Your Basic High Holiday FAQ

Every year they roll around, and every year you’re not quite sure what to do. Go ahead, ask us. After years of answering readers’ questions, we’ve compiled the most frequently asked ones below:

Why do synagogues charge for High Holiday tickets?

Hate to say it, but this is the most frequently asked question of all. The answer, in a nutshell: There’s no free lunch. The High Holidays are traditionally the time most Jews go to synagogue, so the ideal time to raise money to keep the synagogue afloat the rest of the year. Lights, payroll, heating, rabbis, ads in The Jewish Journal — none of it is free. See listings on page 40.

OK, so, now tell me what these holidays mean, anyway.

“Rosh Hashanah” literally translates as “head of the year.” It celebrates the creation of the world. The holiday is observed on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which usually falls in September or October, and marks the beginning of a 10-day period of prayer, self-examination and repentance, which culminates on the fast day of Yom Kippur. These 10 days are referred to as Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe or the High Holidays.

Synagogue services give us time to reflect and resolve, but prayer and meditation are not enough to bring repentance. The only way to atone for sins we commit against others is by sincerely apologizing, making good our transgressions, and asking for forgiveness.

What are Selichot?

Selichot, meaning forgiveness, are penitential prayers recited by Jews prior to the onset of the High Holiday season. They prepare us for 10 days of reflection and self-examination. Sephardim begin them in Elul, and Ashkenazim on the week before Rosh Hashanah. And you can do them in any synagogue — for free.

What is Tashlich?

Usually performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah after the afternoon service (unless it falls on the Sabbath), Tashlich is the symbolic casting away of our transgressions. We go to a flowing body of water, perform a short service asking for forgiveness and throw bread into the water (some throw rocks).

Why do we dip an apple into honey on Rosh Hashanah? And what’s with pomegranates?

Sweet apples dipped into sweet honey equal a sweet year. The numerous seeds of the pomegranates — which just happen to reach ripeness this time of year — symbolize our good deeds. Other traditional foods for this time of year are round challahs (symbolizing a complete, whole year) and, among Sephardic Jews, whole fish.

What is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.” “The tenth of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement for you” (Leviticus 23:27). Yom Kippur is observed by abstaining from work, by fasting and by attending communal prayers.

Why do we fast on Yom Kippur?

The Torah commands us to afflict our bodies on this holiday.

Why do we blow the shofar?

The shofar is made from a ram’s horn. It is sounded every morning during the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, on Rosh Hashanah itself and again at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. Its piercing sound is a “wake-up call” to repent.

What is Kol Nidre?

Erev Yom Kippur services begin with Kol Nidre, the opening prayer and also the name of the evening service. Kol Nidre is an Aramaic declaration that nullifies all the vows and promises that each person will make to God and to him/herself in the coming year, an acknowledgment of the weakness of human resolution. Wearing white is common on Kol Nidre as a symbol of purity.

What is Yizkor?

Yizkor is a service that recalls loved ones who have died and is recited on Yom Kippur.

How do we atone for our sins?

Yom Kippur atones only for sins between humanity and God, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, you must first apologize, righting the wrongs you committed if possible. This must all be done before the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

What is the Jewish definition of sin?

In Judaism, the word “sin” has different connotations than it does in our wider culture. “Sin” in Judaism is generally not something for which a person will be punished in the afterlife, but is rather an improper act for which one can ask forgiveness — not just of God, but of other human beings, as well.

If I skip services on the High Holidays, will a lightening bolt strike me?

Yes. Just kidding. For more information, link to sites like and visit — Staff Report