The Fall Holidays


In antiquity, the fall holidays were probably similar to other autumn holidays in the ancient Near East. In this context, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot may have initially been a single holiday, leading up to the fall harvest. This harvest was critical for group survival through the winter, and the holidays, as pagan celebrations, may have been devised originally to appease a rain god. It was a time of awe and fear; a time of judgment. The holidays have evolved and celebrations continue to transform, reflecting Jewish diversity. Some secular Jews regard any celebration of the holidays as too religious. For others, the high holidays are a time of personal reflection and introspection and hold a special personal significance. In the following adaptation from God-Optional Judaism, Judith Seid shares her thoughts on this holiday season.

The fall holidays are really all one holiday, later separated into several distinct observances. The ancient roots of the holiday are intertwined and have to be discussed together.

The entire fall holiday season is a combination of ancient needs for sustenance and for some measure of control over the environment. Like many cultures, Jews have a year-end “time out of time” period—the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This concept was generated by the need to reconcile the lunar (pastoral) and solar (agricultural) years so that the harvest holiday actually occurred close to the time the rains should begin to fall.

The harvest nature of the Jewish holiday season is seen in the use of dried sheaves of grain for the roof of the sukkah (the traditional hut built for the holiday of Sukkot), in the holiday food, and the decorations made with fruit and vegetables. These Jewish fall celebrations have a lot in common with celebrations in other northern hemisphere cultures. This reflects the value of both the universal and the particular; humanity and Jewishness complement rather than compete with each other.

The holidays are all about the communal, or national, nature of Jewish life. Yom Kippur is a time of communal rather than individual stocktaking. The scapegoat, a real goat used in the time of the Temple, was made to take upon itself the sins of the entire community. At Sukkot, we try to ensure rainfall so that we’ll have a good harvest year, so all can eat.

This holiday season begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah has seasonal, religious, and ethical components. In addition to the well-known religious belief that Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of creation, there is an interesting religious meaning in the seasonal nature of the holiday. Rosh Hashanah is placed at a very odd time on the solar calendar. We know from the biblical numbering of the months, with the spring month recognized as the first month, and Tishri (the seventh month in which Rosh Hashanah is celebrated), that the ancient Jewish New Year was the spring—the time of lambing and the appearance of wild foods. However, as Jews became an agricultural, rather than herding people, they have celebrated the New Year in the fall since the fall holiday of harvest and rainmaking became more significant. Most important is the ethical component of Rosh Hashanah, the message that this is a good world and valuable in itself.

Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is the holiday of Yom Kippur, which also has important national and ethical components. The national component is found in the attitude of the group’s responsibility for the problems in the world. The idea of justification in Jewish life tends to reflect a communal rather than individual orientation. Rewards and punishment are meted out to the Jewish people as a whole for community behavior. At Yom Kippur we remember that the whole Jewish People is responsible for one another and is judged by others as a whole, not as individuals. We remind ourselves that we have the obligation to improve not only ourselves, but the Jewish People as well.

The ethical component of Yom Kippur is tied to the idea that human beings are capable of change and worthy of a good life. On Yom Kippur we ask forgiveness of other people, and emphasize our beliefs that people can change for the better; That we as human beings are capable of goodness, that we are responsible as individuals and as groups for our own sins, and that we have the power and responsibility to atone for them and to refrain from repeating them.

Immediately following Yom Kippur is the seven-day holiday of Sukkot, which has seasonal, historical, national, and ethical components. The holiday, which was originally called the Feast of the Ingathering (of the harvest), is a seasonal harvest festival, celebrating the fruit harvest. The sukkah, or temporary shelter, is said to have been used by those who worked in the fields. Similar booths could have been used by those gathering at the Temple for the seasonal ingathering of the tribes.

The rabbinic authorities gave this harvest holiday religious significance by saying that the Hebrew people used the temporary shelter in the 40 years of wandering in the desert—today many recognize the story of the exodus and subsequent wandering as national mythology. An additional religio-historical myth is that the Temples, both the first and the second, were dedicated at Sukkot. The national component is strengthened with the tradition of symbolically inviting ushpizin or guests, into the sukkah. Traditionally the guests have been figures in Jewish national development, such as Abraham, Moses, and David.

The ethical component, perhaps the most relevant today, is the theme of food and shelter. Amid a harvest of plenty, there are those who are hungry, and the temporary shelter is a reminder of those who have no permanent home. Further, the flimsiness of the sukkah reminds us that our only home, the Earth, is fragile and needs care to preserve the environment. In addition, the identification of the sukkah with the tale of the wandering in the desert makes it clear to us that the holiday is about being refugees, and should make us aware of the plight of those who, like Jews throughout the ages, have had to flee their homes and rely on the goodwill of strangers in strange lands.

The Jewish fall holiday season is an important time for both individual and communal reflection. This period, with ancient agricultural roots continues to evolve and develop new meaning.