How Jewish Are The High Holidays?

Sunday, September 5, 2021
Posted by: Rabbi Barry Gelman

I am very excited to be starting my role as Director of Bobbi and Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living & Learning (CJLL). I look forward to learning with you! Shabbat Shalom. -Rabbi Gelman

Are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Jewish Holidays?

This may seem like a strange question, but a careful look at the texts we read on those days may tell us otherwise.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read that God remembered Sarah. This may be one of the greatest moments in Jewish History. Until this point, we are really unsure if God’s promises to Abraham were going to be fulfilled. Reading about Abraham and Sarah, we are on the edge of our seats about the project that began with “Lech L’Cha” (Gen. 12:1) when God told Abraham to leave his home with the promise of “I will make of you a great nation”. It is the Jewish people’s origin story.

Yet, in that same Torah reading we also hear the stirring words of the angel who saved Hagar and Yishmael. “[...]What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” (Gen. 21:17).

Turning to Yom Kippur, after spending the day fasting and asking for forgiveness with our fellow Jews, we turn to a more universal message in the afternoon when we read the story of Jonah. In that story, Jonah is commanded to travel to the city of Nineveh – a city populated by the Assyrian enemy and declare: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be destroyed!” (Jonah 3:4). Not only is the Jewish prophet sent to warn and save the gentile city, that story is held up as a model of repentance on Yom Kippur itself.

What does this all mean? What are we supposed to make of the mixing of the universal and the particular specifically on the Jewish High Holidays?

I believe the message is that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are supposed to kick off our year in a way that reminds us to engage with Judaism to the fullest extent. We must not shrink Judaism by suggesting that our tradition only focuses on rituals or concerns that are unique to the Jewish community.

No doubt, we should focus energy and resources on Jewish issues like the high cost of Jewish education, Jewish literacy, the growing disconnection between Jews and the State of Israel, and the meta question of what will Jewish engagement look like over the next 20 – 25 years? These particular concerns demand our attention.

At the same time, Judaism has wisdom to offer on climate change, racial inequality, economic justice, artificial intelligence and more. Discussion on these universal issues will also benefit from an injection of Jewish wisdom.

So, to answer the question. Of course, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are Jewish holidays, but they challenge us to expand our understanding of "Jewish".

The Evelyn Rubenstein JCC, a Jewish agency, but open to all, is a unique position to represent a robust way to think and do Jewish.

I hope to provide opportunities at the J for adults, teens and pre-teens to sink our teeth into the particular and the universal. I welcome your engagement in all of this. Please feel free to get in touch with ideas or just to chat about life. I am always up for a cup of coffee at Laykie’s. I can be reached at or at 713 595 8163.

Here are some links to help you connect to some learning opportunities here at the ERJCC.

Please accept my best wishes for a Shannah Tova U’Mitukah - a Happy annd Sweet and SAFE New Year.

Rabbi Barry Gelman


Category: CJLL