Explaining Jewish traditions of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur

Rosh Hashanah is the new year for the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar runs off of the lunar calendar, so the date of the new year always changes from year to year. Rosh Hashanah usually is celebrated in September, and this year it was on September 18th. 

In Hebrew, “Rosh” means “head,” and “Hashanah” means “year.” “Rosh Hashanah” translates to “head of the year.” 

You may be wondering why we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. We reflect on the past year and hope for a “sweet” New Year ahead of us. During this holiday we celebrate with sweet apples and honey, which are plentiful in autumn. My family makes apple hand pie, apple crumb cake, and goes apple picking to celebrate. 

As our New Year ends we celebrate our most important holiday, Yom Kippur. This is a time to reflect on how we have acted toward others in the past year. We apologize for anything we have done and make changes for the future. 

At the temple, we blow the shofar, which is a hollow ram’s horn. It is fun to watch the person blowing the shofar because they end up very red in the face after long horn blasts. It’s a joke that they may pass out because it’s tough to blow, and deafening, and very quick.

During Yom Kippur we give tzedakah, which is money that we give to charity. We save up money in tzedakah boxes (a box to keep loose change in to donate) and give it to people in need. We like to donate to local organizations like the Cary Food Pantry, animal shelters, and homeless shelters. 

Yom Kippur is ten days after Rosh Hashanah. In those ten days, we are supposed to go to as many people whom we have wronged or been mean to or done bad things to and apologize and explain how we will do better this year. 

It is essential to apologize and attempt to be a good person in Judaism because in a few versions of the afterlife, you can only get in if you have felt remorse for your sins, and apologized to those whom you have hurt, and tried to be a good person. We do it not because we want to get to heaven and not go to hell, but because we genuinely want to do good and be good people. 

On Yom Kippur, we fast for 25 hours. We don’t eat food, and we don’t drink water unless for health reasons you can’t: some people who can’t restrict what they eat just exclude their favorite foods. Others follow rules on top of fasting like not applying lotion to their skin and wearing leather shoes and abstaining from materialistic tendencies and pleasurable activities.

Yom Kippur is a solemn event because it entails a lot of self-reflection of the past year and the year to come so you don’t say happy Yom Kippur. You can say “G’ mar chatima Tova” or “may you be sealed in the book of life” or “have an easy fast” instead. 

Due to COVID, we can’t celebrate the holidays in person, so many temples have moved services online. At the temple we pray because Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year and is the day of atonement. Yom Kippur is the day we are closest to God. At the end of the service, we blow the shofar for the last time. The final blowing of the shofar symbolises the gate between God and us is closing and announces that fasting is over.

Many people go out to eat or have food prepared at home, some people have matzo ball soup, and others will go to their favorite local restaurants. This year my family made apple hand pies and apple cider bundt cakes for Rosh Hashanah. Even though we couldn’t celebrate in person with family and friends, we still were able to have a memorable high holiday. I hope everyone has a happy 5781.