5 Significant Jewish Holidays – What Do They Mean?

Every fall, the Jewish year begins anew. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of this cycle, Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, Sukkot is the fall harvest festival, and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah conclude the cycle. The following is only a brief look at the rich and meaningful histories and traditions of these holy days:

 Rosh Hashanah

 Rosh Hashanah, literally the “Head of the Year,” is also known as the Jewish New Year. In ancient times, Jews celebrated four “new years:” Rosh Hashanah, on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei; Tu B’Shevat, or the “New Year of the Trees,” in the middle of the month of Shevat; the first day of Nisan, which coincides with the historical Exodus from Egypt celebrated at Passover; and the first day of the summer month of Elul, which marked the time of paying tithes for cattle.

Rosh HashanahRosh Hashanah begins the 10-day period known as the High Holidays, the High Holy Days, or the “Days of Awe,” which conclude with Yom Kippur. Observant Jews consider this season the holiest of the year. Orthodox and Conservative Jews observe Rosh Hashanah for two days; Reform Jews, and those living in Israel, typically only count the first day of Tishrei as the holiday.

Tradition says that Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of God’s creation of the world, and of Adam and Eve. Jews spend the day in synagogue, in prayer, study, and contemplation. The special High Holiday prayer book, or machzor, contains the traditional prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and the service is marked by the cantor’s recitation of distinctive and deeply moving melodies specific to the season. Prayers include the hauntingly beautiful Avinu Malkeinu (“God, Our King”), and a number of liturgical poems, known as “piyyutim.”

On Rosh Hashanah, congregants gather to hear the sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn, whose tropes are designed to invite contemplation and repentance. At the conclusion of the Rosh Hashanah service, Jews typically go to a body of flowing water to recite the prayers of tashlich, in which they symbolically cast away their sins of the previous year.

The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the time to make amends with anyone whom one’s conduct over the previous year may have injured or offended. Referring to the fate of each individual, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer says, “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”

Foods typically eaten on Rosh Hashanah include apples dipped in honey – a treat beloved by generations of Jewish children – and round (rather than the typically oblong) challah loaves.

Yom Kippur

The most solemn day in the entire Jewish calendar is traditionally marked by fasting from all food and drink, and abstention from specified activities associated with daily comforts and pleasures. Observant Jews spend all or most of the day in synagogue, deeply immersed in prayer. Most religious authorities say that on this day, a Jew is the closest he or she can be both to God and to his or her own best self. This Day of Atonement lasts from a few minutes before sundown on the ninth of Tishrei until after nightfall on the following evening.

The Yom Kippur evening service begins with the beautiful and deeply meaningful prayer called Kol Nidrei in the Aramaic language of the prayer book; it literally means “All Vows.” Many Jews find that the melody of this prayer alone can send shivers up and down the spine. Hundreds of years ago, Jews recited this prayer in order to absolve themselves of vows made under duress, often those made when they converted to another religion under threat of death. Today’s rabbis often focus on the prayer as a moment of opening oneself to ask for, and receive, God’s mercy.

dinner table

In preparation for Yom Kippur, observant Jews eat and drink abundantly, in order to sustain themselves throughout the fast. Because of the central Jewish value of preserving life, ill, elderly, and pregnant congregants are not required to fast. Children below bar mitzvah age also typically do not fast.

The conclusion of the Yom Kippur service is distinguished by the moving metaphor of the closing of the gates, “Neilah,” which literally means “locking.” At this time, the gates of heaven are said to be closing, with the souls of the repentant safe within them.


Sukkot takes place from the 15th to the 21st day of Tishrei, and commemorates the ancient Israelites’ dwelling in temporary booth-like shelters, or sukkahs, for the 40 years of desert wandering. God’s spirit protected these ancestors, so in commemoration, a Jewish family today may construct a hut in the backyard and have all their meals in it for the full week of the festival. The sukkah’s roof is thinly thatched with branches, so that those within can see the stars. Another tradition involves the ceremonial shaking of the lulav, a bundle consisting of the “four species:” an etrog, or citron; a palm frond, called the lulav; and branches of willow and myrtle.

Shemini Atzeret

Shemini Atzeret follows the conclusion of Sukkot, and itself concludes with Simchat Torah. Shemini Atzeret, which means “assembly of the eighth day [of Sukkot],” features a traditional prayer for rain to fall, to help the land of Israel bloom.

Simchat Torah

The name of this holiday means “rejoicing in the Torah,” and that is exactly how it is celebrated. Congregations complete their yearly cycle of Torah readings with the last portion in Deuteronomy, and begin again at Genesis. The entire congregation enjoys a parade (“hakafot”) around the synagogue to honor the Torah. The holiday is filled with dancing, singing, and often an unrolling of the entire Torah scroll, lovingly supported on the hands of the congregants.