Introduction to Judaism - The High Holy Days

Every Person's Guide to the High Holy Days - Ronald H. Isaacs

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are known in Jewish tradition as the Yamim Noraim - the Days of Awe. Rosh Hashanah is the beginning and Yom Kippur is the culmination of the ten special awe-inspiring days within which Jews are afforded the opportunity of a spiritual recovery by strenuous personal effort Whereas most Jewish holidays celebrate national events in Jewish history, on these holy days Jews are instructed to scrupulously examine their deeds and more significantly their misdeeds during the preceding year. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur's goal is nothing less than an ethical and religious reassessment of one's life. On the Days of Awe, Jewish tradition teaches, God decides who shall live and who shall die during the coming year. The liturgical prayers attempt to influence God's decision.

Entering the High Holy Days: A Complete Guide to the History, Prayers and Themes - Rabbi Reuven Hammer

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the Days of Awe, or Yamim Nora'im — are the most sacred days of the Jewish year, the time when more Jews attend synagogue services than at any other. (In fact, there is a close connection, at least in the Diaspora, be-tween Jewish identification and High Holy Day observance; for years, school absenteeism on Yom Kippur has been one of the ways of measuring Jewish population figures.) These High Holy Days are a unique creation of the Jewish religious spirit. They embody the singular ideas and theology of Judaism and have the power to transform and renew human life.

"Awe" is a loose translation of the Hebrew word nora, which can also be translated as "reverence." The word characterizes this season of the year, which lasts from the first to the tenth of Tishre, the seventh month in the Jewish calendar. In post-biblical times this season was expanded to include Elul, the month prior to Tishre, and later was extended two weeks beyond Yom Kippur to Hoshana Rabba at the conclusion of the harvest festival of Sukkot. This High Holy Day period is a time of solemn rejoicing, of fear of judgment coupled with confidence of atonement, of both pleasant anticipation of the New Year and anxiety for the future. In the words of an old folk-saying, "Even the fish in the sea tremble at the approach of the Days of Awe."

Within the cycle of the Jewish year these days hold a peculiarly spiritual place, for they alone of Jewish holy days are devoid of agricultural or historical significance.' Paradoxically, these most "Jewish" of all days are, at the same time, the most universal. They touch on spiritual values that concern us as humans. Only the Sabbath, the weekly celebration of creation, approaches the universality of the Days of Awe, since it imposes a spiritual meaning upon an otherwise meaningless span of days. The Sabbath, however, is intended (in part) to be a commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, whereas the Yamim Nora'im commemorate no historical events. Instead, they deal exclusively with the fundamental questions of human nature and human destiny and with the connections between God and humans, sin and repentance, and mercy and justice.

The Month of Elul

תני, בשם ר' אלעזר: בכ"ה באלול נברא העולם... נמצאת אתה אומר: ביום ר"ה, בשעה ראשונה, עלה במחשבה. בשניה, נתייעץ עם מלאכי השרת. בשלישי, כנס עפרו. ברביעי, גבלו. בחמישי, רקמו בששי, עשאו גולם. בשביעי, נפח בו נשמה. בשמיני, הכניסו לגן. בתשיעי, נצטוה. בעשירי, עבר. באחד עשר, נידון. בשנים עשר, יצא בדימוס. אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לאדם: זה סימן לבניך מה אתה נכנסת לפני בדין ונתתי לך דימיס, אף בניך נכנסין לפני בדין ואני נותן להם דימיס.

It was taught in the name of Rabbi Elazar: on the 25th of Elul the world was created... We thus find to say: on Rosh Hashanah, at the first hour, God thought [to create humans] the third hour, he gathered the dust [used to create Adam]; at the fourth hour, He molded this dirt [to the shape of Adam] the seventh hour, He blew into his soul. At the eighth hour, he brought [Adam and Eve] into the Garden of Eden. At the ninth hour, He commended them concerning the fruit of the tree of good and evil. At the tenth hour, [Adam and Eve] violated God's command [and ate from the prohibited fruit. At the eleventh hour, he was judged. At the twelfth hour, he was pardoned. Said the Holy One, blessed be He to Adam: this is a sign for your sons--just like you come before me in judgment and I have given you a pardon, so too will your sons come before Me in judgment and I will give them a pardon.

