High Holidays


Soon after the lazy days of summer, members of the Jewish faith get ready for what is known as the “High Holidays.” The first one is called, Rosh Hashanah. The second but even more important one is Yom Kippur.  


These are both introspective, life examining and affirming. There is a well know part of a prayer that says, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed,” as these two holidays have different moods. While Rosh Hashanah is pensive, it is also uplifting. Yom Kippur is more solemn. It’s down to business.


Also, in both holidays the shofar is sounded. This resembles a ram’s horn that was used in biblical times to signal holidays and battles. The musician or shofar blower blasts out distinct, piercing sounds that inspire awe.


Rosh Hashanah, literally means first, head or beginning of the New Year. The year is 5579. This counts back to the times in the Hebrew Bible. Jewish events and holidays are based on the moon—the Muslims and Eastern Orthodox Christians also follow the lunar calendar.


Jews send cards and wish each other L’shanah tovah tikatevu, which means, “May you be inscribed for a good year.” The word “inscribed” refers to the two books, one for life and one for death. I am spiritual in that I see all these as metaphors for living and reminders to do the right thing. So, this holiday we pray for life and we give thanks for another year. Another wish is for the new year to be a “sweet one” (stay tuned for the meal).


Most Jews attend synagogues and attend a special service. Of note, there is a regal procession of Temple president and past presidents who each hold a Torah while circling the room. The Torah contains the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). The entire congregation sings this plaintive prayer called Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, our King. This says, “we have sinned before you, have compassion on us.”


After congregants are called up to read from the Torah, it is sermon time. The Rabbi’s sermon is meant to teach and inspire us as we approach a new year. The Cantor who does the chanting also leads the congregation in prayers that go way back to ancient times. A part of this is in Hebrew. The melodies, both ancient and modern are very beautiful. At the end, we rise and the clergy wish all a meaningful new year as we will be off to the elegant meal with all things sweet.


The most common tradition is dipping apples in honey. We say to each other; may it be a sweet year. Below is a traditional menu. A round challah (round to symbolize a circle of life), gefilte fish, chicken and matzah ball soup, sweet brisket, apple glazed BBQ chicken, oven-baked potatoes, roasted asparagus or roasted broccoli, fruit compote, honey cake and usually several other desserts.


Yom Kippur is much more serene and solemn. It means the day of Atonement, where we are fasting, (unless we are sick, young or frail). Atonement is a heavy-duty goal, so we are free of material thoughts which includes food. Yom Kippur, as with all Jewish holidays, begins in the evening. This is a special service called “Kol Nidre” which means, “all vows.” It is a pining, beautiful prayer in the ancient language Aramaic, and is recited three times.


At the end of the service when the Rabbi asks us to stand and he blesses us, he ends it with a very traditional wish, “have an easy fast.”


The next day can be an all-day experience. It is intended to devote much of the day for prayer, repentance and remembering those who have passed. One’s mind is less on hunger. Once again, we hang on to words of the Rabbi’s sermon.


At sundown we break the fast. Bring on the food! Once my husband and I broke the fast on a Chinese food buffet. Don’t ever do this. So, a dairy meal is recommended always. If you like sushi, you’d like lox that is accompanied by bagels, cream cheese, whitefish salad, other salads, Kugels or blintzes. Then you’ve lined your stomach well and are ready for rich desserts.


Jews throughout time and all over the world partake in these holidays and traditions. There is a well-known phrase in Hebrew, “L’dor va dor.” Generation to generation we pass the traditions on, from my ancestors to me, and from me, to my children, and on and on and on.



Beth grew up in Camden, New Jersey and majored in Education and History at Rutgers University and later obtained a Masters in Family Therapy at Drexel University. She’s married to her husband of 41 years with two young adult children—a daughter and son—who both work in NYC. She loves movies, Netflix, books, history, linguistics and exploring the human condition. From her extensive background, she’s accumulated many stories and lessons and looks forward to shaping the conversation.