Days of Awe
The ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur are
commonly known as the Days of Awe (Yamim Noraim) or the Days of
Repentance. This is a time for serious introspection, a time to consider the
sins of the previous year and repent before Yom Kippur.
One of the ongoing themes of the Days of Awe is the concept that God has
"books" that He writes everyone’s name in, writing down who will live and
who will die, who will have a good life and who will have a bad life, for the
next year. These books are written in on Rosh Hashanah, but our actions
during the Days of Awe can alter God's decree. The actions that change the
decree are "teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah," repentance, prayer, good deeds
(usually, charity). These "books" are sealed on Yom Kippur. This concept of
writing in books is the source of the common greeting during this time is
"May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year."
Among the customs of this time, it is common for Jews to seek reconciliation
with people they may have wronged during the course of the year. The
Talmud maintains that Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and
God. To atone for sins against another person, Jews believe one must first
seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs they committed
against them if possible.
Another custom observed during this time is kapparot. This is rarely
practiced today, and is observed in its true form only by Chasidic and
occasionally Orthodox Jews. Basically, they purchase a live fowl, and on the
morning before Yom Kippur they waive it over their head reciting a prayer
asking that the fowl be considered atonement for sins. The fowl is then
slaughtered and given to the poor (or its value is given). Some Jews today
simply use a bag of money instead of a fowl. Most Reform and Conservative
Jews have never even heard of this practice.
Work is permitted as usual during the intermediate Days of Awe, from Tishri
3 to Tishri 9, except of course for Shabbat during that week. Two lesser
special occasions occur during the course of the Days of Awe. Tishri 3, the day
after the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is the Fast of Gedaliah. This really
has nothing to do with the Days of Awe, except that it occurs in the middle of
them. The Shabbat that occurs in this period is known as Shabbat Shuvah
(the Sabbath of Return). This is considered a rather important Shabbat.