The Alter Rebbe - Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812, founder of Chabad)

The king's usual place is in the capital city, in the royal palace. Anyone wishing to approach the king must go through the appropriate channels in the palace bureaucracy and gain the approval of a succession of secretaries and ministers. They must journey to the capital and pass through the many gates, corridors and antechambers that lead to the throne room. Their presentation must be meticulously prepared, and they must adhere to an exacting code of dress, speech and mannerism upon entering into the royal presence.

However, there are times when the king comes out to the fields outside the city. At such times, anyone can approach him; the king receives them all with a smiling face and a radiant countenance. The peasant behind his plow has access to the king in a manner unavailable to the highest ranking minister in the royal court when the king is in the palace.

The month of Elul is when the king is in the field.

Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah Basics

Although the holiday includes elements of joy and celebration, Rosh HaShanah is a deeply religious occasion. The customs and symbols of Rosh HaShanah reflect the holiday's dual emphasis on both happiness and humility. Customs observed on Rosh HaShanah include the sounding of the shofar and eating special foods including round challah, which symbolizes the circle of life, and sweet foods for a sweet New Year. It is also customary to extend wishes for a good year. In Hebrew, the simple form of the greeting is "L'shanah tovah!"

Preparation for the High Holidays begins a full month before Rosh HaShanah. The entire Hebrew month of Elul is dedicated to readying ourselves for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Some congregations follow the custom of sounding the shofar at the end of each weekday morning service during Elul as a reminder of the approaching season.

Many Reform Jews celebrate one day of Rosh HaShanah, while others, together with Conservative and Orthodox Jews observe two days. Historically, North American Reform congregations have followed the calendar set forth in the Torah (Lev. 23:24; Num. 29:1), in which Rosh HaShanah is observed for one day, on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. However, this holiday differs from all other Jewish festivals because it is observed for two days even in the land of Israel, where all stores, schools and businesses are closed for the holiday. A growing number of Reform congregations have adopted the practice of observing a second day of Rosh HaShanah.

Selichot, a Hebrew word meaning "forgiveness," refers to the special penitential prayers recited by Jews throughout the High Holidays. Jews recite Selichot beginning late at night on the Saturday before Rosh HaShanah and again each morning on the days between the New Year and Yom Kippur. Reform congregations usually observe Selichot on the Saturday night just prior to Rosh HaShanah, a solemn and fitting preparation for 10 days of reflection and self-examination.

One very meaningful practice associated with Rosh HaShanah is Tashlich, a ceremony in which Jews go to a body of water, such as a river, stream, or ocean, to cast away their sins by symbolically tossing bread into the water. This physical act inspires us to remember our actions, right our wrongs, and refocus ourselves for the New Year.

(כג) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ (כד) דַּבֵּ֛ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֗דֶשׁ יִהְיֶ֤ה לָכֶם֙ שַׁבָּת֔וֹן זִכְר֥וֹן תְּרוּעָ֖ה מִקְרָא־קֹֽדֶשׁ׃ (כה) כָּל־מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֥ם אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַיהוָֽה׃ (ס)

Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: (24) Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. (25) You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to Adonai.

(א) ארבעה ראשי שנים הם: באחד בניסן ראש השנה למלכים ולרגלים. באחד באלול ראש השנה למעשר בהמה. רבי אלעזר ורבי שמעון אומרים: באחד בתשרי. באחד בתשרי ראש השנה לשנים ולשמטין וליובלות, לנטיעה ולירקות. באחד בשבט ראש השנה לאילן, כדברי בית שמאי. בית הלל אומרים: בחמשה עשר בו.

