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Listen to Learn: Understanding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Every month, the Diversity and Community Office shares and educates about a holiday or observance as a way to build and support an inclusive community.

UPrep’s Diversity and Community Office shares information about the holiest days in the Jewish calendar

During the 2020–2021 school year, the Diversity and Community Office is continuing a practice that we started last year: to educate our school community about cultural and religious holidays/observances or dates of national importance. Each month, we will share about a holiday or observance as a way to continue to build and support an inclusive community.

For September, we would like to share the religious observations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah marks the new year (Happy 5781!) and commemorates the creation of the world. This holy day is followed by a 10-day period of introspection and repentance that culminates on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. 

Rosh Hashanah takes place at the beginning of the month of Tishrei, the first month of the Jewish calendar. In 2020, Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset on Friday, September 18, and ends at sunset on Sunday, September 20. On the two days on which Rosh Hashanah is celebrated, special prayers services are held at the synagogue, and a shofar (ram’s horn) is blown to serve as a call to repentance. Tzedakah, giving money and resources to those in need (from the word for “justice”), is also a part of Rosh Hashanah.

At home, friends and family gather to prepare special meals with foods that have symbolic significance, light candles, and recite blessings. Sweet foods like apples dipped in honey are eaten for a hope of a “sweet new year.” Fish is served to symbolize the translation of Rosh Hashanah, which means “Head of the Year” in Hebrew. Challah is baked in a circular shape or spiral to represent continuity, the wheel of the seasons, or a spiral of upward progress, and it is typically full of raisins to symbolize a year of plenty. If you want to wish someone a happy Jewish New Year, you can say “L’Shanah Tovah,” which means “good year.” 

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the Days of Awe: 10 days of introspection and repentance. These days are seen as an opportunity for change: a time to look back at mistakes of the past year, and to plan for changes to make in the new year through repentance, prayer, and tzedakah. During this time, it is common for people to make amends to those they have harmed.

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year for Judaism and is sometimes referred to as the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” It is a day marked each year with the reflections of one’s sins, fasting from sundown to sundown, and prayer. This year, Yom Kippur is observed from sunset on Sunday, September 27, through sunset on Monday, September 28.

Prayers known as Kol Nidre are recited before sunset. During Yom Kippur, working, drinking, bathing, using cosmetics, wearing leather shoes, and other acts are prohibited to deter the focus on material possessions and superficial comforts. Fasting is believed to cleanse the body and spirit, and it is not done in punishment.

The shofar sounds a single long sound at the end of the final service, marking the conclusion of the fast. It is customary to wear white to symbolize purity. Services at synagogues include special liturgical texts, songs, and customs. They read from special prayer books known as the High Holy Day machzorim for both Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur is considered a day of being somber, so a greeting or a wish of cheer is not appropriate, but you can wish people an easy fast or a holy day.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions in many areas of the world, many synagogues have created virtual methods to attend service for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as socially distanced methods to give Tzedakah, like a drive through drop-off of canned goods at the synagogue to be donated to food banks.   

To learn more about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Emily Schorr Lesnick, social emotional learning coordinator, recommends the following articles: “Rosh Hashanah” and “Yom Kippur” on;  "6 things you need to know to understand the Jewish High Holy Days" on Vox; and “What American rabbis are thinking as the Jewish new year dawns during the pandemic” on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 

By Director of Diversity and Community & Director of Hiring    E-chieh Lin

Read more blogs in the Listen to Learn series: Women's History MonthBlack History Month, Martin Luther King Jr. DayNational Disability Awareness Month, Native American Heritage Month, and Kwanzaa.

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