What to Expect When You Are Repenting

A High Holiday Guide
Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser

There are lots of reasons to attend High Holiday services, whether in person or, in these strange times, virtually. For some people, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days when they make their strongest annual act of identification with Judaism, with their congregation, and with the Jewish people. Participating in these services is an act of identity.

Why Do People Attend Services?

Some people attend High Holiday services because they are searching for life’s deeper purpose. They find that thoughtful sermons help them consider contemporary issues with wisdom. Contemplating their personal actions over the previous year helps them to focus on what they want in life. Attending these services is an act of seeking meaning.

Some people attend High Holiday services because they are moved, year after year, by the powerful and familiar words of the prayer book, the haunting melodies, and the chance to sanctify the memory of loved ones. Attending these services is an act of memory and keeping traditions alive.

Some people attend High Holiday services because they seek forgiveness, peace, and transcendence. They see the services as a new start to wash away guilt, shame, and frustration with the past. The High Holidays are a chance to reset relationships with God and with other people. Attending these services is an act of renewal and spiritual awakening.

All of these are good and appropriate reasons for attending High Holiday services. Most people walk into (or log into) services with some combination of these expectations and avenues for having a fulfilling experience on the most sacred days of the Jewish year.

What Happens at the Synagogue?

(Editor's note: In times of pandemic, most people are not attending in-person services, nor are congregations holding them. That said, we're leaving this part of the article intact for the future, and because it may still be of interest to those who are new to Jewish worship.)

So, what should you expect when you walk into the temple? For most congregations, these are the best attended services of the year. The sanctuary is crowded. In many congregations, the High Holidays are the only occasion on which the entire community is together at the same time.

Some medium- and larger-sized congregations have multiple services running simultaneously, each with a different emphasis or style. Some congregations hold “early” and “late” seatings for some services. Knowing ahead of time which service you will attend, where it will be held, and what time it will start will help you have a better experience. The lengths of services vary greatly from one congregation to another. There is nothing wrong with asking what time services are expected to end.

Some congregations encourage congregants to wear white clothing to the High Holidays, particularly Yom Kippur. This traditional practice is based in the biblical verse that promises that our “scarlet sins will be made as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). Some people say that wearing white is an external action that helps them have the internal experience they seek on the High Holidays.

If you're attending virtual services, there are many ways to ensure that your High Holidays experience feels separate from your everyday life. Learn more about how to turn your home into a sanctuary space during times when we cannot be together at our synagogues. 

What Will My Own High Holiday Experience Be Like?

The character of the two holy days – Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – can be different from one another. Repentance of sin and misdeeds is central to both days, so there is an atmosphere of solemnity and introspection associated with both. The sounding of the shofar as a celebration of the world’s creation can give Rosh HaShanah a more festive spirit. Yom Kippur is a marathon of fasting, confessing, and deep self-searching, so the atmosphere becomes more urgent and weighty as the day progresses.

Because fasting is so central to Yom Kippur, many people wonder whether they have to fast for the entire day to participate. Even from the most traditional perspective, fasting the entire 24-hour day is only appropriate for people whose health will allow it. No one should put themselves at serious risk by fasting. Children should not fast longer than they (or their parents) can tolerate. People with chronic illnesses should consult a physician. Fasting should help you focus on the ways in which you need to change and find forgiveness. It should not be an impediment. Instead, try this "Meditation Before Yom Kippur for One Who Cannot Fast." 

Your experience on the High Holidays will be shaped by the music, prayers, sermons, and atmosphere at the congregation you attend. However, it will also be shaped by the spirit that you bring. Enter these days knowing what is most important to you – the way that you hope to feel services end.

Don't just be an audience member or observer at the High Holidays. Bring your soul with you.