(1) The four new years are: On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals; Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, in the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees, these are the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.

(ב) בארבעה פרקים העולם נדון: בפסח על התבואה, בעצרת על פרות האילן, בראש השנה כל באי העולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון, שנאמר (תהלים לג) היוצר יחד לבם המבין אל כל מעשיהם, ובחג נדונין על המים.

(2) At four times the world is judged: On Pesach, for the crops. On Shavuot, for the fruits of the tree. On Rosh Hashanah, all the world passes before God like sheep, as it says, "The One that fashions the hearts of them all, that considers all their doings." (Psalms 33:15) And on Sukkot, they are judged for the water.

The Shofar

The Shofar (

The shofar, made from the horn of a ram, is sounded throughout the High Holiday period, beginning during the preparatory days of Elul. It also is sounded during the Rosh HaShanah service and at the end of Yom Kippur. The shofar is always curved or bent, symbolizing our humility as we stand before God and confront our actions. The celebration that ultimately evolved into Rosh HaShanah was originally called Yom T’ruah (Day of Sounding the Shofar).

One of the world’s oldest wind instruments, the shofar played an important role in Jewish history long before it became associated with Rosh HaShanah. It is mentioned throughout the Bible as a central element in ritual observance. For example, the shofar was sounded at the new moon and at solemn feasts. The Book of Exodus (19:16; 20:15) describes how the shofar was blown at Mt. Sinai to prepare the people for the giving of the Torah. The Book of Joshua (6:1-20) details the blowing of the shofar as part of the conquest of Jericho.

There are four different shofar “calls,” each with a unique name, used during the High Holidays: t’kiah (one long blast), sh’varim (three short blasts), t’ruah (nine quick blasts) and t’kia g’dolah (one very long blast). Today, these sounds suggest different approaches to our annual cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of our activities of the past year), which we review during this season. The shofar blasts echo different rhythms and patterns in our daily lives. Various explanations surround the custom of blowing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah. The link with Yom T’ruah (Day of Sounding the Shofar) was an early one, but there are many others. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides viewed the sounding of the shofar as a call to repentance.

The most common explanation for blowing the shofar during the Rosh HaShanah service, however, derives from the story of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) in Genesis 22, which we read on the same day. The sacrifice of Isaac was averted when Abraham substituted a ram for the boy. Although the key message focuses on Abraham’s faith and against human sacrifice, the story also became a basis for use of a ram’s horn on Rosh HaShanah.

Rambam/Maimonides, or Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1138-1204)

Mishneh Torah 3:4

(4) Even though the blowing of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a Biblical decree, it hints at something, i.e., “Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep! And slumberers, arise from your slumber! Search your ways and return in teshuvah and remember your Creator! Those who forget the Truth amidst the futility of the moment and are infatuated all their years with vanity and nothingness that will not help and will not save, examine your souls and improve your ways and your motivations! Let each of you abandon his wicked ways, and his thoughts which are no good."

Rabbi Sa'adiah ben Yosef Gaon (882-942)

There are many reasons for the sounding of the shofar. Among them are these: Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of Creation, and we, on Rosh Hashanah, accept the Creator as our Sovereign, as it is said: "With trumpets and the blasts of the shofar acclaim the Sovereign God." (Psalms 98:6). Second, since Rosh Hashanah is the first of the Ten Days of Repentance, the shofar is sounded to herald their beginning, as though to say: 'Let all who desire to repent, turn now.' Third, the shofar reminds us of our stand at Sinai, as it is said: "The blast of the shofar grew louder and louder." (Exodus 19:19), in order that we may take upon ourselves what our ancestors took upon themselves when they said: "We will do and we will hear" (Exodus 24:71). Fourth, it reminds us of the Binding of Isaac, who was offered to Heaven and was re-placed by the ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So ought we to be ready at all times to offer our lives for the sanctification of God's name. Finally, it reminds us of redemption, that we may long passionately for it, as it is said: "It shall come to pass on that day that a great shofar will be sounded; and all the lost shall return" (Isaiah 27:131.

