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Preparing for the High Holidays

As summer winds down and the back-to-school season approaches, so, too, do the High Holidays. Jewish tradition provides us with several reminders of the upcoming Days of Awe, as well as a number of ways we can prepare for them.

The days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are known at the Days of Awe, or Yamim Noraim in Hebrew. During this period, individuals examine their behavior over the past year, consider atonement for misdeeds, and seek a closeness with God. Practically, this is done through repentance, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is known as Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return. The name of this Sabbath is derived from the first words of the week’s haftarah, Shuvah Yisrael, “return, O Israel” (Hosea 14:2). The custom in synagogues in Eastern Europe had been for rabbis to give impassioned pleas for repentance during their sermons on this Shabbat.

Haftarot of Consolation

Beginning on the Shabbat following Tishah B'Av, we read the first of the seven Haftarot of Consolation. These sections, taken from the Book of Isaiah, announce Israel's redemption and take us from the low point of the destruction of the Temple and exile, to the high points of redemption and the hope inherent in a new year.

Elul: The Month Before the New Year

Elul, the month that precedes the Jewish New Year, is considered a time when God is particularly accessible to the Jewish people. The letters in the name of the month itself are embodied in this verse from the Song of Songs: Ani l'dodi v'dodi li (I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine), which highlights the loving relationship between God and the Jewish people.

During Elul, the shofar is sounded daily during the morning service. This tradition not only reminds us that the shofar will be blown on Rosh HaShanah, it also is a wakeup call of sorts, reminding us of the High Holidays and urging us to begin our preparations. Also during Elul, Psalm 27 is added to the morning and evening liturgy. Beginning with the words, "Adonai is my light and my help; whom should I fear?" this psalm beseeches God to protect us from our enemies and urges us to put our faith in God.

Elul also is a period during which we might take some time for study. Beginning in the 16th century, Jews began to prepare for the High Holidays by studying a midrashic text, Maaseh Avraham Avinu (The Tale of Abraham our Patriarch). Exploring the early life of Abraham, this midrash reflects on the themes of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. A Faithful Heart by Rabbi Benjamin Levy offers a translation and commentary on this text that takes readers on a journey of spiritual preparation.

Cemetery Visits

It has become customary for many Jews to visit the graves of dear friends and relatives in the days prior to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We recall our loved ones in the Yizkor liturgy on Yom Kippur and visiting their graves during Elul often provides us with the opportunity to reflect on their lives and to feel a renewed sense of closeness and connection with them.

Jewels of Elul

Popular Jewish musician Craig Taubman developed Jewels of Elul, a daily email that contains brief stories and anecdotes from a variety of inspired sources. You can sign up to receive the Jewels of Elul in your inbox throughout the month. Listening to the memorable tunes of the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur liturgy also can help us reacquaint ourselves with the sounds of this time of year. Whether you listen to Avinu Malkeinu in the car, Shiviti Adonai on the treadmill, or Al Cheit on an iPod, familiar melodies can both summon memories of long ago and help you look forward to the New Year.

Elul Activities for Children

The Days of Awe can be made more meaningful for our children if we take time during Elul to have them help us prepare the house. Children love to help, and polishing silver or setting the table are great ways to involve them in the holiday preparations. For the budding chef, assisting with the cooking of holiday foods is a great family activity. Reading stories with younger children is a wonderful way to help them get excited about the holy days. Many Jewish authors of children's books have written stories for the High Holidays. Sophie and the Shofar, for example, is a delightful tale about a dog named Farfel and a shofar that has gone missing.

Planning the High Holiday Menu

For those who love to cook, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur offer a time to make family favorites and try new recipes. Spending Elul thinking about holiday recipes is a wonderful way to prepare for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, a time at which we often host friends and family. Time and again, our fondest memories of Jewish holidays center on family gatherings and delicious meals. In her book, Entrée to Judaism, Tina Wasserman offers not only an international array of recipes for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, but also a fascinating look at the traditions behind many of the foods we eat. Tina's cookbook for kids, Entrée to Judaism for Families, provides the essential tools for helping children learn to cook with confidence, with clear, step-by-step instructions for every recipe and tips for adults to make the experience safe and rewarding.


The month of Elul culminates with Selichot (forgiveness) services, when we gather in our congregations to recite prayers of penitence. The Selichot liturgy contains some of the finest Jewish religious poetry ever composed.

Traditional Jews recite Selichot beginning late at night on the Saturday before Rosh HaShanah and continue before dawn on the days between the New Year and Yom Kippur. Reform congregations usually observe Selichot in the hours before midnight on the Saturday night just prior to Rosh HaShanah. This moving service urges us to reflect on the year that is ending. With strains of the High Holiday melodies as a backdrop, we utter our first confession of the season, as well as Sh'ma Koleynu, asking God to hear our voices.

How will you prepare for the New Year?