The Jewish High Holidays, also called the High Holy Days, begin with Rosh Hashanah, which is also referred to as the Jewish New Year. It is observed for two days. In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the creation of the world as described in the Torah. It is also the day on which God inscribes the fate of each person in the "Book of Life" or the "Book of Death," determining both if they will have a good or bad year and whether we will live or die.
Rosh Hashanah also marks the beginning of a ten-day period on the Jewish calendar that focuses on repentance or teshuvah. Jews mark the holiday with festive meals and prayer services, and will wish each other "l’shanah tovah," meaning a "good new year."
The Ten "Days of Awe"
The ten-day period known as the "Days of Awe" (Yamim Nora’im) or the "Ten Days of Repentance" (Aseret Yamei T’shuvah) begins with Rosh Hashanah and ends with Yom Kippur. The time between these two main holidays is special in the Jewish calendar. Jews are required to focus on repentance and atonement during this period. While God passes judgment on Rosh Hashanah, the books of life and death remain open during the Days of Awe so that Jews have the opportunity to change which book they are in before it is sealed on Yom Kippur. Jews spend these days working to amend their behavior and seeking forgiveness for wrongs done during the past year.
The Shabbat that falls during this period is called Shabbat Shiva. This Shabbat is ascribed special importance as a day during which Jews can reflect on their mistakes and focus on teshuvah even more than on the other "Days of Awe" between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Often referred to as the "Day of Atonement," this is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar and concludes the period of the High Holidays and ten "Days of Awe." The focus of the holiday is on repentance and final atonement before God before the books of life and death are sealed. (For this reason, on Yom Kippur Jews wish each other a "chatima tovah" or "Good Sealing"). As part of this atonement, adult Jews who are physically able are required to fast for the entire day (though not all Jews observe this ritual) and abstain from other forms of pleasure (such as wearing leather, washing, and wearing perfumes). Most Jews, even many secular Jews, will attend prayer services for much of the day on Yom Kippur. At the end of Yom Kippur, Jews who have atoned consider themselves absolved of their sins from the previous year, thus beginning the new year with a clean slate in God's eyes and a renewed sense of purpose to live a more moral and just life in the year to come.