An Introduction to the High Holy Days

Welcome! Come join with us as we gather to learn in honor of the High Holidays! As we, the Jewish people, begin the journey towards these holy days we must ask: What is the purpose of the High Holidays and the time leading up to them?

Take a look at these three sources below to help start the conversation.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa wore pants with two pockets. In each pocket, he had a slip of paper on which he had written a note. The note in one pocket said, “For me, the entire world was created!” The note in the other pocket said, “I am but dust and ashes!” In the month of Elul and in the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, he would dwell on the meaning of each note. (Folklore)

והכתיב (ישעיהו נה, ו) דרשו ה' בהמצאו התם ביחיד הכא בצבור ביחיד אימת אמר רבה בר אבוה אלו עשרה ימים שבין ר"ה ליוה"כ...

...Is it not written, "Seek Adonai when God may be found [call unto God when God is near]?(Isaiah 55:6)...When can an individual find God?...Rabba bar Abuha: [An individual finds God to be near during] the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

A quick note, this next source is very special as it is from Fanny Neuda's prayer book for Jewish women, Hours of Devotion. This collection of writings was the first full length collection of prayers for women written by a woman. This text is from the 19th century, pretty cool if you ask me!

"At the Sounding of the Shofar" a prayer from Hours of Devotion by Fanny Neuda

Translated and compiled by Dinah Berland

Save the people who know the sound of the shofar,

Who bask in your light, O Adonai,

In the brilliance of your countenance.

-Pslam 89:16

How my heart stirs for the shofar's glorious blast.

Its vibration causes the very sinews of my being to echo.

Its earnest tones call out to me:

Mortal child, take courage! Take courage!

Another year has passed, yet you remain

Stained with old sins, weighed down

With past misdeeds and failings. Purify yourself!

Wash yourself in the waters of innocence.

Set your transgressions aside.

Through fervent hours of prayer to God,

With tears and remorse, shake off your old self.

Enter the threshold of this new year as a new being-

A new person made in the image of God,

A child imbued with innocence and a pure heart.

Enter the new year as a new being-

Made new in the capacity for all that is good and noble,

Made new in the firm intention and commitment

To serve God and to do good for your neighbors,

Made new in sanctifying intent

To strive for freedom, truth, and justice.

As God has spoken:

Cast away all transgressions

By which you have transgressed,

And make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit,

That you may not perish, O House of Israel.


And again the shofar sounds. In the midst of its call

The comforting thought comes to me that you, O God,

Are not only our judge, but also our parent.

You are not only all-just

But also all-merciful and all-compassionate.

You have created and established this awesome day,

This day of remembrance,

As an act of divine parental grace.

You have made it only for our healing and our blessing,

To call forth the human conscience and awaken it

From its passive slumber, from its pettiness,

From the ease of our daily lives and habits-

To shake us into an awareness of our better selves,

Our higher purpose on this earth.

With this though, a comforting light strikes my soul

And I offer my prayerful and hopeful heart to you.


Having gone through the texts above, let us ask ourselves:

  • What are our goals during the High Holidays?
  • What is at stake during the High Holidays?
  • Are they holidays or Holy Days?

Having gathered your own answers to the questions above, let's dive back into the traditional understanding of these days through an explanation offered by Rambam.

(א) מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה מִן הַתּוֹרָה לִזְעֹק וּלְהָרִיעַ בַּחֲצוֹצְרוֹת עַל כָּל צָרָה שֶׁתָּבוֹא עַל הַצִּבּוּר. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (במדבר י-ט) "עַל הַצַּר הַצֹּרֵר אֶתְכֶם וַהֲרֵעֹתֶם בַּחֲצֹצְרוֹת". כְּלוֹמַר כָּל דָּבָר שֶׁיָּצֵר לָכֶם כְּגוֹן בַּצֹּרֶת וְדֶבֶר וְאַרְבֶּה וְכַיּוֹצֵא בָּהֶן זַעֲקוּ עֲלֵיהֶן וְהָרִיעוּ:

(ב) וְדָבָר זֶה מִדַּרְכֵי הַתְּשׁוּבָה הוּא. שֶׁבִּזְמַן שֶׁתָּבוֹא צָרָה וְיִזְעֲקוּ עָלֶיהָ וְיָרִיעוּ יֵדְעוּ הַכּל שֶׁבִּגְלַל מַעֲשֵׂיהֶם הָרָעִים הוּרַע לָהֶן כַּכָּתוּב (ירמיה ה-כה) "עֲוֹנוֹתֵיכֶם הִטּוּ" וְגוֹ'. וְזֶה הוּא שֶׁיִּגְרֹם לָהֶם לְהָסִיר הַצָּרָה מֵעֲלֵיהֶם:

(1) It is a positive commandment from the Torah to cry out and to sound trumpets for all troubles that come upon the community, as it is said, "upon an enemy who attacks you and you sound trumpets (Numbers 10:9)." That is to say, every matter that troubles you like famine, plague, locusts, and so forth, cry out because of them and sound the trumpets.

(2) And this is part of the process of Repentance. That at the time when a calamity befalls a community and they cry out and sound trumpets, they should know that this is all because of their bad actions that this evil has befallen them. As it is written, "Your sins have turned away these things..." (Jeremiah 5:25) And it is this (God) that causes them to turn the suffering from upon them.

Now, please consider the following questions:

  • Does this text match with our modern thoughts on how the world works and why bad things happen?
  • Are there parts of this text that still ring true?

Are there parts of this text that ring true? Ooooof! Take a moment to reflect on how these texts read differently in the context of our past year and the new one that is approaching.

Now, let us ask explore with the rabbis of the Talmud the question of a person's essence. Is it that the High Holidays cleanse us, removing the tarnish, or do they change us, refurbish and renew us? The answer, of course, starts with the question: Are we what we are or are we capable of change?

אמר אביי גמיריטבא לא הוי בישא
והכתיב (יחזקאל יח, כד) ובשוב צדיק מצדקתו ועשה עול ההוא רשע מעיקרו אבל צדיק מעיקרו לא ולא והא תנן אל תאמין בעצמך עד יום מותך שהרי יוחנן כ"ג שמש בכהונה גדולה שמנים שנה ולבסוף נעשה צדוקי

Abbai said : We have a tradition that a good person does not become bad. They do not? Behold it is written, "But when the righteous turneth away from their righteousness and committeth iniquity" (Ezek. xviii. 24)! That refers to a person who was originally wicked; but the person who is originally righteous does not. One does not? Behold there is a Mishnaic teaching : "Trust not in thyself until the day of thy death" ; and Johanan the High Priest held the Office of High Priest for eighty years and eventually became a Sadducee!

A SADDUCEE! It's unthinkable to the rabbis that one could be a high ranking member of the priesthood and then become a SADDUCEE! Yet, our history shows it can happen.

So what do you think?

  • Are people good or bad at their core or do you think that a person can change over the course of their life?
  • Why do you think this is a topic that interested the rabbis?

As we end our study together, I want to offer you one last source, the poem below by Rodger Kamenetz. Our rabbis teach us that the broken tablets, those smashed by Moses at the moment of witnessing the golden calf, were not discarded, but rather were kept and traveled with the nation through the journey in the desert. In fact, we are taught that they were carried in the ark with the second set of tablets. There is much we can learn from this, but let us focus on the other difference between the tablets: the first were created by God, the second by humanity. The world God has created is broken, it is up to us to cherish it, to protect it, and then make another that is whole.

THE BROKEN TABLETS by Rodger Kamenetz

The broken tablets were also carried in an Ark.

In so far as they represented everything shattered

everything lost. They were the law of broken things. The leaf torn from the stem in a storm. A cheek touched

in fondness once but now the name forgotten.

How they must have rumbled. Clattered on the way

even carried so carefully through the waste land.

How they must have rattled around until the pieces

broke into pieces. The edges softened

crumbling. Dust collected at the bottom of the ark

Ghosts of old letters. Old laws. In so far

as a law broken is still remembered.

These laws were obeyed. And in so far as memory preserves the pattern of broken things

these bits of stone were preserved

through many journeys and ruined days

even, they say, into the promised land.

This is a time of year of remembrance, who we wronged and who is no longer with us. Take a last moment to consider our final question:

  • What do you carry with you that is a fragment of the past and what fragment do you hope the next generation carries on from you?

Did you enjoy learning with us? Want to hear some more words of Torah? Perhaps learn a chasidic story of two? Come check the past few years of Torah that I have been sharing on the High Holidays below.

The Joy of the Holidays - Rabbi David G. Winship on Soundcloud