Entering the High Holy Days: A Complete Guide to the History, Prayers, and Themes - Rabbi Reuven Hammer

The Torah mentions two different sounds, the teki’ah, one long blast, and the teru’ah, a shorter sound. Since the rabbis were not certain exactly what the teru’ah was, two possibilities emerged: the shevarim, broken sounds resembling a moan, and the teruah, an outcry of nine staccato notes. Both are used today.

The blowing of the shofar follows a prescribed pattern. It is composed of three sets of blasts, each consisting of three repetitions of three notes. Each set is different from the other. The various notes of the shofar that are blown are:

  1. teki’ahone long blast,
  2. shevarim — three broken sounds, and
  3. teru’ah ‑ nine staccato notes.

The pattern of blasts is as follows:

  1. teki’ah‑shevarim teru’ah‑tekiah;
  2. teki’ah‑shevarim‑teki’ah;
  3. teki’ah‑teru’ah‑teki’ah.

The final tekiah is prolonged (it is called teki’ah gedolah, a “great blast”). This last blast recalls the verse from Isaiah, “And on that day a great ram’s horn shall be sounded” (27:13).

We conclude the service with a hopeful look toward the future, as the blowing of the shofar is followed by the reading of a verse from Psalm 89: "Happy is the people who know the teru’ah, O Adonai, they walk in the light of Your presence." (89:16)

Tashlich (

During the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), usually on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, it is a tradition to go to a nearby body of water and symbolically cast away one's sins or wrongdoings from the past year in a ceremony called Tashlich. One usually tosses bread crumbs into the water. When done with members of a synagogue, this is usually done in the afternoon. The ritual is usually accompanied by the recitation of verses from Micah and Psalms. According to Micah 7:19, “God will take us back in love; God will cover up our iniquities, You will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

This year, take some bread crumbs to a nearby lake or stream to perform this ceremonial casting away. You may choose to name your mistakes aloud quietly or just think them to yourself. Conclude by reading a meaningful verse about forgiveness or singing a song. Share any leftover bread with the birds and fish. Doing Tashlich with children is a wonderful teaching opportunity and a chance to enjoy some time outside together on this holy day.

Special Food (

Round Challah - Challah, which literally means “dough,” refers to the special twisted loaf of bread eaten by Jews on Shabbat and other special occasions. The challah used on Shabbat is oblong; the challah eaten on Rosh HaShanah is round in shape. This custom has several explanations. One is that the round shape reflects the ongoing cycle of years and seasons. The most common interpretation is that the challah resembles a crown, symbolizing the kingship of God, a common theme throughout the High Holidays. As our thoughts turn to repentance and resolutions of self-improvement, the round challah reminds Jews that God is central to our people and to our faith.

Apples and Honey - Over the centuries, Jews have commonly eaten apples, as well as challah, grapes, and other fruits dipped in honey, symbolizing their hope for sweetness in the year ahead.

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur means "Day of Atonement" and refers to the annual Jewish observance of fasting, prayer and repentance. Part of the High Holidays, which also includes Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. In three separate passages in the Torah, the Jewish people are told, "the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: You shall practice self-denial."(Leviticus 23:27). Fasting is seen as fulfilling this biblical commandment. The Yom Kippur fast also enables us to put aside our physical desires to concentrate on our spiritual needs through prayer, repentance and self-improvement.

Yom Kippur is the moment in Jewish time when we dedicate our mind, body, and soul to reconciliation with God, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. We are commanded to turn to those whom we have wronged first, acknowledging our sins and the pain we might have caused. At the same time, we must be willing to forgive and to let go of certain offenses and the feelings of resentment they provoked in us. On this journey we are both seekers and givers of pardon. Only then can we turn to God and ask for forgiveness: “And for all these, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.”

