Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Many People and Many Customs 

The fall marks a busy time for the Jewish community: The High Holidays! Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are the most important holidays in the Jewish Calendar. I have memories of long days, standing in a stiff suit for hours, listening to lengthy prayers sung in special melancholy high-holidays tunes. The smell of my childhood synagogue comes back to me whenever I am reminded of the prayer services for Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur.  

Like all Jewish Holidays, the High Holidays have many customs, traditions, explanations, and “should do’s.” Many of us in the US are familiar with the tradition of dipping apples in honey for a sweet new year. It is important to keep in mind that while most of the Jewish population of America is Ashkenazi (Jews of European descent), the Jews of the world are not a monolith. Jews from different parts of the diaspora and Israel have different traditions for these holidays. I recently learned that Sephardic Jews (who can trace their lineage back to pre-inquisition Spain) and Mizrachi Jews (with linage from Middle Eastern communities) traditionally hold a Rosh HaShana Seder with symbolic fruits and vegetables that represent hopes for the year ahead. I’m continually fascinated by the diversity and rich history of Jewish cultures around the world. How they intersect. How they have changed. And how they are different.  

There are, however, many practices that are consistent across the Jewish people during the High Holidays. The blowing of the Shofar, a musical instrument made from a ram’s horn, is an important unifying call of the Jewish people all over the world. The Shofar has deep historical and religious roots in the Jewish culture. And nothing makes a Jewish mother prouder than seeing her child blow a Shofar at the High Holidays. Trust me. I know. College degree, forget it, I can blow a Shofar!  

While not as outwardly flashy as blowing a Shofar, there is an important piece of the High Holiday season that is designed to help us make our world a better place.  Teshuvah is often translated as “repentance” and in literal translation means “return”. The days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are known and seen as our last opportunity to practice Teshuvah for the wrongdoings we have committed over the year. The Jewish teachings state that there are specific steps to proper Teshuvah. These include feeling remorse, working to undo the harm, committing to not wrongdoing again, and obtaining forgiveness. Judaism inherently understands that we are humans, that we will mess up and sometimes make poor choices. Teshuvah gives us an opportunity to fix our mistakes between each other in a collaborative way: working directly with those harmed to reconcile the damage. By completing the steps of Teshuva, individual wrongdoing becomes a space for communal growth and understanding.  

However, we practice and appreciate the High Holidays whether with a Seder or in your childhood synagogue, let’s all come together for Teshuvah. 

Daniel Siegel, JCC Engagement Program Manager