Customs, Ceremonies and Tips

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Welcome to High Holy Days at University Synagogue!

We have assembled the information below to make it easier for you to participate in the celebration of these Days of Awe in a meaningful way. Think of this as a FAQ sheet.  If this information is interesting to you, we encourage you to look through our Adult Education offerings and extend your knowledge. There is something there for everyone!

High Holy Days Customs and Ceremonies

SET THE TABLE: It is customary to set a festive meal table with a white cloth and napkins for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. White is a symbol of new, fresh and clean beginnings and thus helps to set the holiday mood by using it for table linens.

FLOWERS: There is absolutely nothing in the Torah about what kind of flowers to use on your holiday table! Some people use white flowers for both holidays. Some prefer muted pastels for Rosh Hashanah and white for Yom Kippur. Flowers on a table are usually there only for special occasions, thus their inclusion for the High Holy Days.

GIVE TZEDAKAH: There are many ways you can tap into this wonderful custom to begin the New Year

  • Place your TZEDAKAH BOX next to your holiday candlesticks and place some money into it. If you have children/grandchildren to consult, discuss where you and they think would be a worthy place to donate these funds.
  • Make a contribution to MAZON: A JEWISH RESPONSE TO HUNGER. You can do this by sending a check to the synagogue office and we will forward it on to Mazon for you.
  • Remember to bring cans and other non-perishable food for our SECOND HARVEST collection on Yom Kippur.
  • Donate directly to our synagogue through the HIGH HOLY DAYS APPEAL to continue to support our programs and the dignity of each congregant in need.

If you don’t have a pushke (charity box) at home, University Synagogue will have them available in the foyer to all new members and those who don’t have one. They can be used to collect coins and distributed to the charity of your choice.

LIGHT HOLIDAY CANDLES BEFORE / AFTER YOUR HOLIDAY MEAL: On all Shabbat and Holy Days, we light candles to mark the beginning of this holy time.

  • On Rosh Hashanah, as on a Shabbat, we light them BEFORE we eat. The blessing is (add the parenthetical words when the holiday falls on Shabbat):  Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav vitzevanu l’hadlik nair shel (Shabbat v’) Yom Tov. Blessed are you, Adonai, who has made us holy with your mitzvot and commanded us to kindle the (Shabbat and) festival light.
  • On Yom Kippur, we light the candles AFTER eating, for when we light the candles, it is the start of our fast! Here is the blessing: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav vitzevanu l’hadlik nair shel (Shabbat v’) Yom HaKippurim. Blessed are you, Adonai, who has made us holy with your mitzvot and commanded us to kindle the (Shabbat and) Day of Atonement candles. There is no Kiddush (wine) blessing said at the meal before Kol Nidre.

After candles are lit, it is lovely to add a Shehecheyanu blessing in appreciation for new beginnings: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu vikeyemanu vihigiyanu lazman hazeh. Blessed are you, Adonai, who gave us life, kept us strong and brought us to this day.

LIGHT A YAHRZEIT CANDLE: Once the festival candles are lit, the holiday has begun. Traditionally, no more eating and no more lighting of candles occurs after the festival candles are lit on Yom Kippur, so it is traditional to light yahrtzeit (memorial “anniversary”) candles BEFORE we light the Yom Tov candles on the eve of Yom Kippur (Kol Nidre night). It is also traditional to light these two sets of candles, not from each other, but from a matchstick.

KIDDUSH BLESSINGS: These are blessings over wine

  • For Rosh Hashanah, the Kiddush blessing is: Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha’olam, boray p’rei hagafen. Blessed are you, Adonai, who creates the fruit of the vine.
  • For Yom Kippur, we don’t recite Kiddush at the festive meal because it’s a fast day.

SPECIAL FOODS: For High Holy Days meals

  • Round Challahs (Challot): As it is customary to serve Challah each Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, it is customary that challah served for the High Holy Days be round. Why? Although there are many explanations, the most common is that a round challah has no beginning or end, mimicking the circular nature of life itself. Any food that is round (one suggestion is to eat donut holes, or donuts for a pre-festive breakfast) serves the same purpose. It would be interesting to have a table conversation asking people what their interpretation of the round hallot might be.
  • Pomegranates: Some say that pomegranates contain 613 seeds (the number of the Commandments, according to the Talmud) and are seen as a wish that our year be as full of blessings as pomegranates are of seeds. (Pomegranates are notorious for their hard to remove juice stains so be careful around a white tablecloth!)
  • Apples and Honey: Apples and honey are among the best known symbols of the High Holy Days. Apples represent knowledge and honey is beloved due to its sweetness. You can serve apples and honey as an appetizer or make them part of your meal (apple kugel, apple cake, honey cake). Some families spread honey on their hallah instead of butter or margarine.

GREETINGS: Shana Tova means Happy New Year and is said before and on Rosh Hashanah! G’mar Tov (finish well) is a shortened form of G’mar Hatimah Tova which means “May you be sealed in the Book of Life” and is primarily said before and on Yom Kippur.