Erev Yom Kippur is the only night of the entire Jewish calendar when a tallit (prayer shawl) is worn in the evening. As a matter of fact, it is traditional to wear a tallit or a white garment for the whole of the holiday, the color white symbolizing both our spiritual purity and our withdrawal from the vanities of this world. A white robe, called a kittel is worn by traditionally observant men over their holiday clothes. Others may choose to wear a white item of clothing, or dress completely in white.

(כו) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ (כז) אַ֡ךְ בֶּעָשׂ֣וֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ֩ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֨י הַזֶּ֜ה י֧וֹם הַכִּפֻּרִ֣ים ה֗וּא מִֽקְרָא־קֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְעִנִּיתֶ֖ם אֶת־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֥ם אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַיהוָֽה׃ (כח) וְכָל־מְלָאכָה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ בְּעֶ֖צֶם הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה כִּ֣י י֤וֹם כִּפֻּרִים֙ ה֔וּא לְכַפֵּ֣ר עֲלֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

(26) Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: (27) Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial, and you shall bring an offering by fire to Adonai; (28) you shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before Adonai your God.

(א) יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים אָסוּר בַּאֲכִילָה וּבִשְׁתִיָּה וּבִרְחִיצָה וּבְסִיכָה וּבִנְעִילַת הַסַּנְדָּל וּבְתַשְׁמִישׁ הַמִּטָּה. וְהַמֶּלֶךְ וְהַכַּלָּה יִרְחֲצוּ אֶת פְּנֵיהֶם, וְהֶחָיָה תִנְעֹל אֶת הַסַּנְדָּל, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר, וַחֲכָמִים אוֹסְרִין:

(1) On Yom Kippur, it is forbidden to eat, to drink, to wash, to anoint, and to wear leather shoes and to have sexual relations. The King and the bride may wash their faces, and the newly delivered mother may wear leather shoes: the words of Rabbi Eliezer; and the Sages prohibit this.

Kol Nidre (Mishkan HaNefesh)

Kol Nidre is a slow, dirge-like piece sung on Erev Yom Kippur. It is sung three times in succession, usually by the cantor or another soloist. Singing or listening to Kol Nidre releases one from certain vows made between this Yom Kippur and the last, the breaking of which would be a sin. Kol Nidrei has no effect upon vows or promises that we make and break with other people. They still remain valid and, if broken, forgiveness and absolution must be sought from the people affected — and not from God. Instead, the practice likely evolved from a time when Jews were forced, under duress and/or threats of violence, to swear to abandon their own religion and adhere to a new one. The mournful tone of the prayer sets the tone for the Yom Kippur rituals.

All vows –

resolves and commitments, vows of abstinence and terms of obligation,

sworn promises and oaths of dedication –

that we promise and swear to God, and take upon ourselves

from this Day of Atonement until the next Day of Atonement, may it find us well:

we regret them and for all of them, we repent.

Let all of them be discarded and forgiven, abolished and undone;

they are not valid and they are not binding.

Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves;

and our oaths – they shall not be oaths.

Confession of Sins - Moments of Transcendence, ed. Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins

The two prayers Ashamnu and Al Chet constitute the Jewish confession. You will observe that each of these confessional prayers is followed by prayers in which we seek forgiveness.

Atonement is more than a wish for forgiveness; it is the desire to be at-one with God. To be at-one with God implies a desire to “bend our will to God, to observe God's precepts and to revere God's law in truth!”

Confessions in Judaism, you will notice, are always in the plural: “We have sinned, we have transgressed,” etc. They are always meant to be said by the entire congregation, even by those individuals who feel that they themselves have not been guilty of the sins enumerated.

The reasons for the use of the plural and the recitations of the confessions by the entire congregation are manifold. When one Jew sins, it is as though all Jews have sinned. This is in accordance with the principle that all Jews are responsible for one another. The confessional prayers for the High Holidays are constructed to intensify our feelings of responsibility for one another.

