Taking a look at this month's two major Jewish holidays

Posted October 6

October ushers in the observance of ancient and revered rituals for the Jewish community this year. The High Holy Days, or Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the days between them, will be celebrated from sundown Sunday to sundown on Oct. 12.

For Jews, this period of reflection and celebration is a time to think about the past year and turn over a new leaf as they enter a new one. It shares some of its themes with secular New Year's Day, such as the value of remembering special moments and making resolutions.

"Jews are … expected to think about the meaning and direction of their lives. How could they have been better Jews? Better human beings?" Religion News Service reported in 2014.

The dates of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur change each year because they correspond with the Jewish calendar. It's comprised of lunar months of 29 to 30 days, and it dictates which sections of the Torah and other religious texts are read each day.

The three major branches of Judaism in the U.S. — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — approach the High Holy Days a little differently, but a few key practices are shared, such as fasting, family gatherings and giving and receiving forgiveness.

Like Christmas or Easter in the Christian community, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur inspire less active Jews to make time in their schedule for a religious service. One-third of Jews (35 percent) say they attend religious services only a few times a year for special celebrations like the High Holy Days, compared to 11 percent who attend at least once a week and 12 percent who attend once or twice a month, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center report.

Additionally, more than 4 in 10 American Jews (43 percent) describe Yom Kippur as the most important Jewish holiday to them personally, and 10 percent say the same about Rosh Hashanah, Public Religion Research Institute reported in 2012.

In spite of the meaningful role these High Holy Days play in the Jewish community, many outsiders are unaware of why or how they're celebrated. Here's an overview of how Jews will welcome the Jewish New Year this month:

Rosh Hashanah

When: This year, it begins Sunday evening and ends Tuesday evening.

What: The Jewish New Year, marking the start of Year 5777 on the Jewish calendar

How it's celebrated: Family meals, worship services and sweet foods are all key aspects of Rosh Hashanah.

"Honey and apples are the most famous holiday foods in the United States; other foods, including dates and pomegranates, have ancient associations with the New Year and still are enjoyed in Jewish communities around the world. The honey-and-apples symbol, often seen on holiday cards and other Rosh Hashanah media, is a reminder of the joy in welcoming a 'sweet' new year," according to Read the Spirit Magazine.

Other New Year rituals include blowing the shofar, or horn, during worship services. "The sound is meant to awaken the hearers from a spiritual slumber, to make them aware of their actions and their repercussions," RNS reported.

Jews heed this call as a community and individuals drawing closer to family and friends even as they take time for personal introspection.

Between the end of Rosh Hashanah and the start of Yom Kippur, Jews are expected to reach out to friends, loved ones and community members and mend burnt bridges, Interfaith Family notes. They're "trying to repair relationships and make apologies for bad behavior in the previous year."

What non-Jews can do: Wish Jewish friends a happy new year. In Hebrew, this sentiment is shared by saying, "Shanah Tovah."

Yom Kippur

When: This year, it starts the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 11, and ends the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 12.

What: The Day of Atonement, or the culmination of more than a week of efforts to make amends.

How it's celebrated: Jews mark Yom Kippur with fasting and prayer.

More than half of the Jews in the U.S. (53 percent,) including majorities of the Orthodox (95 percent), Conservative (76 percent) and Reform (56 percent) communities fast for all or part of Yom Kippur, Pew reported. Through this sacrifice, Jews affirm their commitment to building stronger relationships with God, each other and the world around them in the coming year.

Worship services on this holiday are some of the best attended events in the Jewish community. "Many Jews grow emotional over the beauty of the Yom Kippur service, especially the Kol Nidre, a sung recitation of universal forgiveness," RNS reported.

Although the Day of Atonement may seem mournful compared to the sweet celebrations of Rosh Hashanah, it's also a joyful occasion. Jews embrace their clean slate and give thanks for the opportunity they've had to reflect on and recommit to their faith during the High Holy Days.

What non-Jews can do: People who aren't members of the Jewish community can still draw valuable lessons from Yom Kippur's spirit of forgiveness, as faith leaders and other experts told the Deseret News last year.

"We are all, to some degree, broken and we do wrong," said Tom Carpenter, an assistant professor of psychology at Seattle Pacific University. "It's important for us to have authentic self-forgiveness."

Email: Twitter: @kelsey_dallas


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