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Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah: the Jewish High Holy Days, explained.
Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are the Jewish High Holy Days. They’re the two most important holidays of the year, and are very differently observed.
Corrections & clarifications: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the chief program officer at Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Her name is Becky Sobelman-Stern.
But it’s not exactly a “happy” holiday. So don’t tell someone “Happy Yom Kippur.”
“This isn’t a day of raucousness and partying,” says Becky Sobelman-Stern, the chief program officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “Yom Kippur is not about being happy. It’s about thinking. It’s about self examination.”
Yom Kippur translates from Hebrew to English as Day of Atonement. Traditionally, Jews spend the holiday fasting and reflecting on sins committed over the past year.
Even if you’re not Jewish, you can acknowledge the holiday, and it is indeed respectful to share well wishes to your friends and colleagues who do observe.
So, what should you say or write? There are some options.
The traditional Yom Kippur greeting
“G’mar chatima tova” is the customary greeting on Yom Kippur. In English, it means “May you be sealed in the Book of Life.”
According to Jewish tradition, one’s fate is decided on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur.
“Our lives are in the balance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur depending on how we act,” says Rabbi Andrea London of Beth Emet synagogue in Evanston, Illinois.
“The fully righteous are inscribed (in the Book of Life) for the year, the wholly evil are not inscribed and the rest of us need to work to make amends and make sure we have more good deeds than bad, if we want to be sealed for another year of life,” she adds.
Rabbi Sarah Krinsky of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC, says “not many moderns hold this literal theology.” She’s among them, but that doesn’t stop her from sending the message “g’mar chatima tova” for Yom Kippur.
Of note: The “ch” sound in “chatima” is not pronounced like the English word “chat.” Instead, it should sound more like guttural utterance from the throat, like a backwards snore, because it comes from the Hebrew letter Chet. “G’mar hatima tov” is also acceptable to say.
A simple Yom Kippur greeting
“Have an easy fast” might sound like an odd thing to say, but it’s “very much appreciated,” says Sobelman-Stern.
“That is what the holiday is all about: Taking away all pleasurable things for the day so you can repent and take account of yourself,” she says.
You can also wish someone a meaningful fast. Traditionally, people who observe Yom Kippur neither eat nor drink for 25 hours, with the exception of children and those for whom fasting is dangerous. Once the period of fasting ends, it’s time to break the fast with breakfast foods such as bagels and eggs dishes.
Yom Kippur greeting that works through October
“L’shana tova” or “shana tova,” which means “have a good year,” is a proper greeting on the Jewish New Year and also fitting to say on Yom Kippur and through the holiday Sukkot, which goes from Oct. 2 to Oct. 9.
You may notice that the words “tova” and “chatima” are sometimes written “tovah” and “chatimah.” Those spellings with H’s, which are English transliterations of the Hebrew words, are also correct and take account of the Hebrew letter Hei, which can have an H sound or be silent at the end of Hebrew words.
Make sure you message at the right time
Orthodox Jews and many other observers of Yom Kippur avoid using technology during the holiday. So if you want to share a message or make a phone call that’s answered ahead of the day of fasting, send it before Sunday evening or after sundown Monday, after the fast has been broken.