When an individual Jew celebrates, the whole community rejoices; when he weeps, the community shares his grief with him; when he sins, the whole community shares his sin.

The group recitation of the confessional is intended to remind us that the failure of the individual is very often the result of the shortcomings of the society or community in which one lives.

According to Judaism, the individual and the group make their confessions directly to God. There are no “priests” in the synagogue. The whole house of Israel is looked upon as a kingdom of priests and each Jew can turn directly to God without the assistance of an intermediary.

Ashamnu - The Recitation of Sins (Yom Kippur Liturgy)

Ashamnu– we have trespassed; Bagadnu– we have dealt treacherously; Gazalnu– we have robbed; Dibarnu dofi– we have spoken slander; He’evinu–we have acted perversely; V’hirshanu– we have done wrong; Zadnu– we have acted presumptuously; Hamasnu– we have done violence; Tafalnu sheker– we have practiced deceit; Yaatsnu ra– we have counseled evil; Kizavnu– we have spoken falsehood; Latsnu– we have scoffed; Maradnu– we have revolted; Niatsnu– we have blasphemed; Sararnu– we have rebelled; Avinu– we have committed iniquity; Pashanu– we have transgressed; Tsararnu– we have oppressed; Kishinu oref– we have been stiff necked; Rashanu– we have acted wickedly; Shichatnu– we have dealt corruptly; Tiavnu– we have committed abomination; Tainu– we have gone astray; Titanu– we have led others astray.

Al Cheit - Excerpts

For the sin which we have committed before You by scoffing.

And for the sin which we have committed before You by evil talk about others.

For the sin which we have committed before You by impurity of speech.

And for the sin which we have committed before You by foolish talk.

For the sin which we have committed before You with the evil inclination.

And for the sin which we have committed before You knowingly or unknowingly.

For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.

Fasting - Gates of the Season: A Guide to the Jewish Year - Peter S. Knobel

Yom Kippur is a day set apart by the Torah for us to “practice self-denial” (Leviticus 23:27). The “self-denial” which seems to be most expressive of Yom Kippur is fasting, abstaining from food and drink for the entire day.

Fasting is an opportunity for each of us to observe Yom Kippur in a most personal way. It is a day of intense self-searching and earnest communication with the Almighty. This search requires an internal calm which derives from slowing down our biological rhythm. Fasting on Yom Kippur provides the key to our inner awakening.

On Yom Kippur, we seek reconciliation with God and humanity. Repentance (Teshuvah) involves a critical self-assessment of the past year and the resolve to avoid lapses in sensitivity in the future. Teshuvah requires discipline. Our fasting on Yom Kippur demonstrates our willingness to submit to discipline. How can we atone for our excesses toward others unless we can curb appetites which depend on no one but ourselves? To set boundaries for our own conduct in this very private matter is to begin the path toward controlling our public behavior.

The fast of Yom Kippur reaches beyond our inner spiritual awakening and discipline into our ethical behavior. In the Haftarah [prophetic reading] we read on Yom Kippur morning of the prophet Isaiah providing us with the ultimate goal of our fast–to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, to share bread with the hungry (Isaiah 58:1-14).

Finally, to fast on the Day of Atonement is an act of solidarity with the suffering of the Jewish people. Through fasting we are drawn closer to all who live lives of deprivation. Our faith demands more of us than 24 hours of abstinence from food. It demands that upon the completion of our fast we will turn back to the world prepared to act with love and compassion. In this way fasting touches the biological as well as the spiritual aspects of our being.

Yom Kippur Vocabulary (

Al Chet (also Al Het)— Pronounced ahl-KHETT. Literally “for the sin.” The opening words of a confession of sin, this is the name of a prayer recited multiple times during the Yom Kippur service.
Avinu Malkeinu — Pronounced ah-VEE-new mahl-KAY-new. Literally “Our Father, Our King,” this prayer is recited after the Amidah (the main prayer, said while standing) and before the Torah service. It is recited throughout the Ten Days of Repentance, from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.

