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This article is excerpted with permission from Entering the High Holy Days, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
The period of time from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is known as the Ten Days of Penitence. This name appears in sources from the Land of Israel, including the Jerusalem Talmud.
The concept of these days as a special unit of time in the Jewish year dates at least to the third century BCE. Rabbi Yohanan, who lived in the Land of Israel during that period, describes his conception of divine judgment and inscription in this season: “Three books are opened in heaven on Rosh Hashanah, one for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous and one for those in between. The completely righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life. The completely wicked are immediately inscribed in the book of death. The fate of those in between is suspended until Yom Kippur. If they do well, they are inscribed in the book of life. If not, in the book of death” (B.Rosh Hashanah l6b).
The Ten Days of Penitence are seen as an opportunity for change. And since the extremes of complete righteousness and complete wickedness are few and far between, Rosh Hashanah functions, for the majority of people, as the opening of a trial that extends until Yom Kippur. It is an unusual trial. Most trials are intended to determine responsibility for past deeds. This one, however, has an added dimension: determining what can be done about future deeds. The Ten Days of Penitence are crucial to the outcome of the trial, since our verdict is determined both by our attitude toward our misdeeds and by our attempts to rectify them by changing ourselves.
Repentance, Prayer, and Charity
The famous piyyut [religious poem] Unetanah tokef discusses the fact that between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there is an opportunity “to avert the severe decree” through three actions: repentance, prayer, and charity. The requirements for repentance include a change of mind, a feeling of regret, and a determination to change, along with an effort to repair the effects of one’s misdeed.
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