High Holidays: Selected Laws & Customs

Compiled by Rabbi Harari


The Month of Elul


1. It is customary to recite the selihot prayers during the month of Elul (the month prior to Rosh Hashanah) and during the Aseret Yemei Teshubah (the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).  These are special prayers that are chanted by the congregation together with the cantor each weekday morning.  They are designed to arouse worshipers to teshubah (repentance).


Ereb Rosh Hashanah (Rosh Hashanah Eve)


2. Tahanun (The penitential prayer) is not recited on Ereb Rosh Hashanah.  It is customary to recite the hatarah and to give charity to the poor as well.  Many also immerse in the mikvah (ritual bath) as an act of spiritual cleansing.


3. Candles are lit in preparation for both days of Rosh Hashanah.  A berackah  is recited.


4. When Rosh Hashanah falls on Thursday and Friday, an erub tabshilin (usually an egg and some bread) is prepared in order to allow preparation of food on Friday for Shabbat.  The appropriate berakhah and declaration should be recited.  These may be found in the first few pages of most mahzorim.


Rosh Hashanah at Home


5. Kiddush is recited at the table during the four meals of Rosh Hashanah.  The sheheheyanu blessing is recited in the kiddush of both nights of Rosh Hashanah.  It is preferable, however, to have a new fruit at the table or for at least one of the participants to wear a new garment on the second night; the sheheheyanu prayer should then be recited with one of these in mind.


6. Following netilat yadayim (washing hands) and the hamosi berakhah, it is customary to recite the Yehi rason prayers on specially prepared foods.  These include apples, leek, swiss chard, dates, gourd, black-eyed peas, pomegranates, head of sheep or fish.  Each of these has been chosen because its Hebrew name or its nature evokes positive thoughts for the Jewish people.  Most community members recite the prayers over these items on both nights of the holiday while some do so only on the first night.


7. It is customary to refrain from sleeping during the day of both days of Rosh    Hashanah.  Rather, one should spend his/her day praying and studying Torah.  If he/she cannot do this and will instead spend the time foolishly, it is permitted to sleep.


Rosh Hashanah Prayers and Torah Readings


8. The Rosh Hashanah arbit prayers begin with the chanting of Ahot ketanah in unison by the entire congregation.


9. On the High Holidays, it is customary that the cantor be surrounded by assistants on both sides.  They take an active part in the chanting and recitation of the prayers.


10. The musaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah incorporates three unique berakhot.  They recount the kingship of G-d (malkhuyot), His remembrance of the Jewish people and of  judgment (zikhronot) and the significance of the shofar (shofarot).  Between each  of  these blessings - both in the individual’s amidah and in the cantor’s repetition- ten blasts of the shofar are sounded.


11. The main Torah reading of the first day of Rosh Hashanah tells of G-d’s remembering Sarah and blessing her and Abraham with a son, Isaac.  The second day’s Torah reading recounts the story of the binding of Isaac (akedat Yishak).


12. Tashlich is usually recited in the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, except when it falls on Shabbat.  At a body of water (pool, lake, ocean, etc.), we announce that we are prepared to throw away our sins and we recite several prayers and Biblical verses, among them “Mi Kel kamocha.”  If tashlich was not recited on Rosh Hashanah, it may be done during the Aseret Yemei Teshubah (the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).




13. The shofar is blown at several points in the musaf  prayer  of Rosh Hashanah.  Thirty blasts are sounded  at the outset, thirty blasts (in three series of 10) during the individual’s amidah, thirty blasts (in three series of 10) during the cantor’s repetition and ten blasts during the kaddish. Altogether, one hundred blasts are sounded.  Our custom is to add a long teruah as well just before the conclusion of the prayers.  


14. The tokea (blower of the shofar) must stand while blowing the shofar.  Those listening to the blasts, however, sit during the first thirty blasts but stand at all other times that the shofar is blown.


15. Before the first blasts of the shofar are sounded, two berakhot are recited: lishmoa kol shofar and sheheheyanu.  The tokea must have the listeners in mind as he recites these berakhot and the listeners should intend to fulfill their obligation by listening closely to the berakhot and the blasts from the shofar.  Idle conversation is prohibited throughout the entire prayers.  


16. The shofar is not blown on the first day of Rosh Hashanah  when it falls on Shabbat.  (The second day of Rosh Hashanah never falls on Shabbat.)


Aseret Yemei Teshubah (Ten Days of Repentance)


17. The selihot prayers - with special additions - are recited on all weekdays   between  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.


18. There are several additions and changes introduced into the amidah during this time period.  The most important change occurs in the third blessing, where we substitute Ha-melech ha-kadosh for Ha-kel hakadosh.  Other additions to the prayers include a special Shir Ha-maalot and Abinu Malkenu.


19. The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is designated as Shabbat Shubah.  Traditionally, the rabbi delivers a special sermon on this Shabbat.


20. Som Gedaliah is a fast day which commemorates the tragic death of Gedaliah the son of  Ahikam in the aftermath of the destruction of the First Temple.  The fast begins at dawn and concludes 20 minutes after sunset.


Ereb Yom Kippur ( Yom Kippur Eve)


21. Tahanun (The penitential prayer) is not recited on Ereb Yom Kippur.  In preparation for Yom Kippur, it is a misvah to eat several meals during the day.

22. It is particularly important to reflect on one’s past deeds and repent on Ereb Yom Kippur.  Asking forgiveness from those whom we have wronged is certainly part of each person’s responsibility.


23. Some have the custom to perform kapparot with chickens or the equivalent amount of money.  The money is then given to charity.


24. Minhah is prayed (with tallit and tefillin) early in the afternoon on Ereb Yom Kippur so as to conclude the final meal (seudah hamafseket) before sunset.


25. Candles are lit prior to sunset.  It is customary to light memorial candles for departed family members.


Yom Kippur Laws


26. All work prohibited on Shabbat is likewise prohibited on Yom Kippur.  In addition, one is forbidden to: eat and drink; wash (except when soiled); apply oils and creams to the body;  wear leather  shoes; and engage in marital relations.


27. Individuals who are sick or pregnant should consult a rabbinic authority for guidance and direction.


Yom Kippur Prayers and Torah Readings


28. The berachah of sheasah li kol sorki, established in order to express appreciation to G-d for our having shoes, is omitted on Yom Kippur.


29. The Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning describes the service of the kohen gadol in the Tabernacle on Yom Kippur.  The afternoon haftarah reading tells of the repentance of the non-Jews of the city of Nineveh at the prodding of the prophet Jonah.


30. The musaf prayer contains the celebrated Seder Haabodah.  It is chanted by the cantor while the hechal (ark) remains open.


31. The viddui (confessional prayer) is recited many times on Yom Kippur.  Its recitation punctuates all our prayers and should be accorded particular concentration.


32. The final Yom Kippur prayer is Neilah, a prayer recited only on Yom Kippur and during  which we pour out our hearts to G-d to bless us with a good year.

© Kol Israel Congregation