Quick Guide to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for Families


What is Rosh Hashanah?

The Jewish New Year begins with Rosh Hashanah, which literally means the “head of the year.” It’s a period of ten days that lasts until Yom Kippur. These ten days are considered the most serious days in Judaism, and are called Yamim Nora’ im, or Days of Awe! They are a time set aside for reflection on past deeds, and a chance for repentance for deeds that were offenses to other people, or to G-d. The offenses to people are actually considered more serious than those aimed at G-d.


What happens during the Days of Awe?

It is believed that on Rosh Hashanah the Book of Life, stating what will occur for each person for the coming year, is opened and during the ten Days of Awe, there is time for true repentance for misdeeds. At the end of the day on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the book is closed and there will be time to have a good outcome for the year written in the heavenly book. Many Jews at this time will wish each other Shana Tova — good year — or Le-shana tova tikkathevu — may you have a good year written (in the book).

It is a very solemn day, considered a day of mourning. Non-leather shoes are worn, as this also is a sign of mourning. The majority of Jews do go to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. The shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown several times during the lengthy prayer services. The ram’s horn is also a reminder of the horns that were blown at the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. It is a sound that touches everyone who hears it — a reminder of our human fragility. There are both long wailing sounds which are held for a bit, and fast trills in each set of horn blowing. It is actually a musical art which not everyone can accomplish. A good set of lungs is a must.

On this day, it is believed that all day the Book of Life (the decrees on each person for what will occur to them during the New Year) is still open, and that prayers and supplications will still be heard to the very end of the day. At the end of the concluding service, the ram’s horn is blown again, a poignant sound that is both chilling and welcome, for this is the time when tradition is that the Book of Life is closed.


When do Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

Since the Jewish calendar is lunar it is different than our secular calendar, which is a solar one, so Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not occur at the same time each year on the secular calendar. This year the eve of Rosh Hashanah occurred on September 13, and ended in the evening two days later when it was dark, on September 15.  Jewish holidays always begin 18 minutes before sundown and end about 25 hours later.

This year Yom Kippur begins on Tuesday evening, September 22, and lasts until dark on September 23. This is a day which most Jews will spend in the synagogue. It is also a fast day, where no food, not even water, is permitted. (However, exceptions are made for the sick or those whose health might suffer by fasting.) Girls, who have come to maturity as a Bas Mitzvah (daughter of a commandment), and boys, who have done the same with their Bar Mitzvah (son of a commandment), must also fast.


How do families celebrate the New Year?

Rosh Hashanah is basically a very festive time. Families visit from near and far. Holiday clothes are worn, and meals are bountiful. Honey is used during this time to remind everyone to have a sweet year. Challahs, the delicious egg bread that is eaten every Sabbath, are now made in a round shape to commemorate the circle of the year and of life. Many are made with raisins to make the New Year even sweeter. Apples are also eaten and dipped in honey as well. It’s also the custom to eat a fruit that you haven’t eaten for a year or more, or a new fruit that you’ve never had before.There are other symbolic foods as well. Before the beginning of prayers on the evening of Yom Kippur, a festive meal is eaten.

What are some of the spiritual beliefs that accompany the Days of Awe?

Rosh Hashanah is a reminder that this is the time to reflect and to make resolutions to be a better person. The daily prayers during this time emphasize this need. It is also considered of paramount importance to consider how you have treated your fellow man. It is customary to ask forgiveness of anyone you feel you might have wronged in any way, whether verbally or in business dealings. To make it less awkward there is a formal sentence which is said in Hebrew and covers every sort of misdeed. Even children are aware of the importance of this time.

Judaism does believe that it is never too late to rectify any wrongs you’ve done or to try to be better at any point of your life, however the Days of Awe are the close of the most auspicious time for this purpose. The Gates of Repentance are always open. We can always become better people at any time of the year, and at any point in our lives! It doesn’t matter whether you are Jewish not, reflection on your actions and the desire to do better is beneficial for everyone.


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