The High Holy Days

The High Holy Days are an important time spent in the synagogue.

Jewish man and child bar mitzvah at western wall

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur overflow with ritual, rules and regulations, pomp and ceremony. It’s the time of year when most people spend more time in synagogue or temple than at any other time of year. Whether it’s family tradition or a sense of obligation, or a desire to start anew, slate clean, or just feeling drawn into the sense of being Jewish that these days bring, people come in droves, filling the seats and making small congregations large; rendering large congregations, gigantic—with thousands in attendance.

Beyond the crowds, High Holy Day services are often several hours long, and can be daunting; you may be sitting far away from the action on the bima, distanced not only physically, but also spiritually. Perhaps you only know a little (or no) Hebrew. Indeed, these “Days of Awe” as they are called can be more “overwhelming” than “awe”-some for most of us. So I’d like to offer a couple of ways to help you perhaps find a bit more meaning as you “sit in shul” through these holiest of holidays in the Jewish calendar.


There is a story of great Jewish wisdom told in many different ways. One version is called “The Boy with the Flute,” and teaches us that it doesn’t matter whether you know one word of Hebrew or the entire lexicon. It is the intention that counts. You needn’t pray in Hebrew, even if that’s all you seem to hear in synagogue during the High Holy Days. Consider these suggestions, or simply use the time in temple as a “time out” to recount the year just past: the good, the bad, the stuff that just needs a tweak or two—or a complete system reboot. And then contemplate on how to make the necessary changes, and to right any wrongs you may have committed.

The special prayer book, called the Machzor, has page after page of Hebrew that only a few can understand well enough to make meaningful in itself, and often the translations are archaic, formal, and poetic, making it difficult to relate to the text. How do you make sense of it? How do you find meaning in the long hours of listening and trying to follow along? My response? Don’t. Don’t try to follow word-by-word, page-by-page.

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