HIGH HOLIDAYS - Questions & Answers


1.  Why are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur celebrated?
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are purely religious holidays.  Both are called “holy convocations.”  They emphasize spirituality, morality, and holiness, and unlike other holidays are not tied to national historic events.  They celebrate God’s role as King of the universe and Judge of all man’s actions.

2. Why is there more than one New Year in the Jewish calendar?
Although Rosh Hashanah literally means “head of the year” or “beginning of the year,” the civil calendar year for the early Jewish nation actually began with the month of Nissan (March-April), when the first crops were harvested, that is, at Passover time. The month of Tishri, when the High Holidays fall, was the beginning of the Jewish religious year.

3. Why is Rosh Hashanah observed for more days than the Bible calls for?
The Bible prescribes that Rosh Hashanah be observed for one day, on the first of Tishri.  (Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday that is celebrated on the New Moon—that is, the first of the month.)  In early centuries, the testimony of witnesses was used to determine the official date of arrival of the New Moon, and then messengers were sent forth to notify outlying communities.  If the witnesses were to arrive too late for the messengers to be sent out to notify the distant communities on time, those living far from Jerusalem would miss the correct day of observance of the holiday.  In order to protect against this, Rosh Hashanah was made a two-day holiday, and the two days were considered one long day (yoma arichta).

4. Why are the High Holidays called “Days of Awe” (Yamim Nora’im)?
According to the Talmud, all man’s actions of the past year are judged by God on Rosh Hashanah, and on Yom Kippur judgment is rendered.  For religious Jews these became awesome days, Yamim Nora’im.

5. Why are special midnight services (Selichot) held on the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah?
The Selichot are penitential prayers (Selicha is the singular form) that are recited on many occasions during the before the High Holidays.  Midnight was one of the times selected for recitation of such prayers because the psalmist wrote:  “At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto Thee” (Psalms 119:62).

6. Why is the shofar blown during the month of Elul?
Originally, the blowing of the shofar was a Temple ritual.  It later became a synagogue ritual.  The custom of blowing the shofar during the month of Elul began in the Middle Ages.  It reminds us to begin the process of repentance.

7.  Why is Rosh Hashanah celebrated by some Jews for one day and by others for two?
Although in the Bible (Leviticus 23:24) Rosh Hashanah is a one-day holiday to be celebrated on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishri, Orthodox and Conservative Jews everywhere (including Israel) celebrate it for two days, while many Reform congregations observe it for one day.  The change from a one-day to a two-day holiday occurred when it became evident that the precise hour of the appearance of the New Moon for the month of Tishri could not always be ascertained. If clouds filled the sky, there could be no witnesses to the arrival of the New Moon.  Therefore, to be certain that Rosh Hashanah would be celebrated on the correct day, the holiday was extended from a one-day holiday to a two-day holiday for Jews in Palestine and elsewhere, and the chance for error was decreased.  (Yom Kippur was always a one-day holiday because it would be a terrible imposition to expect people to fast for two days.)  Reform Jews believe that doubts about the certainty of the calendar no longer exist today, and they have retained the Biblical practice of observing Rosh Hashanah as a one-day holiday.

8.  Why is a white robe (a kittel) worn by some worshippers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
In Jewish tradition, white garments are symbolic of humility and purity of thought. When the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, rather than dressing in his usual golden vestments he wore simple white linen garments.

9.  Why do most people consider Yom Kippur the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar?
Contrary to popular belief, the Sabbath is the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar, but because of the fasting requirement Yom Kippur is generally thought to be more sacred.  In Biblical law, the penalty for violating the Sabbath (death) is much more severe than the penalty for violating Yom Kippur (excommunication).