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It's difficult to understand why many Jews only go to synagogue on the high holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah, which means the New Year, is a solemn holiday that has more set services and more prayers in its traditional liturgy than an ordinary Shabbat or weekday does. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is even more solemn, with even more traditional liturgy and a stronger focus on repentance from sin, and of course, it's a fast day. On the high holidays, most synagogues charge their congregants for tickets of admission to the services. For the majority of North American Jews, going to synagogue to pray all day when they don't usually pray in a congregation at all is comparable to hiking up a mountain after walking around the block once or twice.
Yet for some reason, many synagogues are packed with people who haven't been through their doors much in the last year. Some synagogues need to place folding chairs in front of video monitors in unused rooms to cope with the overflow crowd from the main sanctuary. They pay to crowd together in their nicest new clothing, to feel bored and guilty because they can't read Hebrew and to listen to a very long sermon. Why does it work this way, and why do some nice Jewish boys and girls want to subject their non-Jewish partners to this ordeal as their first experience of Judaism?
Clearly there is something about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that makes these holidays feel special and important to Jews. Perhaps it is their serious themes, or a sense of nostalgic pleasure in the repetition of the many synagogue rituals. These holidays are replete with Jewish cultural messages, and in this way they could prove to be a good introduction to Jewish services for a non-Jewish partner or family member.
For many people, the secular New Year in January is a time to resolve to do better. The Jewish New Year has a more serious focus on self-improvement. The schedule of holidays can provide an unparalleled opportunity for structured reflection and repentance. Many Jewish holidays have themes that are focused on the home, but Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are all about the synagogue and the community, because Judaism recognizes that the individual doesn't change alone. This may be one reason why these holidays have evolved many synagogue observances and only a few home-based traditions, and why Jews continue to brave the crowds at synagogue on these holidays more than on any others.
Some Jews get a lot of satisfaction out of the rituals of repentance. The liturgy of these holidays is beautiful. Jews in the ancient and medieval periods created many liturgical poems to enhance the experience of the service. Many people who aren't comfortable with the literary qualities of the medieval Hebrew have a strong emotional response to the tunes, which seem to bring out the solemn themes of the holidays. In nearly every variety of Jewish congregation, these holidays present the opportunity for service leaders, musicians and choirs to embellish prayer with musical flourishes. Service leaders today follow an ancient tradition of introducing new readings and new tunes, though today these readings are generally in English instead of Hebrew. The long sermons, which can sometimes be stultifying and sometimes stimulating, are also an old tradition.
For many Jews, Rosh Hashanah has aesthetic memories associated with the blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn. Congregations put white mantles on their Torah scrolls, and in some places, people wear special clothing. All of these changes to the usual synagogue routine add to a sense of returning to the strong impressions of childhood.
In addition to wanting to repent in community, many Jews have a strong tradition of remembering family members who have died. They participate in the folk tradition of visiting graves during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They light a memorial (yahrzeit) candle before Yom Kippur, and attend the memorial service, Yizkor, in the late morning or early afternoon. Remembering the dead and establishing a connection to the past is a very important theme of the holidays.
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