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A Complete Guide to the Jewish High Holidays

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September 9th, 2020
Holidays, Teachings / By

One could say that just as you do not enter a competition without training, you do not enter the new year without proper preparation. We are getting ready for the High Holidays in Biblical terminology, and in Israel it is no small deal. 

The days preceding and during the Moedim (the Appointed Times) are a time to settle accounts from the previous year. This is a time of repentance, necessary for spiritual renewal. And as a sign of restoration, we wear white. 

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A Blank Slate

The High Holidays, which include Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), ten Days of Awe, and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), are the season in Jewish life when everyone should seek God’s forgiveness and His favor. This practice is not as strictly Jewish as one may think, as it is Biblical.

God instructs Israel and all who join His people to seek His face and pursue righteousness at the appointed times (Leviticus 23:1-2:25). Rosh Hashanah was a solemn day with trumpet blasts reminding people to reflect on their lives and repent. This is the time to come before God, but also to make things right with one’s neighbor. 

The true centerpiece of the High Holidays is the shofar – the ceremonial ram’s horn. Traditionally, the Jewish people are commanded to hear the sound of the shofar in this season, which is a reminder to repent and seek forgiveness. In the last days, this sound will announce the return of our King, Jesus the Messiah (1 Thessalonians 3:16). 

Fall Feasts – Time of Healing

Today, Rosh Hashanah is probably a little less formal than it was in Biblical days, but Yom Kippur has not lost any of its fervency.  

We may consider Rosh Hashanah to be a festive day, when families come together for a colorful and abundant meal. Every dish is symbolic of God’s blessings. But the sweet tradition of dipping apples in honey leads to the Days of Awe. These ten days are indisputably linked to penitence, but they can also be seen as a time of healing. Repentance strips us of our pride before God, who knows our hearts and minds. 

Additionally, these days give us an opportunity to sincerely confess and seek forgiveness for our wrongdoing from those around us.  This commandment can bring healing into our families and our communities. 

On Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – Jewish people in Israel flock to the Western Wall dressed all in white, holding on to the promise from the Book of Isaiah: “Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Isaiah 1:18

High Holidays Turn to Celebration

The day of atonement reminds us what a gift we have in Jesus, who became the ultimate atonement for our sins. The Bible indeed instructs us to repent, however the atonement has already been made once and for all, through Jesus’ blood. Yom Kippur is then a sign to us as well – of the freedom that we find in our Messiah.

Although Yom Kippur marks the end of the High Holidays, it is not the end of Moedim – the Appointed Times. At sundown of the Day of Atonement, one can break the fast (from all food and drink) which was commanded on that day. With the sunset we are set free to go straight into celebration! 

With just a few days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot (also known as the Feast of Tabernacles), it is time to build booths, bless others with food baskets, and turn one’s eyes away from earthly possessions. 

What are the High Holidays?


Leaving the Safety of One’s Home

The joyous Feast of Tabernacles is a pilgrimage holiday, when many Jewish people ascend to Jerusalem. Regardless where they are though, the Scriptures command them to stay in temporary dwellings for a week, to remember the Hebrews’ journey through the desert. By doing so, they recognize that life on earth is also temporary and our eternal home is with God. 

On Sukkot, we leave our material riches behind to truly grasp how we are made equal in our dependency on God’s goodness. The Jewish people eat all their meals in the booths, some even choose to sleep in them, to truly appreciate what is most important in life – that all we need in life is God and each other. 

Preparing for the Fall Holidays, therefore, means more renouncing than acquiring. The idea is not to make more or be more, but instead it is about “less”. We leave behind our sins, our possessions and our own ideas of security. And we abandon more than our sinful nature. It is time to forsake our own solutions, our defenses and our scenarios.

On High Holidays we wear white, because yes, God purifies us. But also because there is nothing we can possibly do to impress Him. We come before Him blank, empty-handed. Stripped of all our accomplishments and earthly titles, we start the New Year fresh. On Rosh Hashanah we welcome God’s plans and we look to Him for guidance.

Let’s take a look at Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the 10 Days of Awe that bridges the gap between them!



Estera Wieja
Estera Wieja is a journalist, book author and public speaker, focused on the topics of Israel, Jewish history, and Judeo-Christian culture. Born and raised in Poland, Estera is a regular contributor to "Our Inspirations" magazine in Poland. She holds a Bachelor degree in Communications and Media from Azusa Pacific University (California, USA), and a Master degree in Journalism from University of Warsaw, Poland. Estera has lived in Jerusalem, Israel for several years before joining the staff at FIRM in 2018.
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