11 questions about the Jewish High Holidays you were too embarrassed to ask

A father of a student at Judy Gordon Nursery School at Temple Israel of Natick sang songs and blew the shofar to celebrate Yom Kippur.
A father of a student at Judy Gordon Nursery School at Temple Israel of Natick sang songs and blew the shofar to celebrate Yom Kippur. –The Boston Globe

As a Jewish person, it can get a bit tiring to answer the same questions from non-Jewish friends again and again about the Jewish holidays. So to speed up everyone’s understanding, here’s all you need to know about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, also known as the High Holidays.

1. What are the High Holidays?

The High Holidays are two different holidays, separated over the course of 10 days. The first is Rosh Hashanah, a two-day celebration of the Jewish new year. Eight days after that, we have Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanah starts on the night of Sunday September 13 this year, and Yom Kippur starts Tuesday night September 22.


2. Jewish new year? Wait, Jews have a different year?

Yeah, the Jewish religion follows a separate, lunar-based calendar. That’s why holidays like Hanukkah move around the Gregorian (i.e. “regular’’) calendar every year, which gave us the rare gift of a combined Thanksgiving/Hanukkah celebration two years ago. Thanksgivukkah, we will miss you.

The Jewish calendar is also different in that each day is defined to start at sunset, rather than at midnight. That’s why Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur start at night.

3. Do I really need to know about the High Holidays? How many Jews are there in the Boston area?

About 210,000 Jews live in the Greater Boston area, according to a 2005 study from Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University. (Only about half of those got their degree from Brandeis.)

Basically, there are enough Jews in the area that someone you know will celebrate the High Holidays.

Dip some apple slices in honey for a traditional Rosh Hashanah snack, symbolizing the coming sweet year. —Karoline Boehm-Goodnick for The Boston Globe

4. What’s so big about these High Holidays?

For Jews, these are the biggest and most important holidays of the year. Most secular Jews even go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

5. Even bigger than Hanukkah?

The High Holidays are way more important than Hanukkah. The biggest thing going for Hanukkah is that it comes at the same time of the year as Christmas, making it a widely-celebrated holiday by proxy. But Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the real heavy hitters of the Jewish holiday schedule.


6. So do we get the day off for the High Holidays?

It depends where you live. In most towns, including Brookline, Newton, and Cambridge, public schools were canceled for Rosh Hashanah last year. Still, there are occasionally major events scheduled to take place on the same for the High Holidays. For example, in 2009, a major statewide running competition was held on Rosh Hashanah, and so religious Jews couldn’t participate. Oops.

7. What do Jews do on Rosh Hashanah?

Mostly, go to synagogue, reflect on life, and spend time with family. There’s also a lot of really good food to be eaten, including the traditional combo of apples and honey. That mix is supposed to symbolize the hope that the new year will be sweet. It’s also just delicious.

8. Any other fun traditions?

Absolutely! A lot of families also cook big beef briskets, potato kugel, or other Jewish cultural foods. Bagels and lox are encouraged.

There’s also the shofar, a loud, bugle-like noisemaker made from a ram’s horn. The shofar is like a call to attention, and everyone in synagogue stands and gets quiet to hear the call. Here’s what it sounds like when a pro blows the shofar:

They also make for nice playthings for little kids. Fair warning, though: They really are quite loud. Here’s what it sounds like when a non-pro tries to blow the shofar:

9. Sounds fun! What about Yom Kippur?

On Yom Kippur, you don’t drink or eat anything for a whole day. You’re encouraged to reflect on your own faults, apologize to people you’ve wronged, and generally think about all the things you said you would do but failed to do over the past year.


10. Oh. Sounds…great?

Yom Kippur – or the Day of Atonement, as it’s sometimes called – isn’t supposed to be a fun holiday. It’s meant to be meaningful and a way to think about how to be a better person for the coming year.

There is a big feast at the end of the fast, with all the food you could ever imagine, (and which you’ve in fact been imagining the entire, hunger-filled day). Starve yourself for a day and that chocolate cake is twice as delicious.

11. Alright, so how can I impress my Jewish friends?

Here are some things you can say to them that they’ll appreciate:

Phrase: “L’shanah tova!’’ – Pronounced: le-SHAH-nah TOE-vah. Meaning: Have a good new year!

Phrase: “L’shanah tova umetukah!’’ – Pronounced: le-SHAH-nah TOE-vah oo-MEH-too-kah. Meaning: Have a good and sweet new year! (The extra “and sweet’’ really adds credibility.)

Phrase: “Chag sameach!’’ – Pronounced: chag sah-MEH-ach. (Note that the “ch’’ sound comes from the back of the throat, like hocking a loogie.) Meaning: Happy holiday!

Phrase: “gut yontef.’’ Pronounced: Good YUN-tiff. Meaning: Have a good holiday, but in Yiddish.

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