Gmar Hatimah Tovah — Pronounced guh-MAHR khah-tee-MAH toe-VAH. Literally “A good signing/sealing.” This is a traditional greeting during the Ten Days of Repentance, referring to the belief that on Rosh Hashanah our fates are written, or inscribed, in the Book of Life, and on Yom Kippur we are sealed in it.

Kittel — Pronounced KITT-el. A Yiddish word for robe or coat. Here it refers to a white robe that men and some women wear during High Holiday services. White represents the purity we hope to achieve through our prayers on these holy days.

Kol Nidrei — Pronounced KOHL nee-DRAY or kohl NEE-dray. Literally “all vows,” this is the name for the Yom Kippur evening service, as well as for a prayer said during this service.

Machzor — Pronounced MAHKH-zohr. Literally “cycle” the mahzor is the special prayer book for the High Holidays, containing all the High Holiday liturgy. (The prayer book used during the rest of the year is called a siddur, which literally means “order.”)

Neilah — Pronounced NEE-lah or nuh-ee-LAH. Literally “locking,” this is the name for the final service on Yom Kippur, during which we make a final plea to God to accept our prayers and seal us in the Book of Life for the year to come.

Teshuvah — Pronounced tuh-SHOO-vah (oo as in boot). Literally “return,” this refers to our “return to God.” Teshuvah is often translated as “repentance,” one of the most significant themes and spiritual components of the High Holidays.

Viddui — Pronounced vee-DOO-ee (oo as in boot). Literally “confession,” this is a prayer recited just before Yom Kippur, and repeated many times during the holiday. During the Viddui we gently beat ourselves on the chest for each transgression listed. This action serves as a symbolic punishment for our hearts, which are ultimately responsible for leading us to sins of greed, lust and anger.

Yamim Noraim — Pronounced yah-MEEM nohr-ah-EEM. Literally “Days of Awe,” this term refers to the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.

Yizkor — Pronounced YIZZ-kohr. Literally “May God remember,” Yizkor is a prayer service in memory of the dead, which is held on Yom Kippur and on the last day of each of the three festivals, Passover, Shavuot, and Shemini Atzeret.

Yom Tov — Pronounced YOHM tohv. Literally “good day,” this means holiday.

Teshuvah - Repentance

What is a "sin?"

The Hebrew word cheit, often translated as "sin," is from a root meaning "to miss the mark," as in archery or stone-throwing. Many commentators have drawn important implications from the etymology of cheit: As with a stone thrower or archer, our intent is to aim true and to do the right thing; wrongdoing does not cause an ineradicable strain. With practice and attention, we can improve our aim and do better in the future.

Hilchot Teshuva 5:1

Rambam/Maimonides, or Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1138-1204)

Free will is granted to all people. If one desires to turn to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is theirs. Should s/he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice it theirs... human beings are singular in the world with no other species like them in the following way: that they can, on their own initiative, with knowledge and thoughts, know good and evil, and do what they desire. There is no one who can prevent them from doing good or bad.

הָאוֹמֵר, אֶחֱטָא וְאָשׁוּב, אֶחֱטָא וְאָשׁוּב, אֵין מַסְפִּיקִין בְּיָדוֹ לַעֲשׂוֹת תְּשׁוּבָה. אֶחֱטָא וְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר, אֵין יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר. עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם, יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר. עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ, אֵין יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר, עַד שֶׁיְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ. אֶת זוֹ דָּרַשׁ רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה, מִכֹּל חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם לִפְנֵי יְיָ תִּטְהָרוּ (ויקרא טז), עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַמָּקוֹם, יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר. עֲבֵרוֹת שֶׁבֵּין אָדָם לַחֲבֵרוֹ, אֵין יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים מְכַפֵּר, עַד שֶׁיְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרוֹ. אָמַר רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא, אַשְׁרֵיכֶם יִשְׂרָאֵל, לִפְנֵי מִי אַתֶּם מִטַּהֲרִין, וּמִי מְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם, אֲבִיכֶם שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (יחזקאל לו), וְזָרַקְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַיִם טְהוֹרִים וּטְהַרְתֶּם. וְאוֹמֵר (ירמיה יז), מִקְוֵה יִשְׂרָאֵל יְיָ, מַה מִּקְוֶה מְטַהֵר אֶת הַטְּמֵאִים, אַף הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְטַהֵר אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל:

