High Holidays

JNS.org covers the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with related news from around the Jewish world and Israel, and annual special sections containing features, advice content, op-eds and Rosh Hashanah holiday dinner recipes. To select another topic, choose from the other content “categories” in our navigation bar.

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For the half of America’s 5.3 million Jews who fast on Yom Kippur, the temporary sensation of hunger provides an opportunity to consider how others experience real food insecurity and to commit to action, both over the holiday and in the New Year, David Eisner, president and CEO of Jewish nonprofit Repair the World.

Babka. Strudel. Stollen. Danish pastry. Not to mention Gugelhopf and Charlotte. The names set the mouth to watering and conjure up lovingly concocted pastries that feed the body and comfort the soul. If you didn’t have a grandmother who baked these delicacies, you wish that you had. The newly published “A Jewish Baker’s Pastry Secrets,” arriving just in time for Rosh Hashanah, enables the cook to bring a meal to its magnificent conclusion. The concoctions are so numerous and sound so delicious, one wonders how the author was ever able to choose what to bake.

Leading up to Rosh Hashanah, Cindy Sher suggests closing your eyes and imagining yourself in the synagogue listening to the blasting of the shofar. Feel the power of the sound reverberate throughout the sanctuary. Close your eyes again and look back at the year behind you. Finally, close your eyes a third time and look ahead to next year. Jews are lucky to have a chance to take stock—to awaken from their slumber—and then press reset for a new year, writes Sher, the executive editor of Chicago’s JUF News.

The High Holidays reach their crescendo with Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidre prayer, which deals with the importance of words in shaping our lives and setting the tone for who we are. Jewish tradition teaches that words have the intensity of fire. They have power not only in their explicit meaning—the ink of the black letters—but in the less explicit messages they imply. Those are the white spaces. A discerning listener of language can read the "white fire," revealing its meaning. This is an important message as the debate surrounding the Iran nuclear deal gains intensity, writes Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York City.

In the fast-paced world we live in today, in which many social interactions are already conducted online, can apologizing for Yom Kippur on social media be considered true atonement? JNS.org surveyed Jewish religious leaders across denominations on the subject. “I’m a fan of face-to-face communication or, when not possible, a phone call. It’s important for people to hear your voice when you apologize. Sending an email, text message, or Facebook message is a good start, but it’s not sufficient for the performance of teshuvah,” says popular Jewish blogger and social media expert Rabbi Jason Miller. Others say the suitability of atoning on social media depends on the preferences of the apology's recipient and the medium through which the sin was committed.

“It’s said that during this time [between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur], the Book of Life is open and it’s decided who will live and who will die this year,” writes blogger Derek Powazek, whose posts focus on being young and Jewish. “As a kid, I imagined it like Santa’s list of naughty and nice, just with more severe consequences.” For many Americans, whether they’re Christian or Jewish, a desire to compare Christmas and Yom Kippur might very well be the result of the popularization of the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and its lyrical focus on reward and punishment. But does a Christmas-Yom Kippur analogy actually make sense?

Tishrei is among the most well-known months on the Hebrew calendar because it contains the High Holidays and marks the beginning of the year. Or so it seems. Indeed, to modern-day Jews, Rosh Hashanah is considered the Jewish New Year. But traditionally, the Hebrew calendar actually has four “New Year” days: the first of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah); the first of Nisan; the 15th of Shevat (Tu B’Shevat, or the New Year of trees); and the first of Elul, the New Year of animal tithes (taxation). The Torah specifically names Nisan as the first month of the Jewish calendar. So where did Tishrei come from, and how did it gain New Year status?

Tradition dictates a glass of champagne on the secular New Year. But what can give you a nice buzz to celebrate the Jewish New Year? These unique Rosh Hashanah drinks from “Queen of Kosher” Jaime Geller’s Joy of Kosher with Jamie Geller Magazine could very well start a new trend.

The holiest day on the Jewish calendar isn’t among the 10 holiest days on the United Nations calendar. But Israel and many other countries hope that changes by the time next year’s Day of Atonement arrives. In July, U.N. ambassadors from 32 countries wrote a letter to a U.N. General Assembly committee that urged the recognition of Yom Kippur as an official U.N. holiday. The committee begins deliberating on the Yom Kippur issue this month, with a possible decision coming by December. “[The recognition of Yom Kippur] can be an issue that bridges divisions and speaks to the universal values we all hold closely, including reconciliation, forgiveness, and tolerance,” Yotam Goren, a diplomat who works for Israel’s U.N. mission, told JNS.org.  

