Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew, “beginning of the year”), Jewish New Year, celebrated on the first and second days of the Jewish month of Tishri (falling in September or October) by Orthodox and Conservative Jews and on the first day alone by Reform Jews. It begins the observance of the Ten Penitential Days, a period ending with Yom Kippur that is the most solemn of the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the High Holy Days.
In the Bible, Rosh Hashanah is mentioned only as a day of remembrance and of the sounding of the ram’s horn. These two characteristics of the day, interwoven with the theme of the proclamation of God’s kingship, became the major components of the New Year’s observance in later Judaism. They are emphasized in the liturgy by the repetition of “verses of remembrance,””verses that mention the ram’s horn,” and “sovereignty verses.” The first of these is important because it represents the sense of continuing creation and development of the world that Judaism emphasizes on this anniversary of creation. Because good and evil actions greatly influence the future, it is emphasized that God “remembers,” and mention is made of the meritorious acts of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to urge emulation of their holiness as the path to redemption.
Indeed, the most prominent scriptural passage in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is that of the binding of Isaac (see Genesis 22), which forms the portion from the Torah designated for reading on that day. This passage leads into the theme of the ram’s horn; in the service in the synagogue the shofar, a wind instrument made of ram’s horn to represent the horn of the animal sacrificed in Isaac’s stead, is blown. Early peoples often made noise at the New Year to drive away demons; the Jews transformed this practice into a blowing of the horn to prefigure the moment when God would destroy the evil in the world, “blow the ram’s horn, and come with the whirlwinds.” At that moment, it is held in the “sovereignty verses,” God will be king over all the earth, as he is now king over those who accept him in a renewal of commitment on Rosh Hashanah.
Yom Kippur (Hebrew yom hakippurim, “day of atonement”), the most sacred and solemn holy day in Judaism. It falls on the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishri, in September or the first half of October in the Western calendar. The day is observed by fasting and prayer and by rededication to a religious life. Like any other day in the Hebrew calendar, it is reckoned from sundown to sundown.
II A HIGH HOLY DAY
Yom Kippur marks the culmination of the Ten Penitential Days, which begin with Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year. With Rosh Hashanah it constitutes the so-called High Holy Days. Yom Kippur is a day of confession, repentance, and prayers for forgiveness of sins committed during the year against the laws and covenant of God.
Although Yom Kippur is solemn and is regarded as a day of judgment, it is not mournful in character because it offers an opportunity for forgiveness for sins against God. In the case of sins committed against individuals, one must first ask forgiveness from the person who has been wronged. It is also the day on which an individual’s fate for the ensuing year is thought to be sealed. Those who find repentance during Yom Kippur look forward to a joyful year of health and happiness.
Fasting is a way for those observing Yom Kippur to practice self-discipline, engage in spiritual contemplation, and increase compassion for others. Most followers of Judaism do not eat or drink during this time, and many observe additional restrictions outlined in the Torah. Such restrictions include refraining from sexual relations, from bathing, from using cosmetics, and from wearing leather shoes. White clothing worn during Yom Kippur symbolizes spiritual purity and repentance.
III YOM KIPPUR LITURGY
The liturgy for Yom Kippur is elaborate. The service on the eve of Yom Kippur begins with the chanting of the Kol Nidre. This prayer is a plea for absolution from vows made between humans and God that cannot or should not be kept. Prayers are offered throughout the whole of the following day. Portions of the Torah (first five books of the Bible) are read aloud, and Yizkor, the memorial prayer for the dead, is recited. The blowing of the shofar, or ram’s horn, marks the end of Yom Kippur.
The laws relating to Yom Kippur are found in Leviticus 16, 23:26-32, 25:9 and Numbers 29:7-11. In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem—that is, before ad 70—the high priest offered sacrifices for the expiation of sin. During the ritual the high priest placed his hands upon a goat as he confessed the people’s sins; the goat was then taken into the wilderness. This act was symbolic of expiation and God’s forgiveness. The concept of the scapegoat, that is, someone who bears the blame for others, originated in this ceremony.