Project of IISHJ

A Short Humanistic History of the High Holidays

High Holidays – Summer 1986

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are more than Jewish holidays. For many Jews, they are the only expression of Jewish identity. The High Holidays are the two times during the year when these Jews feel compelled to do something Jewish. Countless synagogues and temples would fail without Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Hordes of rabbis would lose contact with their membership if these holidays were abolished. There is something about them that is compelling for Jews.

This prominence is historically puzzling. While the Torah cites the first day of the seventh month as a holy day and a time for blowing the shofar, it makes no reference to the name Rosh Hashana. In fact, the use of the number seven indicates that the new year began sometime in the spring, just before Passover. And while the Torah prescribes an elaborate ritual of community repentance for the tenth day of the seventh month, it restricts the ritual to priests and makes no provision for popular participation.

The Torah requires fasting on Yom Kip­pur. But it knows nothing of synagogues, all­day services, Kol Nidre, swinging “scape chickens” over the head in the ritual of Kapparot, or emptying pockets at riverside in the ceremony of Tashlikh. If the Torah suggests any holiday as number one, it most likely is Pesakh, the commemoration of the Exodus.

Secular Jews had trouble with the High Holidays from the beginning. As festivals of national liberation, Passover and Hanukka easily could be purified of supernatural con­nections. As nature holidays, Sukkot and Shavuot could, with little effort, be con­nected to the seasons and to all the secular responses they aroused. But Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as they had evolved in the Judaism of the rabbis, seemed inseparable from the supernaturalist tradition that secularists rejected. There was no event in Jewish history that these holidays com­memorated. There was no seasonal happen­ing they pointed to. Both holidays were fraught with ideas of divine power and judg­ment, sin and repentance.

Early Jewish secularists discarded the High Holidays as hard-core traditionalism. They found them irrelevant to the new secular nationalism and made no effort to rescue them for humanistic use. Some secularists developed a strong hostility to these holidays because they seemed to sym­bolize the “enemy” and all that had gone wrong with Jewish life. Many radical socialist groups held Kol Nidre night af tsu loches (for spite) dances to provoke the Or­thodox. I still remember street battles be­tween offended traditionalists on their way back from shul and these brash provocateurs.

In Israel, the kibbutzim, driven by socialist and secular fervor, ignored the High Holidays entirely. In time, they found some minor use for Rosh Hashana as the marker of the new year. But Yom Kippur re­mained an uncomfortable gap in the calen­dar, a day off in the national yearly cycle that other Jews used for religious purposes.

Today, many humanistic Jews have rein­corporated the High Holidays into their Jewish observance, recognizing that their continuing hold is too strong to be ignored. But many are not fully aware of why these holidays remain so compelling for Jewish humanists. Perhaps a historical survey of their beginnings and evolution would help.


The beginnings of most Jewish holidays are hard to find. Unlike the traditional history, which claims that the major festivals were proclaimed at Mt. Sinai, a scientific history has to settle for the murkiness of dim antiquity. New year celebrations in Semitic Western Asia were popular events as far back as historical records can take us. Babylonians and Canaanites loved them long before the Jews emerged as a political reality.

After all, the idea of dividing time into years is a necessary development of an ex­panding agricultural society. The year is a cycle of seasons, which controls the work of plowing, sowing, reaping, and picking. In the beginning, the priests of early cultures were barely aware of the connection be­tween the seasonal year and the “movements” of the sun. As calendars became more sophisticated, the emergence of the solar year, which defined the cycle of change with its solstices and equinoxes, im­proved with predictability.

In these Near Eastern farm cultures, the time of the “new year” coincided with dramatic beginnings. The beginning of the grain harvest or the beginning of the rainy season were sufficiently important to justify ending one year and starting another. In Syria and Palestine, the grain harvests belonged to the spring and the rainy season to the fall-winter. Either event was impor­tant enough to separate two years. However, the rainy season, which followed the sum­mer fruit harvest, generally won out.

If the rain determined the food of the future, then life and death were in the hands of the rain. And if the rain was in the hands of the gods, then the gods must be made hap­py to insure the rain. The rituals of the new year celebration were designed to achieve this goal, to please the gods and insure the survival of the people.

The original Rosh Hashana (it was not yet called by that name) was a fearful day of judgment. Dramatic questions hovered over the event. Would the gods send the rain and let the people live? Or would they deny the rain and let the people die? What determines the decision of the gods? What needs to be done to guarantee a positive verdict? What needs to be done to reverse a negative one?

