Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are collectively called the High Holidays (or, alternately, the High Holy Days). The entire ten-day period is reffered to as the Yamim Noraim (literally "Days of Awe") or Aseret Yamei Teshuva ("Ten Days of Repentence").
Rosh Hashanah 2012 begins on the evening of Sunday, September 16, and ends at dusk on Tuesday, September 18. (Some Reform synagogues observe only one day of Rosh Hashanah.) This year, we will be inaugurating the year 5773 on the Jewish calendar. The number comes from an understanding of the age of the earth articulated by sages in the middle ages.
Rosh Hashanah combines our joy at reaching another milestone with the solemnity of reflection about the year we've just completed. We eat sweet foods (such as apples dipped in honey) to emphasize our hopes for a sweet year. We alter our challah to be round (like the cycle of the year) and dotted with raisins (more sweetness), and have celebratory meals with friends and family. But we are also called upon to make an accounting of our souls (cheshbon ha-nefesh in Hebrew). We figure out what we might need to ask our friends to forgive us for doing and make resolutions to try better in the coming year.
Other Rosh Hashanah traditions include sounding the shofar, a hollowed-out ram's horn, which serves as a spiritual wake-up call. Tashlich is a practice of tossing breadcrumbs into a moving body of water to symbolize throwing away our sins.
The period that begins with Rosh Hashanah and culminates in Yom Kippur is known as the Days of Awe, or the Ten Days of Repentance. Some use this time for deeper reflection--check out 10Q for an online tool for focusing your thoughts during this period. Tradition sets up Yom Kippur as a deadline for making amends with those we've wronged, so this period can also be a time of reaching out and asking forgiveness.
Yom Kippur 2012 begins at sundown on Tuesday, September 25. The evening service that opens Yom Kippur is often referred to as Kol Nidre, after the prayer said at the beginning of the service declaring that we are all fit to pray together, saints and sinners alike. This prayer's emphasis on religious vows reminds us that on Yom Kippur, we can use a day of fasting and prayer to make right with God, but wrongs done to other people need to be addressed directly.
Fasting on Yom Kippur is supposed to allow us to fully concentrate on the meaning of the day. The sages described the Yom Kippur fast as not only abstention from food and drink, but also from sex, bathing and anointing (e.g. perfumes). Only those in good health and over the age of 13 are expected to fast. Fasting at a time that could put your health at risk is forbidden.
Whether you're planning on spending three days in synagogue, hosting or attending a holiday meal, or taking this time of year to focus your thoughts about the year that's passed and the year to come, JewishBoston.com has resources for you. Visit our Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur page for information about services, recipes, our High Holidays Idea Guide (coming soon!) and more.