The next festivals in the Jewish calender are amongst the most important in the Jewish year and are known collectively as the `High Holy Days’.  Even Jews who do not regard themselves as particularly religious will make the effort to attend synagogue for the services on Rosh Hashanah (our new year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement).  Religious Jews prepare for this time with a period of reflection and prayer during the month preceding the new year.

The High Holy Days begin with Rosh Hashahah – Jewish New Year Year.  The Jewish year of AM (After Moses) 5771 starts at sunset on Wednesday 8th September.  It is predominantly a religious festival, although we also celebrate it by getting together with family and friends and sharing New Year meals and foods that traditionally include fish, pomegranees and honey.  We eat apples dipped in honey and wish each other a `sweet new year’ and also enjoy honey cake (which includes ginger, eggs and lots of honey!).  We also extend our hospitality to strangers, poor and disadvantaged people and give to charities both money and our time. Our tradition says that at Rosh Hashanah the gates of heaven open, and we are closer to God than at any other time.  The Book of Life is opened and there is the opportunity for us to have our names inscribed there `for a good life’.  The shofar (ram’s horn) is sounded with several blasts in synagogues throughout the world on Rosh Hashanah, and again throughout the High Holy Days and, finally, at the end of the Yom Kippur services.

Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is the most solomn day of our year – Yom Kippur; the Day of Atonement.  We fast for 25 hours (this year from sunset on Friday 17th September until nighfall on Saturday 18th September) and attend religious services on both the evening and throughout the day.  During this time of fasting and prayer, we reflect upon what we have done during the past year, both individually and collectively.  Yom Kippur is not just about remembering our mistakes and `atoning for our sins’; it is an opportunity to become aware of how far we have strayed from our good intentions and highest ideals and to return to the best and truest way of living, connection with each other and with the world, and with God.  Our tradition says that the Book of Life is sealed at the end of Yom Kippur and closed, and the gates of Heaven close again for another year; so Yom Kippur is our last opportunity for another 12 months to make amends for what we have done in the past year.  The sages say that `for sins between God and humans, Yom Kippur can atone; for sins between humans, Yom Kippur cannot atone’; so during the time between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we also make every effort to seek forgiveness from people we have hurt or wronged, to `mend fences’ with neighbours, friends, family, work colleagues etc and start anew.

A few days after Yom Kippur is Sukkot.  This is an 8-day festival, beginning this year at sunset on Wednesday 22nd September.  We build  `booths’ (sukkot) or huts, made with branches and green foliage, with walls (timbers, branches, or, these days plastic of PVC materials!) but open to the sky.  The Biblical injunction is that we should live in these `booths’ for the 8 days, to commemorate and remember the 40 years we lived in booths in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt and before entering the Promised Land of Israel.  These days, except for the most observant, in Britain at least, due to the uncertain weather, we tend to continue to sleep in our homes during these 8 days, but take as many meals in the `sukkah’ as the weather permits.  We eat fruits and hold a special religious services inside the sukkot.  Again the theme is about reflection upon our lives and our history as  the Jewish people; it is also an opportunity to think about people both in this country and throughout the world who live in makeshit huts, shelters or insecure dwellings all year round, not by choice but by necessity as a result of poverty, natural disaters or the cruely of humans to each other, and to think about what we, who are more fortunate, can do to relieve their suffering and redress the injustices.

As Sukkot ends we have the joyous festival of Simchat Torah, which celebrates the giving of Torah (`The Law’, to be found in the first 5 books of the Jewish Bible and Christian Old Testament).  This year Smchat Torah is on Friday 1st October.  In synagogue services, we begin again to read the Bible, starting with the opening chapters of Genies/Bereshit – The Beginning, the Creation story.  The Torah scrolls are taken out and we all dance with them, processing in joyful celebration 7 times around the room. After the solemnity of Yom Kippur, this culmination of the High Holy Days is a release of joy and celebration to mark the end of this special period and a return to the world, renewed, rededicated, with our faith strengthened for the year ahead.

Shanah Tovah – a Good New Year.  May you be inscribed and sealed for a Good Life.  Shalom u’kol tov – Peace and All Good to you, to those you live, and to all humanity.