Within the popular belief system, many things could be done to avoid death. Gifts could be given to the gods, especially the meats and incense they adored. Loud public flattery of their power and might could be orchestrated. Confessions of regret for past injury to divine interests could be offered. Fasting and self-degradation could be practiced as signs that the guilty already had been chastened and needed no more punishment.

Kings and Priests

When the Jewish nation, with its devotion to the cult of the god Yahveh and his central shrine in the city of Jerusalem, emerged as a united political state in the tenth century B.C., the ritual grew more elaborate. Less and less was done by the ordinary people. More and more was done by professional kings and priests. While the royal house of David was in power, the king was, most likely, the leader of the appeasement rituals in the Jerusalem Temple. After the conquest of the Jews by the Chaldeans in 586 B.C. and the destruction of the royal family, the high priest of the house of Moses became the leader of the nation and the leader of the new year ceremonies.

During this historical period, two dif­ferent time structures for the new year festival competed with each other.

The first was a function of a seasonal calendar based on the number seven (a sacred number because of the seven visible “heavenly bodies” that determined the fate of humanity). Time was divided into units of seven days (weeks). Seven weeks plus a clos­ing day (atseret) formed a “season” of 50 days. Seven “seasons” made a year of 350 days. The difference of fifteen days between 350 and the 365 days of the solar year was divided into two holidays of seven days — Matsot for the spring and Katsir for the fall — and one day for the new year festival. This festival was tacked on to the end of Katsir, just before the rainy season.

The second time structure was a function of the moon calendar that the Hebrew nomads and shepherds brought with them from their early wanderings. It was pre-agricultural and based on the phases of the moon. The natural month of 29 or 30 days was its basic unit. Twelve natural months constituted 354 or 355 days and fell at least 10 days short of a solar or seasonal year. The difference was turned into a ten-day period of new year celebration and repentance, which was assigned to the advent of the rainy season.

By the time the Torah was edited by the Levitical priests, somewhere around 500 B.C., the second system had won out. The first system still has powerful relics: the Sab­bath, Shavuot, the seven-day spring Pesakh, and the eight-day fall Sukkot. Even the eighth day of Sukkot, Shemini Atseret (the old new year), retains some of the solemnity and ritual of the original Rosh Hashana, especially its concern for rain.

Although the second system won the competition, it was modified to accom­modate the priestly elite who edited the Torah. These Mosaic priests were influ­enced by Chaldea, where they had spent many years in captivity and political exile. They borrowed the moon calendar of the Chaldeans, whose new year celebration was assigned to the spring and who made up the differences with the solar calendar through periodic leap years. In the end, the first month of the Torah year was moved to Nissan in the spring and the ten-day festival of judgment was placed in the first ten days of the seventh month in the fall. Because of its connection to the rainy season, the judg­ment holiday could not be moved to the spring. But the Torah writers no longer designated it the new year festival, although popular custom continued to do so.

Under four centuries of priestly rule, the judgment festival rivaled Pesakh for first place among the holidays. It began with the solemn day of Yom Teruah, the day of the blowing of the shofar, and ended with Yom Kippur, the final day of ritual appeasement. The setting of the ceremonies was the se­cond Jerusalem Temple. The performers were the High Priest and his attendants. The awe-struck audience was the observing masses. The shofar was blown to attract the attention of Yahveh and to warn the people of impending danger. A scapegoat was chosen to receive the sins of the people and was sent into the desert to be thrown over a cliff as an appeasement offering to Azazel, the king of the evil spirits. And the High Priest, on Yom Kippur, entered the throne room of Yahveh in the Temple behind a pro­tective screen of incense smoke to plead for the people. The day was filled with wailing, fasting, splendor, and suspense.

The Rabbis

The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans transformed the judgment festival. With the elimination of the sacrificial ritual, the heart of the old ceremony was excised. And with the removal of the priests, the central per­formers of the traditional service vanished into oblivion.

Of course, the decline of priestly power had begun more than a century before. The popular political party, the Pharisees, under the leadership of the rabbis, assumed control and imposed their vision of Jewish history and Jewish tradition on the people. The rab­bis brought with them the folk traditions of their Oral Law, a Messianic vision of the final judgment day, an anti-priestly bias, and the institution of the synagogue meeting house.

