Imagine someone saying to you, “Your life is a do-over. You’ve got a clean slate.” That’s just what Billy Crystal says to a friend complaining of the waste of his life in the 1991 hit, City Slickers.

Most of us, at one point or another, wish we could have that do-over. Well, in the Jewish calendar, God says to us, “Your life is a do-over.” If not exactly giving us a clean slate, the High Holy Days invite us at least to learn from the blessings as well as the errors of our past and start anew.

When are the High Holy Days?
The High Holy Days begin on the 1st day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (somewhere in the range of early September to early October on the Gregorian calendar by which we live in the USA), near the autumnal equinox. However, the process of preparing for the do-over actually begins in the last month of the Jewish calendar, Elul, which precedes Tishrei. This month is devoted to reflection and thought about the mistakes we have made in the past year. Traditional observances include special daily prayers as well as the unique, spiritually uplifting S’lichot service.

What happens on Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year’s Day)?
At the end of those 30 days, the new year begins. It is customary to have a family dinner and to attend services in the evening and again the following day. Rosh HaShanah includes many important moments and motifs: being awakened from our complacence with our own bad tendencies by the sound of the blowing of a ram’s horn (the shofar); prayers reminding us that in this universe, amidst all the things we cannot control, there lies the one thing which we can – our own conduct. It’s sort of like the secular custom of making resolutions, but the process is deeper and, hopefully, the intention more serious and effective!

How do people greet one another on Rosh HaShanah?
It is customary to extend good wishes for a sweet year. In Hebrew, the greeting is “L’shanah tovah!

Is Rosh HaShanah observed with special foods?
The new year is celebrated with the traditional snack of apples and honey. The sweetness of the honey on this wonderful autumn fruit represents our wishes for a similar sweetness in the year ahead. At the family meal on erev Rosh HaShanah (the evening of the holiday, which begins at sundown of the evening before the day), it is customary to make the blessing for bread (the motsi) with a round challah (festive, braided bread) rather than the more typical loaf shape we serve on Shabbat. The round challah reminds us of the cycle of life and the hope that the next year in that cycle will be a sweet one.

What else is involved in observing Rosh HaShanah at home?
As on the Sabbath and other holidays, the evening meal is preceded by the lighting of candles and the drinking of a cup of wine. Each of these activities has an accompanying blessing.

So that’s it… right?
Not quite. Again, starting over is a serious process. Therefore, we devote a lot of time to working on getting it right. Rosh HaShanah and the 9 days which follow are called the “10 Days of Repentance (Aseret Y’mai T’shuvah)”. During this time, we are encouraged to explore the mistakes we contemplated on the New Year, make amends to those we realize we had injured and get ready to come clean with God and the universe.

Are there any special observances during the period between?
One very meaningful tradition is the practice of tashlich, a ceremony in which we go to a body of water and throw bread crumbs onto the surface as a symbol of letting go of the sins that bind us. It is also customary to wish one another the achievement of a good seal on our pages in the Book of Life for the next year – the simple form of the greeting is “G’mar tov.”

Book of Life? What’s that?
The experience of starting over during the High Holy Days is represented by a number of images in our prayers. One of the most powerful is the concept of a Book of Life. This is a metaphor for the account-book of our deeds – good and bad – over the past year, opened up so God can reflect on where the balance lies for each of us. In some iterations, it is suggested that God records that judgment in the Book and there decrees our fate in the year ahead.

When does the process conclude?
That cleansing comes on the 10th day, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), when our prayers lead us through a recitation of many of the sins to which we, as human beings, are subject. Those prayers also reassure us, however, that we can start again – that it is within our power to do better.

Stay tuned to the blog for Yom Kippur FAQs, or read the entire High Holy Days FAQ here.