Judaism For Dummies
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Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish new year — and Yom Kippur (which follows ten days later) are together called the "High Holidays." They are among the most important and holiest days of the Jewish year. For over 2,000 years, the High Holidays have been celebrated as a time for judgment, remembrance, and teshuvah ("return" or "repentance"). While every other Jewish holiday commemorates a transition in nature or a historic event, the High Holidays don't — they focus on people and their relationship with God.

What Rosh Hashanah means

While new year's celebrations in most cultures are boisterous events, Rosh Hashanah is a solemn time — solemn, but not sad. In fact, there's great happiness on this day, but this happiness is typically honored in quiet ways because of the focus on judgment. To reflect this solemnity, Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom Ha-Zikaron ("The Day of Remembrance") and Yom Ha-Din ("The Day of Judgment").

Rosh Hashanah is the time to pull out your calendar, review your year, and consider how you might have wronged others or might be falling short of your potential. It's a time to judge yourself and your actions over the preceding year.

The most important aspect of Rosh Hashanah isn't the judgment, though, but the teshuvah, the return, renewal, or repentance that each Jew is called to. This isn't just another "I promise to do better in the future" kind of response. It's a serious stab at beginning the process of forgiveness and of forgiving others. The process continues through Yom Kippur.

Celebrating Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are every synagogue's busiest times of the year, and tickets are usually required, to be purchased in advance. It has become an international Jewish pastime to complain about how expensive these tickets are, but really, they wouldn't charge so much if it wasn't necessary for the survival of the synagogue. If you really can't afford a ticket, call ahead and ask if it's okay to pay less. Most congregations don't want to turn anyone away.

There are various ways to wish your Jewish friends a happy new year:

  • Shanah Tovah is Hebrew for "Happy New Year."

  • L'shanah tovah tikateyvu v'tichatemu is a Hebrew blessing meaning "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year."

  • Others just use the Yiddish Gut Yuntoff ("Good Holiday") or Gut Yor! ("A Good Year").

  • It's also traditional to send Shanah Tovah cards to friends and relatives.

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