The rise of the rabbis to power was ac­companied by a massive emigration of Jews from Judea. By the first century A.D., the Jewish population outside Judea was greater than that within. Most of the Jews of the Diaspora had nothing at all to do with farm­ing and rainy seasons and were heavily ur­banized. Agricultural suspense was no longer part of their experience.

The consequence of these changes was a second transformation of the judgment holi­day. In the Talmud, the written version of the Oral Law, the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim) took on their familiar “Orthodox” character. The Biblical Yom Teruah became the Talmudic Rosh Hashana, with a full acknowledgment that it was indeed the new year festival. And the Temple ritual was replaced by private rituals and public synagogue services.

A new ideology pervaded the mood of the season and the words of the synagogue prayers. The annual judgment day of Rosh Hashana became an anticipation of the final judgment day ushered in by the Messiah. The fear of drought vanished. And the danger of eternal punishment now became the threat of divine retaliation. The ten days took on the mood of a trial. Rosh Hashana became the day of justice, when we all are rightly condemned for our sins. Yom Kippur became the day of mercy, when we are par­doned for our sins (even though we have not earned the pardon) and granted the gift of life. The High Holidays remained unique, a personal and universal religious event, not commemorative of any national victories or defeats.

As the centuries passed, the High Holidays became associated with certain special rituals:

The Shofar was blown three times on Rosh Hashana and once on Yom Kippur, its sounds conjuring up images of dread and hope.

Piyyutim, special poems of praise, were added to the service. The most famous of these is the Untaneh Tokef announcement, when the ark of the Torah is opened and the proclamation of divine judgment is made.

Kol Nidre was attached to the beginning of the Yom Kippur evening ritual. A legal for­mula absolving its subscribers from the fulfillment of frivolous vows, this pedestrian Aramaic declaration is of dubious moral value. The rabbinic leaders of Chaldea, where it was first composed, condemned its inclusion but were ultimately powerless to prevent its use. The Jewish public won out. In the European Askhenazic world, the “legalese” was attached to a haunting melody, which made it famous. In the Sephardic world, the words never found a memorable tune and remained comparatively unimportant.

Fasting became the vogue. Pious people abstained from food and water, not only on Yom Kippur, but also in spurts throughout the ten days. The mood of the holiday was hardly joyous. Fear and self-inflicted suffer­ing were pervasive: flogging, breast-beating, wearing the clothing of destitution, and abstinence from bathing.

In the European milieu, folk customs that never received official sanction achieved a semi-legal status. The symbolic emptying of pockets by a flowing streamside to allow the water to carry away the impurity of sin became the Tashlikh ceremony of the first day of Rosh Hashana. The slaughter of chickens to receive the guilt of their owners became the Kapparot ritual of the day before Yom Kippur.


The Enlightenment and Emancipation undermined the old belief framework of the High Holidays and removed some of the dread. Divine record-keeping, supernatural rewards and punishments, and the value of appeasement ceremonies seemed less credi­ble than before. Many Jews saw Tashlikh and Kapparot as primitive and superstitious and unworthy of repetition. Kol Nidre, with its dismissal of the binding character of pro­mises, became a moral problem. Long confes­sions and breast-beating appeared unseemly. Even fasting developed a bad reputation, of­fending “rational” people who found no ethical value in self-inflicted suffering.

Nevertheless, radical Reform in America found an enormous importance in the High Holidays because the reformers had defined the Jews as a religious denomination, and these solemn celebrations were supremely religious. But the Reform movement had lost its belief in a personal, punishing God, which had made the days so awesome. In the end, a decorous prayer service emerged, with little of the passion of the old days of judgment.


Throughout traditional observance of the Days of Awe, despite the heavy emphasis on divine justice and divine mercy, humanistic dimensions appear. Guilt leads to self- reflection and self-evaluation. Resolutions to improve behavior in the coming year are made. People seek out friends and neighbors to ask for forgiveness for past wrongdoings and to effect reconciliation.

Still, many secular Jews found Rosh Ha­shana and Yom Kippur too religious for their tastes. They saw no way of transforming them into secular national holidays.

But they failed to realize that the High Holidays, precisely because they are per­sonal rather than national, have a special significance for Humanistic Jews. If human judgment replaces divine judg­ment, and if human power becomes the alternative to divine power, then Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur become perfect vehicles for celebrating a humanistic phil­osophy of life. It is appropriate for Jews at the time of the Jewish New Year to reflect on the moral quality of their behavior and to make decisions to improve it. Intro­spection and goal setting are traditional. They are also humanistic.

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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