The two-day Jewish new year celebration began in 2018 on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 9, and ended on the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 11.
Strictly speaking, Rosh Hashana (“the head of the year”) only marks the start of the Jewish civil calendar; the holiday begins on the first day of Tishrei, which is the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year. It also marks the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days or “Days of Awe,” the sacred season described in Leviticus 23:23-32.
The High Holy Days culminate with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), on the 10th day of Tishrei. This year, Yom Kippur will begin at sunset on Tuesday, Sept. 18, and close at nightfall on Wednesday, Sept. 19. It is the holiest and most solemn day of the Jewish calendar.
The other crucial text for the holiday of Yom Kippur is found in Leviticus 16:29-31:
“And this shall be a statute for ever unto you: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, ye shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you:
“For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that ye may be clean from all your sins before the Lord.
“It shall be a sabbath of rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls, by a statute for ever.”
Traditionally, the 25 hours of Yom Kippur are devoted to fasting, prayer, charitable giving, family time and participation in special worship services, seeking forgiveness of sins. No bathing or washing is permitted, although some Jews undergo cleansing ritual immersions just prior to the holiday. Anointing with lotions or perfumes is also prohibited, as are marital relations and, rather curiously, the wearing of leather footwear. Some, however, wear symbolic death shrouds, while others don white, representing purity.
Fasting and other such observances are intended to make the body uncomfortable. But that isn’t their goal, as such. Their purpose is to make the soul uncomfortable — or, in the biblical description, to “afflict” it — thus not only priming it for repentance but making it more aware of the suffering of others and, as a result, more sympathetic.
On Rosh Hashana, according to Jewish tradition, God writes the fate of each human soul for the next year into the Book of Life. But the entries are not final until Yom Kippur; they can still be changed. Hence the urgent need for pious Jews to try to repent and improve, and to seek forgiveness for whatever offenses they may have committed against God and their fellow mortals. The prayers of Yom Kippur are focused on the confession of guilt and on petitioning, both privately and publicly, for mercy.
The entire Old Testament book of Jonah is read as part of the liturgy for Yom Kippur, because of its emphasis on God’s forgiveness for those who repent.
Another striking element of Yom Kippur is its connection with the ancient temple. Jewish priests are no longer available to “make atonement” in the temple, which hasn’t existed for nearly 2,000 years. Part of the synagogue ritual consists of reciting detailed accounts of the ancient sacrificial service — a substitute for actual sacrifices that can no longer be performed. In Orthodox services and in some conservative synagogues, the congregation prostrates itself — lies flat, at full length, on the floor as a token of submission — whenever the recitation reaches the point at which the ancient high priest would have spoken the name of God in the temple.
At the end of the holiday, just before sunset, a closing prayer is offered. (The “gates of prayer” are said to close at about this time.) The “shema” is then recited (“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord,” from Deuteronomy 6:4), and a ram’s horn shofar is sounded. That concludes Yom Kippur and the High Holy Days altogether.
Alongside its obvious deep religious significance, Yom Kippur carries enormous cultural weight. For this reason, notwithstanding the rigors associated with the holy day, even many secular, non-practicing Jews observe Yom Kippur. Synagogue attendance often rises dramatically.
A common wish for the High Holy Days is that somebody be “written in the Book of Life.” However, says the ancient Jewish Talmud, “Yom Kippur atones for those who repent and does not atone for those who do not repent.”