Being in Israel during the High Holidays is seeing the country in a way that most news channels never show it. Israel is not about conflicts and wars. It is the home of the Jewish people and there’s no better time to witness it then during the High Holidays.
The High Holidays are the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the first and the second days of the new Jewish year. Yom Kippur is observed ten days later. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are celebrated in the Jewish month of Tishrei on the Jewish calendar (September – October).
The Mishnah describes Rosh Hashanah as the “day of judgment”. In the Talmud tractate on Rosh Hashanah, it states that three books of account are opened on Rosh Hashanah, wherein the fate of the wicked, the righteous, and those of an intermediate class are recorded. The names of the righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life and they are sealed “to live.” The intermediate class are allowed a respite of ten days, until Yom Kippur, to reflect, repent and become righteous; the wicked are “blotted out of the book of the living forever.”
Since the Jewish calendar and the Gregorian calendar are not synchronized, each year, Jewish holidays are celebrated on different dates on the Gregorian calendar (see The Evolution of the Hebrew Calendar). One of the most searched items by Jews on the internet is when exactly the High Holidays are celebrated on a given year, as Jewish people will travel long distances to celebrate the High Holidays with their families and will plan for it months in advance. One of the most popular destinations during the Holidays is Israel. Airline tickets gets very expensive the closer it is to Rosh Hashanah.
Coming to Israel during the High Holidays is a different experience. During this period Israelis seek forgiveness from others and do mitzvot (good deeds) to win merit in God’s eyes. It is a purely religious and introspective holiday period, with no “secular” aspect at all, unlike other Jewish holidays. Unlike other holidays, which have one holy day on which businesses are closed, Rosh Hashanah is a two-day holiday, and businesses in Israel are closed on both days.
Thousands Jewish people from all around the world pray at the Wall (Kotel in Hebrew) durign a period called Selichot (forgiveness) on the days leading to Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah (literally “head of the year”) is the Jewish New Year. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah, literally “day [of] shouting/blasting”. Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of mankind’s role inG‑d’s world. Rosh Hashanah thus emphasizes the special relationship between G‑d and humanity. The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, which also represents the trumpet blast of a people’s coronation of their king. The cry of the shofar is also a call to repentance, for Rosh Hashanah is also the anniversary of man’s first sin and his repentance thereof, and serves as the first of the “Ten Days of Repentance” which culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashanahvis also the anniversary of the Binding of Isaac, in which a ram took Isaac’s place as an offering to G‑d.
On Rosh Hashanah Jews pray for a year of life, health and prosperity. Altogether, there are one hundred shofar blasts over the course of the Rosh Hashanah services. It is customary to eat a piece of apple dipped in honey, to symbolize our desire for a sweet year.
On Rosh Hashanah Jews wish each other Lashanah tovah v’metucha – a happy and sweet New Year. Until a few years ago Jews used to send “Shana Tova” greeting cards to their friends and relatives wishing them health, happiness and prosperity for the new year. Today this custom has all but disappeared. Israelis prefer to use the telephone or e-mail. One way or the other, it is customary for Jews to wish everyone they meet during this New Year period a “Shana Tova” – a good new year. Even secular Israelis who do not go to synagogue services have a holiday meal on the Rosh Hashanah evening, with fine wine, apple dipped in honey and other sweet dishes. It is customary to eat pomegranate, as a symbol of a plentiful year, the head of a fish, symbolizing the desire to keep ahead, and other symbolic foods.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. It is the Day of Atonement. For nearly twenty-six hours—from several minutes before sunset on 9 Tishrei to after nightfall on 10 Tishrei Jews abstain from food and drink, do not wash, do not wear leather footwear, and abstain from marital relations. The day is the most solemn of the year, Jews pray that G‑d will accept their repentance, forgive their sins, and seal their verdict for a year of life, health and happiness.
Yom Kippur marks the end of the “Ten Days of Repentance,” or the “High Holidays,” and grants Jews a last opportunity to obtain forgiveness and absolution for their sins in the previous year. According to Jewish belief, on Yom Kippur judgment is passed on each person for the coming year. In order to be worthy of forgiveness from sins, this day is devoted to spiritual repentance and a commitment to start the new year with a clean conscience, secure in the knowledge that God forgives every person who truly regrets his misdeeds.
Even though most of the Jewish population in Israel is not religiously observant, Yom Kippur has and remains a special day for all and has retained its unique character. Many Jews who define themselves as secular and do not visit the synagogue all year long, go to prayer services on the special day, and many also observe the fast, completely or partially.
To really experience how special Yom Kippur is for the Jewish people, one must spend the holiday in Israel where the country comes to a standstill. On Yom Kippur everything really stops in Israel. There is no commerce. Non-observant Jews and observant Jews alike respect the holiday. It is not illegal to drive on that day, but it is highly unusual. Out of respect, even people who do not observe Yom Kippur will not drive their cars unless it is a life or death situation. On Yom Kippur, you could hear a pin drop all around the country, as not a single store, business, bus or car is in motion. Children look forward to the one day they can freely ride their bikes down the middle of the street.
In secular Israeli neighborhoods, from sundown to sundown the streets are full of people strolling or cycling; on suburban streets or along 10 lane highways. Even non-observant Israelis, for just one day a year, do not to drive except for dire emergencies. The main TV and radio stations stop their broadcasts, Israeli websites do not post new information, stores are closed and people either spend the day in synagogues or at home. Not everyone is praying, but most people are fasting.
Egypt and Syria launched their surprize attack on Israel in 1973 on Yom Kippur, knowing that most Israelis won’t be listening to radios or answer their phones, making an emergency military draft by the IDF a difficult operation. (see The difficult war that brought peace: The Yom Kippur War of October 1973).
The video seen here is a great way to really understand what is Yom Kippur in Israel. The two-minute video shows how the busy streets of the secular city Tel-Aviv, and the usually crowded beaches look deserted on Yom Kippur – Unbelievable.