The Difference Between the Biggies

Even for those of us who are well acquainted with Jewish rite and ritual, it can be easy to lump together Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and in fact, they frequently are together called the “High Holidays”.  They are both at the start of the fall (in Israel and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere at least).  They are both about going to synagogue for a really, really long period of time and saying unfamiliar prayers, seat reservations and sermons, confessing sin and starting anew, time with family, and time of judgment.  But on one we eat a lot, and on the other we don’t eat at all!

Well, readers, the differences don’t stop there.

Rosh Hashanah is, according to some opinions, the day that human beings were created on earth.  So it is the “new year” and the beginning of “earth” from a very human-centric perspective.  It is the beginning of an intense period of self-reflection and repentance and is called יום הזיכרון “The Day of Rememberance.”  We hope that Gd will remember us for our good deeds and judge of favorably.  Another main theme is recognize Gd as King of the Universe.  It is, in summation, a day to justify your physical existence as a weak, flawed human being.

It is understood that Moshe went up for a second time to Mount Sinai to receive the second set of the Ten Commandments on the first of Elul, the beginning of the month of repentance leading up to the High Holidays.  He fasted for forty days and nights and came down the new set of tablets on Yom Kippur.  Moshe broke the first set upon seeing the Jews engaged in idolatry, having created a golden calf while he was away. The giving of the second tablets was a sign that the repentance of the Jewish People had been accepted by Gd.  Yom Kippur, therefore, can be understood as a time of justifying our existence and our need for Gd’s help as a wayward Jewish people, for failing to follow the commandments and for recognizing Gd as the One and Only.

I hope that these ideas can be useful to keep in mind when preparing for the High Holidays.  Together, they are part of a larger process of self-reflection and teshuvah, return, but individually, they carry their own weight as significant steps in their own respective right.


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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