History of the High Holidays

A version of this post was originally published as a brochure by the Society for Humanistic Judaism. Those seeking more information are encouraged to read The Guide to Jewish Holy Days by Hayyim Schauss. Or you can see what I’ll be talking about this year.

Origins

At the beginning of human counting of time, the passage of years was less important than the changing of seasons and the harvests of animals and plants. Thus in some of the earliest passages describing Jewish holidays, they are the festivals of harvest: The Feast of Ingathering (later Sukkot), The Feast of Harvesting (later Shavuot), and the Feast of Matsa (later Passover). It was only later that the greater demands of more complex civilization required that people mark the beginning and end of a year.

As far as we can tell, the Jewish New Year used to be in the spring: Passover is described at taking place “In the first month on the fourteenth of the month” (Lev. 23:5). And the first kernel of what was later designated as the Jewish New Year was described as taking place in the seventh month:

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you will have a sabbath, a memorial of blowing horns [Teruah], a holy gathering. . .Also the tenth day of the month is the Day of Atonement [Yom ha-Kippurim]; it shall be a holy gathering, and you will afflict your souls, and make a fire offering to YHVH. (Lev. 23:23-27)

So a ten day period was marked in the seventh month, and the end of it was a day of self-affliction. But this was not the end of the Fall holidays: on the fifteenth of the month, a festival of seven days called Sukkot is decreed. Why the seventh month, and why all of these holidays in a row? Some speculate that it was connected to the priestly fixation with the number seven (for example, the average week), but that doesn’t explain the solemnity. In fact, this period marked the beginning of the rainy season in Israel, a real matter of life and death for ancient farmers. Thus to be right with one’s god was particularly important when he was deciding when and whether to send the rains. And it was later that the large fall festival was divided into three parts. We can also note that following a luni-solar calendar like the post-exilic Jewish/Babylonian calendar (355 days) but beginning in the spring, the first day of the 7th month is the very mid-point of the calendar – an auspicious time for atonement.

As what would become the High Holidays developed, they became some of the major festivals of the Jewish Year, and the most important moment of the year would occur during the Yom ha-Kippurim service at the Temple in Jerusalem: Having assembled the people by blasts of the Shofar [ram’s horn], a traditional instrument, the High Priest would pronounce the sacred, ineffable name of Yahveh and enter the Holiest of Holies to sacrifice directly to the throne of Yahveh. The High Priest would also cast lots on two goats, assigning one to Yahveh as a sin offering and one to “Azazel” to be driven out into the wilderness and later thrown off a cliff (thus the origin of the ‘scapegoat’). By this time the beginning of the year had been moved to the fall, so this really marked the tail and head of the calendar.

 Rabbinic Observance

Under the Rabbis, the High Holidays took on a new name: Yamim ha-Noraim, “The Terrible/Fearful Days.” Because Jewish year now began in the fall, the first day of the “seventh” month was now the “head of the year” (Rosh Hashana, also called Yom ha-Din, or Judgment Day). And the theme of judgment became the primary theme of the New Year celebration. Here we see the idea of the Book of Life: in it is written by God or angels who will live in the next year and who will die; its opening is marked on Rosh Hashanah by the first shofar blast, and its closing by the last shofar blast in the last Yom Kippur service. The prescribed attire for Yom Kippur is the white burial shroud, and the special service for the dead reminds the living that “there but for the grace of God go they.”

Many traditions and rituals became part of the rabbinic observance of the New Year. Fast days were declared during the ten-day period, including on Yom Kippur itself. It became traditional to eat fruit (especially grapes or apples) dipped in honey for Rosh Hashanah, to bring in the new year with a sweet taste. On the day before Yom Kippur, a special chicken called a kapporet was obtained to be slaughtered and swung over the head to take away sins. On Rosh Hashanah it became traditional to read the story of the binding of Isaac [Genesis 22], emphasizing that the importance of absolute faith at a time of judgment, and on Yom Kippur the story of Jonah proclaimed that it was never too late to repent and return. On Yom Kippur, Jews would also walk by flowing rivers and empty their pockets of breadcrumbs in a ceremony called Tashlikh, casting their sins out into the water which would carry them away. Finally, one of the most emotionally powerful rituals of the Jewish New Year became the singing of Kol Nidre (All my vows). Originally a legal formula intended to absolve the individual of vows that had been agreed to in good faith but for some reason or another had not been completed, the text of Kol Nidre became inseparably connected in Ashkenazic Judaism with a beautiful, haunting melody. For most Jews today, Yom Kippur without the music of Kol Nidre simply is not Yom Kippur.

Humanistic Judaism

Clearly, Humanistic Judaism demands some creativity and innovation to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For many years, secular Jews in fact abandoned them as un-redeemable, holidays that were Jewish but too innately pious and theistic to preserve. Today, Humanistic Jews celebrate the High Holidays for a variety of reasons:

  • They are a powerful way to connect with Jewish life and have become one of the strongest public signs of Jewish identity.
  • They provide an opportunity for reflection on our actions of the year before and resolution for improved conduct in the year ahead.
  • The celebration of a Jewish New Year in addition to the general New Year shows their commitment to Jewish identity.
  • The High Holidays, with their symbols that remind us of times past like the Shofar and the melody of Kol Nidre, make us feel connected to our past in a powerful way.

How do Humanistic Jews celebrate the High Holidays? Many recall the origins of the holiday as part of the holiday, celebrating the changes and developments in Jewish life throughout history. Some of the symbols and metaphors, like the kapporet ritual and the fear of judgment, have been dropped, but there is a variety of practice for the other symbols. Some Humanistic Jews fast, some are comfortable using the metaphor of the Book of Life, and others celebrate the High Holidays in their own, innovative way. In general, Humanistic Jews also have dropped the concept of being judged by the cosmos in favor of judging ourselves and making good our obligations to others. Most importantly, the High Holidays provide the opportunity to celebrate what makes us Humanistic Jews. Just as the traditional High Holidays celebrated the fundamental beliefs of traditional Jewish religion, that God will judge and keep alive those who behave, so too our Humanistic High Holidays can celebrate our commitment to Humanistic Judaism. In this way, we preserve our connections to our past and celebrate ourselves at the same event. And that is really the essence of Humanistic Judaism.

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