One who says, "I will sin, and then repent, I will sin [again], and then repent," will not receive an opportunity to repent; [for one who says] "I will sin, and Yom Kipur will atone," Yom Kippur will not atone. Yom Kippur atones for transgressions between a person and God, but for a transgression against one's neighbor, Yom Kipur cannot atone, until he appeases his neighbor.

Rambam/Maimonides, or Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1138-1204)

Mishneh Torah 1:1-2:9, 7:3, selections

  • All of the commandments in the Torah: whether they be the positive commandments, or the negative commandments; if a person transgressed any of them, whether he did so intentionally, whether he did so unintentionally, when he repents and returns from his sin - he is obligated to confess before God, blessed be He, as it says (Numbers 5:6-7), When a man or a woman does any of the sins of man...and s/he shall confess the sin that s/he committed... - this refers to a verbal confession. And confession, that is a positive commandment. How does he confess? He says, "Please God, I have sinned, I have erred, I have transgressed, I have done such-and-such [specific sins], I am regretful, and ashamed for my actions, and I will never again return to my old ways." This is the essence of the confession, and anyone who wants to lengthen [his confession], this is praiseworthy.
  • What is complete teshuvah? When a person has the opportunity to commit the same sin, and he possess the ability to do it, but he separates and does not do it because of teshuvah and not out of fear or lack of strength.
  • Yom Kippur is a time of teshuvah for everyone, for the individual and for the public, and it is the end of [the time for that's year's] forgiveness and pardoning for Israel. Therefore, all must do teshuva and confess on Yom Kippur.
  • Teshuva and Yom Kippur only atone for transgression between man and God, such as one who eats a forbidden food, or has a forbidden sexual relationship, etc. But transgressions between man and his fellow, such as hurting his fellow, or cursing his fellow, or stealing from him, etc, those are never forgiven until he gives his fellow what he owes him, and [his fellow] is appeased. Even if he returned the money he owed his [fellow], he must appease him and ask him to forgive him. Even if he only perturbed his fellow verbally, he must make amends and meet with him until he forgives him. If his fellow does not wish to forgive him, he should bring a line of three people who are friends with him and they will approach him and ask [forgiveness] from him. If he does not give in to them, he must bring people a second and third time. If he still does not give in, they should leave him alone, and that person who did not forgive – he is the sinner. But if it was his teacher, he must come and go even a thousand times until he forgives him.
  • Do not say that there is only teshuvah for sins that have an action, such as immorality, robbery, and theft; rather, just as a person must do teshuvah for these, so too he must search out his bad character traits, and do teshuvah for anger, hatred, jealousy, laziness, pursuit of money and honor, gluttony, and so on. A person must return in teshuvah from all of these. And these sins are harder than those which have an action, because once a person is immersed in them it is difficult for him to break free from them. Thus the verse says, Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts (Isaiah 55:7).

Adin Steinsaltz, Teshuvah: A Guide for the Newly Observant Jew, pp 3-4.

Broadly defined, teshuvah is more than just repentance from sin; it is a spiritual reawakening, a desire to strengthen the connection between oneself and the sacred... All forms of teshuvah, however diverse and complex, have a common core: the belief that human beings have it in their power to effect inward change.