Originally published in Mircea Eliade (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), vol. 12, pp. 473-6.
RO’SH HA-SHANAH AND YOM KIPPUR, holy days prominent in the Jewish religious calendar, mark the beginning of the new year and set off the special period traditionally designated for self-scrutiny and repentance. They are referred to as Yamim Nora’im (“days of awe”), the time when the numinous aspect of Judaism comes into its own.
Ro’sh ha-Shanah. Ro’sh ha-Shanah (“head of the year,” i.e., New Year) is the name given in postbiblical times to the biblical festival of the first day of the seventh month (counting from the spring month of the Exodus from Egypt) and described (Lv. 23:23-25, Nm. 19:1-6) as a day of blowing the horn. The postbiblical name is based on Talmudic teachings that on this day all mankind is judged for its fortunes in the coming year. For this reason Ro’sh ha-Shanah is also called Yom ha-Din (“day of judgment”). Biblical scholars, exploring the origins of the festival, have noted the parallels with ancient Near Eastern agricultural festivities in the autumn and the enthronement ceremonies of the king as the representative of the god Baal or Marduk. According to the critical view, references to the festival occur in sections of the Pentateuch known as the Priestly code, which is postexilic and hence could well have been influenced by Babylonian practices. Such theories remain, however, conjectural. In Nehemiah 8:1-8 there is a vivid description of the dramatic occasion when the Israelites who had returned from Babylonian captivity renewed their covenant with God. Ezra read from the Torah on this first day of the seventh month; the people, conscious of their shortcomings, were distressed at hearing the demands of the Law, but Nehemiah reassured them: “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord; neither be ye grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). These are the antecedents of the festival as it later developed (held on the first and second days of the autumnal month of Tishri), a day of both joy and solemnity. The day also became known as Yom ha-Zikkaron (“day of remembrance”) because on it God remembers his creatures.
The themes of God as king and judge of the universe and the need for repentance all feature prominently in the Ro’sh ha-Shanah liturgy. The special additional prayer consists of three groups of verses and prayers: (1) malkhuyyot (“sovereignties,” in which God is hailed as king), (2) zikhronot (“remembrances,” in which God is said to remember his creatures), (3) shofarot (“trumpet sounds,” which refer to the blowing of the horn). A popular medieval interpretation of these three is that they represent the three cardinal principles of the Jewish faith: belief in God, in reward and punishment (God “remembers” man’s deeds), and in revelation (the horn was sounded when the Law was given at Sinai, as stated in Exodus 19:16). Another prayer of the day looks forward to the messianic age, when the kingdom of heaven will be established and all wickedness will vanish from the earth. In a hymn recited on both Ro’sh haShanah and Yom Kippur, continuing with the judgment theme, God is spoken of as the great shepherd tending his flock. He decides on Ro’sh ha-Shanah, and sets the seal on Yom Kippur, “who shall live and who shall die; who shall suffer and who shall be tranquil; who shall be rich and who poor; who shall be cast down and who elevated.” At various stages in the liturgy of Ro’sh haShanah and Yom Kippur there are prayers to be inscribed in the Book of Life, based on a Talmudic passage stating that the average person whose fate is in the balance has the opportunity during the period from Ro’sh ha-Shanah to Yom Kippur to avert the “evil decree” by repentance, prayer, and charity. These days, including Ro’sh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, are consequently known as the Ten Days of Penitence, the period for turning to God and for special strictness in religious observances. The verse “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found” (Is. 55:6) is applied especially to this time of the year.
The central ritual of the Ro’sh ha-Shanah festival is the ceremony of blowing the shofar. Although the shofar may be fashioned from the horn of several kosher animals, a ram’s horn, reminiscent of the ram sacrificed by Abraham in place of Isaac, is preferred. Many attempts have been made to explain the significance of the rite; Maimonides’ is typical:
Although it is a divine decree that we blow the shofar on Ro’sh ha-Shanah, a hint of the following idea is contained in the command. It is as if to say: “Awake from your slumbers, you who have fallen asleep in life, and reflect on your deeds. Remember your Creator. Be not of those who miss reality in the pursuit of shadows, who waste their years seeking vain things that neither profit nor deliver. Look well to your souls, and improve your actions, Let each of you forsake his evil ways and thoughts,” (Code of Law, Repentance 3.4)
The shofar is sounded a number of times during the synagogue service. The three basic notes are teqi’ah (a long, drawn-out note, signifying hope and triumph), shevarim (a broken set of short notes), and teru’ah (a set of even shorter notes that, like shevarim, represents weeping). First, the teqi’ah suggesting firm commitment to God’s laws is sounded followed by the two weeping sounds as man reflects on his sins and failings, and finally a second teqi’ah is blown signifying confidence in God’s pardon where there is sincere repentance.
