Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur: How to Explain the Jewish High Holidays to Kids
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are rapidly approaching. If these holidays are foreign to you or you're a bit tongue-tied as to how to explain them to your kids, this article will help you out.
When I think about Rosh Hashanah—also known as the Jewish new year—a vision of fresh apples, honey, and round challah dances around my mind. I become giddy at the thought of new holiday clothing and the memories of going to synagogue with that slight fall breeze in the air as the seasons start to change.
I actually didn't grow up super connected to my Judaism—it's something I was only drawn to later—but Rosh Hashanah was a staple in my upbringing. It was always a period with quality family time, delicious food, and the ability to start a new school year with more intention as it felt like two new years were upon us.
Eventually, I became so connected that I started to look more into the world of Judaism for myself and was fascinated by all the meaning packed into the religion and culture I was living all along. Now, I'm determined to bring that spirit and light into my own home and family which includes my 1.5-year-old son.
Many public schools give days off for the High Holidays and if you're not Jewish, it can be confusing to know the proper way to wish Jewish families a wonderful holiday. Even Jewish families may be rusty with traditions and not know the best way to bring the spirit into their home and children's lives in a fun and vibrant way.
I sat down with Shevy Vigler, the founder and director of Alef Bet Preschool on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (as well as the mother of 8 children including 3-year-old triplets), to learn more about how to teach kids about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—no matter your affiliation.
When Is Rosh Hashanah?
First, let's talk about when. This year, Rosh Hashanah falls out on the evening of Monday, September 6 and goes through the evening of Wednesday, September 8 (Jewish holidays start and end at sundown). Families will have festive meals both in the evening and daytime and usually some members will attend synagogue in the mornings. A lot of synagogues have kids' programs as well.
What is Rosh Hashanah?
It's the Jewish new year. The words, "Rosh Hashanah" actually translate to "Head of the Year" in Hebrew.
A lot of the symbolism around the holiday involves sweet things. We eat apples and challah dipped in honey in the hopes of having a "sweet" new year, one that is filled with love, happiness, joy, and celebration.
This concept of sweetness is inserted into a typical Rosh Hashanah greeting. We say, "L'Shana Tova U'Metukah," which translates to "Have a sweet and good year," Vigler explains. If you're not Jewish and getting a little tongue-tied though, "L'Shana Tova" will do the trick or even just saying, "Have a sweet year!" to your Jewish neighbor is a thoughtful gesture.
How to Involve Kids In Your Celebration
If you are Jewish, a really great way to get kids involved is to start with the food, shares Vigler. Depending on their ages, you can get them in the kitchen cooking with you. Doing so will have kids more engaged and asking questions. "Food is about so much more than what we eat," she says. "They're a big connector to the holiday—to the feels, sounds, and smells."
She explains that the round challah symbolizes the fact that we want to have a full and complete year. She suggests doing a honey taste test with your kids as a way to get them excited or offering other sweet foods like a pomegranate (also a symbol of the holiday) to try.
You can also put pictures around your home with symbols of the day like a shofar—a ram's horn that we blow as an awakening for the new year. Putting these photos around will inspire children to ask more questions and want to learn more. If you don't know the answers you can take the time to learn new things together. Plus, you can explain that these ideas aren't only meaningful now, but they connect your children to their ancestors that lived centuries ago, who were doing the same things.
"If kids are older, you can talk about setting intentions," says Vigler. "You can talk to them about what things correlate to new beginnings and what they might to do get ready for a new year."
When is Yom Kippur?
Yom Kippur comes after Rosh Hashanah, which this year starts the evening of Wednesday, September 15, and ends the evening of Thursday, September 16. It's also referred to as "The Day of Atonement," when we're forgiven for all our sins in the past and can really start the new year fresh.
What is the Meaning of Yom Kippur?
While Yom Kippur is a holiday, it's a solemn one. Jews don't eat or drink on the day in order to be like angels and feel closer to G-d. It's about transcending the physical and getting closer to the spiritual. Jews often say, "Gmar Chatima Tova," or "May you be sealed for good." You can also wish someone, "an easy and meaningful fast," or simply, a "meaningful holiday."
How to Involve Children in Yom Kippur
Vigler explains that for the youngest children, you can talk about the concept of apologizing. "We're not perfect and we make mistakes sometimes," she says. "Forgiveness is a very strong concept. Learning to apologize and acknowledge that if we make a mistake we can start again and do better next time is really powerful."
She shares that you can help them relate to G-d as a parent. "Even when a child makes a mistake, their parent still loves them and wants the best for them," she says. "The same is true with G-d."
Children who are under the age of 13, or pre-Bar or Bat Mitzah, do not fast. If you are fasting and your children are not, Vigler suggests preparing food for your kids ahead of time for the day so if you're not feeling well you don't have to do any extra work. She says it's a good idea to let your child in on what's going on as well so they have more understanding and aren't confused.
"The more you converse with them, the more they'll be able to articulate," she says. "I always speak to my children at young ages. Even if it doesn't fully connect with them right now, down the line, they'll connect and resonate with it more and more."