no sealed door and three walls. The roof is made of tree branches or bamboo and protect people inside from a light rain but still allow them to see the stars.

“These huts remind us of when our ancestors were wandering through the wilderness on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land and had to carry their homes with them on the journey. Sukkot also has its roots in an ancient agricultural festival, so it takes on a feeling and aesthetic similar to Thanksgiving,” Goldstein said.

Simchat Torah

This holiday is when the cycle of reading the Torah begins again.

“We finish reading the five books of Moses about three weeks after the start of the new Jewish year. Sometime in the M,iddle Ages a festival developed around the practice of restarting the yearly readings on the eighth day of Sukkot.”

The origins of this celebration are not as clear as the High Holy Days or Sukkot.

“The commandment to sit in the sukkah and commemorate the wanderings of our ancestors is specified to last for a week. But there is also a separate commandment in the Torah that on the eighth day a special blessing for sanctification should be made and Jews should cease from all work, similar to Shabbat. This vague commandment seems to be in part what led to the celebration of Simchat Torah on this date, but mostly the festivities of Sukkot bleeding into Simchat Torah seems to be an organic development of Jewish communities of centuries of making minhag (non-commanded customs or traditions),” Goldstein said.

At Congregation Ner Shalom they celebrate by dancing with the Torah in seven circles around the sanctuary. Then they unroll the Torah to see as much as they can at once. Rabbi Lizz reads the last verses of Deuteronomy after it is unrolled and after rerolling it she reads the first few verses of Genesis.

“This festive service almost always takes place in the evening, as all Jewish holidays go from sundown to sundown. At Ner Shalom we enjoy a final potluck dinner together in the Sukkah while it is still light out, and as the sun goes down, we transition from Sukkot to Simchat Torah, leaving our Sukkah one last time to go inside and celebrate our Tree of Life – the Torah – inside our synagogue. It is such a wonderful way to end this series of fall holidays!” Goldstein said.

How to be Inclusive on the High Holy Days

Many non-Jewish people may not realize the importance of these holidays, particularly the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.

“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about Jews and their many, many holidays. We have a 5000-year history, documented in a 2500- to 3000-year-old book, and there is a lot to celebrate and commemorate in there. We aren’t making them up to get out of work, and the High Holy Days in particular are really important. I know Jews are a very small minority in Prince William County, so closing schools and municipal offices as they do for Christmas wouldn’t make much sense. Understanding that these days are as important to us as Christmas or Easter are for observant Christians would be helpful,” Goldstein said.

During the High Holy Days, many Jewish people may not drive, use electronics, handle money, write, cut or tear, create or destroy anything making work or school impossible to attend while celebrating these holidays.

“Events aimed at being interfaith, that are about diversity and/or overcoming bigotry, should not be scheduled on these dates. It is really most hurtful when well-meaning groups that are supposed to be about inclusion exclude us by planning events on our High Holy Days,” Goldstein said.

To be more inclusive, Goldstein suggests employers and schools excuse time off to celebrate these holidays and that employers consider giving paid time off as most do for Christmas. She would like to see physical education instructors be mindful of students fasting on Yom Kippur.

“With Google these days (or check out hebcal.com), it’s really easy to look up when Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur fall. A good rule of thumb when trying to decide whether or not to plan something for those dates, or how to respond to Jewish absences at school or work on those dates would be, ‘Would I schedule this interfaith service/algebra test/mandatory HR seminar/etc. on Dec. 25?’ If the answer is no, then don’t plan it for the first or tenth of Tishrei (the Jewish month that overlaps with September/October),” Goldstein said.

Amy Taylor (Ataylor@princewilliamliving.com) is a freelance writer and editor. She earned her BLS in English from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.


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