At the festive meal on Ro’sh ha-Shanah it is customary to dip bread in honey and to eat other sweet things while praying for “a good and sweet year.” In some places the celebrants eat fish to symbolize the good deeds they hope will proliferate like fish in the sea in the year ahead. An ancient custom is to go to the seaside or riverside on the afternoon of the first day of Ro’sh ha-Shanah, there to cast away the sins of the previous year. This is based on Micah 7:19, a verse that speaks of God casting away the sins of the people into the depths of the sea.
Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur (“day of atonement”) is the culmination of the penitential season, the day of repentance and reconciliation between man and God and between man and his neighbor. It is the most hallowed day in the Jewish year and is still observed by the majority of Jews, even those who are otherwise lax in religious practices. In Temple times, elaborate sacrificial and purgatory rites, described in Leviticus 16, were carried out. The high priest entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple, where no other person was allowed to enter under pain of death, to make atonement for his people. A whole tractate of the Mishnah (Yoma’) describes in greater detail the Temple service on Yom Kippur. The Mishnah was compiled over one hundred and fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple, but at least some of the material does represent the actual practice in the Second Temple period. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the day became one of prayer and worship. The reference to “afflicting the soul” (Lv. 16:29) on this day is understood as an injunction to fast. No food or drink is taken from sunset on the ninth of Tishri until nightfall on the tenth. Other “afflictions” practiced are abstaining from marital relations, from wearing leather shoes, and from bathing.
The ninth of Tishri, the day before Yom Kippur, is devoted to preparation for the fast. On this day, festive meals are eaten both for the purpose of gaining strength for the fast and to celebrate the pardon Yom Kippur brings. In Talmudic teaching, Yom Kippur does not bring atonement for offenses against other human beings unless the victims have pardoned the offenders. It is the practice, consequently, for people to ask forgiveness of one another on the day before the fast. The custom of kapparot (“atonements”) is carried out in the morning. The procedure is to take a cockerel, wave it around the head three times, and recite “This shall be instead of me,” after which the cockerel is slaughtered and eaten. Many medieval authorities disapproved of the practice as a pagan superstition, but it is still followed by some Jews. Others prefer to use money instead of a cockerel, and then to distribute it to the poor. Another custom still observed by some is that of malqot (“flagellation”), in which the beadle in the synagogue administers a token beating with a strap as atonement for sin. Many pious Jews, in preparation for the fast, immerse themselves in a miqveh (ritual bath) as a purification rite. Before leaving for the synagogue, as the fast begins, parents bless their children.
In the majority of synagogues, services are several hours long on Yom Kippur night, and continue without pause during the day from early morning until the termination of the fast. The evening service begins with the Kol Nidrei (“all vows”), a declaration in Aramaic to the effect that all religious promises that will be undertaken in the year ahead are hereby declared null and void. This was introduced as a means of discouraging such vows since a promise made to God had dire consequences if broken. Throughout the day hymns and religious poems composed over many centuries are chanted. These consist of praises, supplications, martyrologies, and, especially, confessions of sin. A prominent feature of the additional service (Musaf) is the remembering of the Temple service on Yom Kippur. At the stage that relates how the high priest would utter the divine name and the people would then fall on their faces, the members of the congregation kneel and then prostrate themselves. This is the only occasion nowadays when there is prostration in the synagogue. At the late-afternoon service, Jonah is read as a lesson that none can escape God’s call and that he has mercy even on the most wicked if they sincerely repent. The day ends with Ne’ilah (“closing”), a special service signifying that the gates of heaven, open to prayer all day, are about to close. At this particularly solemn time of the day, the worshipers make an urgent effort to be close to God, many standing upright for the hour or so of this service. As the sun sets, the congregation cries out aloud seven times: “The Lord he is God.” Then the shofar is sounded to mark the termination of the fast.
White, the color of purity and mercy, is used on Yom Kippur for the vestments of the scrolls of the Torah and the ark in which the scrolls are kept as well as for the coverings in the synagogue. Traditional Jews wear white robes; in fact, these are shrouds to remind man of his mortality. This tradition serves a main theme of Yom Kippur: human life is frail and uncertain, but one can place trust in God and share in God’s goodness forever. Since the festival of Sukkot falls a few days after Yom Kippur, it is advised that as soon as the worshipers return home from the synagogue and before breaking the fast, they should make some small preparation for the erection of the Sukkot booths and so proceed immediately after the day of pardon to do a good deed. [See also Atonement, article on Jewish Concepts.]
Norman H. Snaith’s The Jewish New Year Festival (London, 1947) considers the views of the myth and ritual school that Ro’sh ha-Shanah had its origin in enthronement ceremonies. Two useful little books of my own are A Guide to Ro’sh HaShanah (London, 1959) and A Guide to Yom Kippur (London, 1957). A good survey of the liturgical themes of Ro’sh haShanah and Yom Kippur is Max Arzt’s Justice and Mercy (New York, 1963). The anthology by S. Y. Agnon has been translated into English as Days of Awe (New York, 1948). Two anthologies with comprehensive bibliographies are Philip Goodman’s The Ro’sh Hashanah Anthology (Philadelphia, 1970) and The Yom Kippur Anthology (Philadelphia, 1971).