As Rosh Hashanah approaches and the Jewish calendar turns to 5775, JNS.org takes a look at the biggest Jewish news stories from the past year, including the Israel-Hamas war, Palestinian unity and failed peace talks, anti-Semitism in Europe, the rise of Islamic State, and more.

Regardless of what they do the rest of the day, many Jews fast on Yom Kippur. But why? “When we walk around with a full belly, we develop a sort of haughtiness, a sense of self-satisfaction,” says Rabbi Avi Moshel of Jerusalem. “So in the 25 hours of fasting, we actually put ourselves in a state of humility.”

“Teshuva” means “to return” in Hebrew, but in the context of the High Holidays it refers to repentance. A unique case of those seeking to return and repent, or “do teshuva,” are Jews who become less observant but later decide to return to their roots. Last year’s much-debated Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews found that 52 percent of Jews raised Orthodox no longer consider themselves to be so. But while a gloom-and-doom picture of rising assimilation seemed to be most observers’ takeaway from the Pew study, the journey of Jews who actually return to an observant lifestyle after initially leaving it behind is a more common storyline than one might think.

How many Rosh Hashanah services have you spent in the hallway chatting with your friends? Or maybe you’ve even done it quietly in the back of the sanctuary, bemoaning the length of the rabbi’s speech or the operatic performance of the cantor, which to you has little meaning or attraction. “The real problem with all services is not that they are too long, it is that people are not engaged by the service,” says Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg of Temple Beth El in Birmingham, Ala.

Tova Hartman and Charlie Buckholtz in the recently released book “Are You Not a Man of God?” take stories that we all know, or that we think we know, and show us how to read them in a fresh and radical way. Among them are two stories that seem to mirror each other—the story of Iphigenia by the Greek tragedian Euripides and the story of the Binding of Isaac (the Torah portion of the second day of Rosh Hashanah). The two stories raise the same moral issue: What do you do when you are caught between what the Supreme Authority commands of you and what your love for your own flesh and blood commands? 

While the injunction against wearing leather shoes on the fast days of Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur intends to create an experience of uncomfortable abstinence, the prohibition has ironically meant that on the two most solemn days of the year, we are allowed to wear our most comfortable shoes to synagogue. Although many Jewish communities continue to “sidestep” this sneaker contradiction, some contemporary authorities have issued rulings intended to rescue the spirit of the law.

As the final minutes of Rosh Hashanah ticked away, 13-year-old Leo Goldberger was hiding, along with his parents and three brothers, in the thick brush along the shore of Dragor, a small fishing village south of Copenhagen. The year was 1943, and the Goldbergers, like thousands of other Danish Jews, were desperately trying to escape an imminent Nazi roundup. For years, the Allied leaders insisted that nothing could be done to rescue Jews except to win the war. But 70 years ago next month, the Danish people exploded that myth and changed history.

The holiest days on the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are largely spent in synagogue. Yet prayer isn’t usually the focus when Jews prepare for the High Holidays, observes Cantor Arik Wollheim. “Hopefully people go through this process of repentance, and they give charity, but what about prayer?” Wollheim tells JNS.org. “People neglect that. How many people open the prayer book before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and go over the davening?” The answer, Wollheim says, is almost no one. But he is looking to change that.


There are only 19 verses in the story of the Binding of Isaac, which we read in synagogue each Rosh Hashanah, but there are—without exaggeration—hundreds, if not thousands, of commentaries on this story. James Goodman’s new book, “But Where is the Lamb? Imagining the Story of Abraham and Isaac,” is a fresh and exciting take on the different ways in which the Binding of Isaac has been understood down through the centuries, and also covers how we should understand it today, writes Rabbi Jack Riemer.

Holocaust memoirs and eyewitness testimony record how Jews living under Nazi rule repeatedly took extraordinary risks to mark Yom Kippur in some way. Despite the grave dangers involved, and even though Jewish law permits eating or performing labor on the Day of Atonement in order to save one’s life, many Jews endured unimaginable suffering in order to commemorate the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

During the Holocaust years, there was only one march in Washington, D.C., to plead with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to rescue Europe’s Jews—and it took place three days before Yom Kippur in 1943. As the 70th anniversary of that remarkable demonstration involving more than 400 rabbis approaches, the protest is finally gaining mainstream recognition in the Jewish community.