WHAT TO WEAR: Many Jews wear new clothing on Rosh Hashanah to signal the beginning of a new year, a new beginning. Often, Jews wear white on Yom Kippur because it symbolizes purity and the idea of a clean slate. Some people wear sneakers to honor the custom of not wearing leather shoes (see below).

There are many “rules” that traditional Jews may follow for Yom Kippur. It was thought in times of old that we should afflict ourselves in various ways to atone for our sins. The Talmud has a list of things to deny ourselves on Yom Kippur. Jews of old abstained from eating, drinking, bathing, sexual relations and using perfumes, among others.  Leather shoes were not worn because it was thought to be a sign of luxury. Because we are liberal Jews living in today’s world, we acknowledge these ideas, weigh them and determine for ourselves which, if any, make sense for us to consider. We strongly encourage awareness and individuality when contemplating these ancient Talmudic “rules.”

FASTING: Fasting is a symbol of our sorrow over how imperfect we are and also a statement of how we should start self improvement by attempting to control our appetites. Not eating or drinking is thought to free us from mundane, everyday activities, allowing us to focus completely on taking stock of ourselves in a concentrated way.

  • Who should fast? All adult Jews who are able, according to tradition, and anyone who has turned 13 or older, because they are considered to be an adult by Jewish law.
  • Who should NOT fast? Those who are seriously ill, or need to take medicine with food and/or water must do so. Nursing and pregnant women are not expected to fast, nor are children who have not yet reached the age of 13. (In many families, children 8-13 may decide with their parents that they will eliminate a particular category of food, or will fast until a certain time so they can “practice” fasting.)

Helpful Hints and University Synagogue Customs (Sanctuary Survival Tips)

TALLITOT: With the exception of the Rabbi and Cantor, tallitot (plural for the word tallit or four-cornered prayer shawl with fringes) are usually worn only during morning services. To emphasize the solemnity of Yom Kippur, a tallit is also worn for the evening Kol Nidre service as well as throughout the next day.

SHOFAR: It is not only a mitzvah to blow the shofar, but it is also a mitzvah to hear it blown. The shofar, made primarily from a ram’s horn, is blown on Rosh Hashanah to open our hearts to new possibilities and personal changes. It marked the beginning and end of holidays before clocks, watches and formal calendars existed. The shofar is not blown on Shabbat. It is also blown at the end of Yom Kippur to signal the end of our fast.

AVODAH SERVICE: At the end of the morning service on Yom Kippur at our synagogue (other synagogues participate in this ritual at other points in the service or not at all), we re-enact a ritual from the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.  It is the holiest moment in the service when symbolically “heaven and earth touch,” meaning that the holy and the mundane become intertwined. It is at this moment that we prostrate ourselves down to the floor with the Rabbi and the Cantor (traditionally this was only done by the Temple priests) and, with great humility, accept our human vulnerability and the mysteries of life.

HAVDALAH AT THE END OF YOM KIPPUR: Havdalah means separation. It reminds us of the differences between the ordinary and the holy. It infuses the ordinary with holiness as we blend the festival and/or Shabbat into the week. We invoke this feeling by ending our Yom Kippur prayers with this ritual.

A COMMUNITY OF THE WHOLE: High Holy Days are one of the few times a year when our entire congregation comes together. It is our minhag (custom) to help everyone feel at home in our synagogue. Introduce yourself to someone you’ve never met before. If there are empty seats, move closer. Lend a book to someone who is without one. Put your tallit or arm around someone standing alone. Please do your best to make our congregation a warm and welcoming place for all.

CHILDREN: We LOVE our children and we will love you, their parents, if you supervise them so that we can maintain decorum and a sense of spirituality in our sanctuary. They are welcome to sit with you in the sanctuary or you can take them to the Family Room in the back of the sanctuary which was built for little people who just can’t sit still. We totally understand. That’s why the Family Room is there! We insist that any child who is in the Family Room has a parent with him/her at all times. This is for the safety of all of our children.

APPLAUSE: Saying “Yasher Koach” (“may your strength increase,” or idiomatically “good job!”) is a way of applauding those who have done a mitzvah from the bimah (reading Torah, shofar blowing, doing an English reading, giving a speech or sermon). Clapping hands is not traditionally done in synagogue, but if it happens, we’ll understand that it was just impossible to contain your appreciation and enthusiasm!

STOP AND GO SIGNS: There are certain places in the service where the ebb and flow of congregants leaving and entering the sanctuary can be very distracting. Please heed the signs of our ushers when they ask you to wait to return to your seats. Smile, breathe and understand that we are trying to create a holy space for all. We sincerely appreciate your cooperation.

TAKING A RESTROOM BREAK: For your convenience, there are hooks for tallitot in the hall outside the restroom doors so that you can hang up your tallit before entering the restroom.