Repentance and rebirth: Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana keystones to Jewish faith

Karen Sorensen

According to the Jewish calendar, the new year of 5771 begins at sunset Sept. 8. Known as Rosh Hashana, it’s a day of celebration and renewal. Before the fate of the upcoming year is sealed, however, Jews undertake 10 days of repentance that culminate with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Rabbi Michael Paley, the United Jewish Association Federation’s scholar in residence, answers some questions about these all-important Jewish holidays:

Q. How do you celebrate Rosh Hashana?

A. It’s a family holiday in which people humble themselves before God, review the past year and pray for a successful new year. Many go to synagogue for an expanded prayer service, and a shofar or ram’s horn is blown 100 times to “awaken” the faithful.

Q. Besides the shofar, what other rituals are involved?

A. Practitioners wear white and during the prayer service prostrate themselves on the floor, a literal humbling at the feet of God. Pieces of bread are thrown into flowing water – a river or creek – to symbolically cast off the previous year’s sins.

Q. What about food?

A. Apples dipped in honey are traditional because they represent the desire for a “sweet” new year. Because Rosh Hashana translates to “head of the year,” some will eat the head of a fish to “see their lives more clearly.”

Q. And the period that follows are the “Days of Awe?”

A. Yes. It’s believed God has books in which he writes down who will live and die and who will have a good life and bad in the new year. God does not “seal” the books until Yom Kippur so people can influence their fate by repenting their sins, doing good deeds and asking those they’ve wronged for forgiveness.

Q. What happens on Yom Kippur?

The faithful undertake a 25-hour fast (no eating, drinking, bathing, lotions, perfume, sex or wearing leather shoes) that begins at sunset. It’s a “simulation of your death” to scare you into atoning for your sins and changing your life. Five prayer services are conducted, and at the end a shofar is blown in one long note.