A Guide for the New-ish to the Holy Days that are Jewish


Rosh Hashanah

Hebrew name means: Head of the year—idiomatically, New Year.

What’s It About? A solemn holiday beginning the calendar year with repentance from sin and the hope of renewal.

Pronounce it: Some say rashashanuh (like it’s one word) and some Rosh Ha-shah-nah.

Foods: Apples and honey, round challah with raisins, honey cake, pomegranates, pumpkins and other round foods, sweet foods. In Persian and Sephardic communities, many symbolic foods are eaten including leeks, dates, and beets. Follow this link for more multicultural customs and recipes: https://globaljews.org/blog/5-multicultural-recipes-for-rosh-hashanah/

Activities: Many Jews who never show up to synagogue the rest of the year go for the marathon of synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. One special activity that they don’t want to miss is the sounding of the shofar, or ram’s horn. At home, we eat apples dipped in honey. Many Jews send New Year’s cards for this holiday. Probably the most important activity associated with this holiday comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: trying to repair relationships and make apologies for bad behavior in the previous year.

Symbols of Holiday: The shofar or ram’s horn, apples and honey, pomegranates, the Book of Life.

Greeting? You can say Happy New Year, or try the Hebrew version, Shanah Tovah. If you want to give a more complete version of the greeting, try L’shanah tovah tikatevu, May you be inscribed for a good year (in the book of life). The Yiddish version that many Jews say is “Gut yontev.”



Yom Kippur

Hebrew name means: Day of Atonement (and Yamim Noraim means “Days of Atonement” and refers to the entire 10 days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur).

What’s It About? A fast day of prayer and collective confession.

Pronounce it: Some say yohm kee-poor, and some yohm kipper.

Foods: None. It’s a fast day! Well, families do have traditions about what to eat when the fast is over, like a dairy meal, but there’s nothing universal. Children under 13 and other people whose health might be harmed don’t fast.

Activities: : In addition to all the abstaining involved in fasting—not eating, not drinking, not washing, not wearing leather, not having sexual relations—there are a lot of things to do on Yom Kippur. Being at services gives people an opportunity to experience once-a-year melodies and traditional prayers that many people love. Focusing on interpersonal conflicts that remain unresolved, or talking with trusted friends about our struggles with painful habits are both ways in which people take action based on the themes of the holy day. For a lot of Jews who aren’t very observant, Yom Kippur is special because it’s the day they go to memorial services, called Yizkor, to honor deceased relatives.

Symbols of Holiday: Shofar, white clothing, sneakers worn with dressy clothes (because of the prohibition on leather).

Greeting? You can say Happy New Year or “have an easy fast.” Some say Shanah Tovah, which is Hebrew for Happy New Year. The more targeted greeting for Yom Kippur is Gamar hatimah tovah–a good completion to your inscription in the book of life.


Questions no one asks but should!

Do I need to go to all of it?

That would be many, many hours.  If that is more than you’re ready for, don’t feel like you haven’t done it right if you just go for a bit.  Some prefer not to go to services at all and observe on their own.  But it’s often hard to get into the right space on one’s own; it helps to be in community, even if it’s on Zoom.

What if I’m not into fasting?

Many do, many don’t.  If you decide not to, you certainly won’t be the only one.  Just don’t talk about your awesome pizza lunch with folks 😉  Some people with physical or emotional issues with fasting will choose some other area of routine, daily behavior to drop for the duration of Yom Kippur instead.

Do I need to dress in white for Yom Kippur?

Definitely not.  At Sha’ar Zahav, some do and some don’t so you won’t stick out either way.  Some wear a kittel, a burial shroud, to bring home the message of the day.

Do people really refrain from having sex?

Most people who are observing Yom Kippur frankly aren’t in the mood.  It’s pretty intense and takes up a lot of emotional and physical space.  That said, some do, some don’t.  

I heard that it’s superstitious to go to Yizkor (memorial) services if you haven’t lost someone.

That’s right-it’s a superstition.  If you’re superstitious, don’t go.  If you aren’t, go and offer strength to those in mourning and if you’re up for it, contemplate mortality.

Wow that is a lot of Hebrew.  I’m getting bored.

Yes, it can be a lot even for people who do know how to follow along.  What to do?  It’s ok to let your mind wander!  Read the English. Read poetry in the machzor (prayerbook for High Holydays) or meditate.  Let your mind wander through each month of the past year and assess what kind of person you have been and want to be.  Listen to the music. But find a way to be present.

How do I make it my own?

  • Do your own tashlich at a creek or ocean, or at home with strips of paper in a bowl of water, asking, “What do you want to leave behind from the past year? What do you want to emphasize in the coming year?” How will I get out of myself this year and relieve someone else’s pain?
  • Go on a hike and think about where you are in your life right now with your work, your loves, yourself, your communities.
  • Have a holiday dinner to celebrate the new year with foods that are symbolic of new beginnings/cycles.
  • Read a book that gets you into the introspective mood and talk about it.  My favorite is Alan Lew’s This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. 

Top 4 Pieces of Liturgy

Kol Nidre – “All Our Vows” This is the dramatic opening of Yom Kippur.  We rise and listen.

Unetanetokef – This appropriately morbid prayer reminds us that we are not in control-who will die this year?

Avinu Malkenu -“Our Father, our King”  Get beyond the regal language and ask for comfort and blessings.

Ashamnu – “For the sin we committed” People often lightly beat their chests as they say each wrongdoing.