The Jewish High Holy Days are This Month—Here's What You Should Know

Here are some important things to know about the High Holy Days and meaningful ways to acknowledge their celebration (whether you observe or not).

Over the next few weeks, members of the Jewish faith will observe the High Holy Days, also called the High Holidays. If you don't observe them yourself, you may not know why these days are significant or how to approach someone Jewish during this time. Do you wish someone "happy holidays?" Why do the dates change every year? Is there one holiday you should really get right?

These are all valid questions, and for those who aren't sure of the answers, we've put together a simple guide to the High Holy Days so you can better support your friends, colleagues, and neighbors who observe this important time of the year. The two main High Holy Days are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While these are the High Holy Days, this holiday season also includes Sukko, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah.

apples and honey for rosh hashanah
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Like the Christian holiday of Easter, all Jewish holidays follow the lunar calendar, which is why they begin on a different date every year. This year, the High Holy Days are in early September, but some years they can begin as late as October. It's also important to note that all Jewish holidays begin at sundown the night before, and last through sundown on the last day of the holiday.

Rosh Hashanah

Begins at sundown on Monday, September 6, and ends at sundown on Wednesday, September 8.

Rosh Hashanah means "head of the year" in Hebrew. As the first holiday in the Jewish calendar year, it is essentially the celebration of the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah is considered a time for renewal, reflection, and excitement for the possibilities the new year may bring.

Important activities during Rosh Hashanah include going to services in a synagogue, hearing the "sounding of the shofar" (blowing into a hollowed-out ram's horn), eating apple slices with honey for a sweet year, and enjoying a celebratory meal.

During Rosh Hashanah, you'll likely hear folks greet each other with the phrase Shanah Tovah, (pronounced shah-NAH toe-VAH) which translates to "good year." This greeting can be said any time during the high holiday season, similar to wishing someone a "happy new year" in February if you haven't seen them yet that year.

Yom Kippur

Begins at sundown on Wednesday, September 15, and ends at sundown on Thursday, September 16.

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year in Judaism because it is believed to be the day the Book of Life is sealed. It is also known as the Day of Judgment or the Day of Atonement and is observed by fasting and intense prayer.

Many Jews spend much of the day at synagogue, repenting and asking for forgiveness of their sins, as well as the sins of others. The day ends with again blowing the shofar, symbolizing the closing of the Book of Life. Traditionally, Jews may then break the day-long fast with a celebratory meal at home with family after sundown.

According to the Jewish faith, the Book of Life is opened on Rosh Hashanah, but it isn't closed until Yom Kippur. As a result, the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the "days of awe," the days to be the best version of yourself to help ensure another year in the Book of Life.

This is a time when people try to make amends and many participate in additional Tzedakah (the act of giving to those in need).

Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah

Begins at sundown on Monday, September 20, and ends at sundown on Wednesday, September 29.

Although the holidays of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah are not considered the absolute holiest days of the Jewish calendar, they are important observances that fall within the same holiday season.

Sukkot takes place five days after the end of Yom Kippur and is a seven-day celebration of thanksgiving. The holiday is celebrated in a small hut or sukkah that commemorates how God sheltered the Israelites following their exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. The Hebrew word for 'hut' is 'sukkah' and more than one sukkah is Sukkot, which is how the holiday gets its name. The holiday is also known in the Christian faith as the Feast of Tabernacles.

Some Jews don't work on the first two days of Sukkot, and many will try to eat or even sleep inside their sukkah at some time during the holiday. Sukkot is a joyful time of thanksgiving and praise that ends with a celebration known as Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.

Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah (the final two days of Sukkot) celebrate that the annual reading of the Torah (the Jewish Bible or Old Testament) has ended, and the beginning of the next annual reading cycle has now begun! Many Jews will come to synagogue to hear the last passage of the Torah read out loud, followed by the reading of the first passage to start the new cycle. There is often dancing with the Torah, singing and some will take the two days off from work or school.

How to Support Jewish Friends and Neighbors During the High Holy Days

Many of us are used to offices and businesses being closed on Christmas Day and Easter, whether we celebrate Christian holidays or not. However, the same courtesy is not always extended for Jewish holidays in the United States.

Because both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are such important holidays to the Jewish faith, many people who observe them won't go to work or school. While practicing Jews are likely to take off from work or school, the burden often falls to them to ensure things like important meetings, work retreats, or school conferences are not scheduled on the Holy Days.

If you don't celebrate these holidays yourself, consider these inclusive tips to ensure your Jewish friends, coworkers, neighbors, or students feel supported this time of year.

  • Look ahead: Because the High Holy Days are different each year, make sure to look ahead when planning an activity in September or October.
  • Be courteous: Not sure if someone in a group is Jewish? Ask the whole group if there are dates that you should watch out for when planning an event.
  • Stay open minded: Just because someone is Jewish doesn't mean they celebrate all the holidays, so let them tell you what they need.
  • Participate: If you know someone is Jewish, wish them a "Shanah Tovah!" Or ask if there's something you can do to celebrate with them.
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