The links between Jewish high holy days and Christianity


With Rosh Hashanah on 30 September and Yom Kippur on 8 October, the Jewish community is currently marking the high point of its liturgical year. Apart from taking vague note of this and perhaps wishing them well, does this season have any deeper meaning for followers of Jesus? Mike Batley explains the links between the Jewish and Christian seasons of repentance.

With the proliferation of different streams of Christianity, together with a lot of ignorance, it seems that many believers are unaware that they are part of a rich Judeo-Christian tradition. Apart from sharing the first part of our Holy Scriptures (the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), the early Christians were mainly Jewish. They were regarded by the other Jews of the time as one of a number of streams of Judaism, and were known as followers of ‘the Way’.  

As the Gospel message was shared and began to take root among non-Jewish people, one of the debates was whether you needed to become Jewish in order to follow Jesus. Paul answered this firmly in the negative (cf Galations 5 on the issue of circumcision). Yet this was the point where the Jewish and Christian paths began to diverge. Despite the divergence, Jews and Christians share a common heritage, including many beliefs and ideas about the world. I have found that my own faith has been deeply enriched by getting to know my Jewish roots better.

My own faith has been deeply enriched by getting to know my Jewish roots better.

The current season is the culmination of the Month of Elul, a time of repentance prompted by the occasion when the Jews sinned by worshipping the golden calf (cf. Exodus 32). The four letters of the name Elul are an acronym for the phrase in “Song of Songs” (6:3): “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me”. “I am to my beloved”—we approach G-d [1] with a desire to return and connect, which is remembered on Shabbat T’Shuvah (Return). “And my beloved is to me”—G‑d reciprocates with Divine expressions of mercy and forgiveness.

Beyond the repentance and recommitment, on ‘Rosh Hashanah, Hashem (G-d) Himself remembers us – all of us together, the living and the deceased. It is about having that moment with Hashem. It is about the rest of the world going silent, everything else ceasing to matter for an instant as that relationship between you and Hashem is all there is. Rosh Hashanah is a time of remembering that we are the centre of G-d’s world, the apple of His eye’.

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One of the central prayers in the Rosh Hashanah morning service reads: ‘We call you Avinu (Father). As a loving parent, forgive our sins and failings and reach for us as we reach for You. We call You Malkeinu (Sovereign). As a wise ruler, teach us to add our strength to Your love, that we may fulfil our destiny and redeem the world. To this vision, to this possibility, to this task, we offer ourselves anew’. (The New Union Prayer Book, p121)

As a wise ruler, teach us to add our strength to Your love, that we may fulfil our destiny and redeem the world.”

Continuing in this theme, the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of South Africa refers in his Rosh Hashanah message  to a conversation between two rabbis after the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. One of the rabbis is distraught at what this loss means – how will they now atone for the people’s sins? The other rabbi consoles him, explaining that there is a force in the world which has the same potency as the Temple itself to atone for sin. ‘That force, he says, is kindness. The simple act of reaching out to others – providing them with help, support, comfort and strength in their time of need – can rewire the spiritual universe in much the same way as the ancient sacred Temple services. Kindness can unleash a force of divine forgiveness in the world that changes everything.’

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is Judaism’s holiest day of the year. Its central themes are atonement and repentance, and it is usually observed with a 25 hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, with Jews spending most of the day in synagogue services. While there are many rituals with complex historical roots, the essence is that, in order to gain atonement from G-d, one must pray, repent of both private and public sins (by regretting having committed the sins, resolving not to commit them in the future and confessing them before G-d) and give to charity.

Part of the prayer of confession on the day reads: ‘How to realise the ‘divine image’ in me – there is the question and the answer. Surely it means to seek You more earnestly, to submit myself to Your will; to say to You: Here I am: mould me, guide me, command me, use me, let me be Your co-worker, an instrument of Your redemptive purpose’. (The New Union Prayer Book, p326)

“Here I am: mould me, guide me, command me, use me, let me be Your co-worker, an instrument of Your redemptive purpose.”

The themes of acceptance of responsibility, of apology, of individual and collective renewal, together with the beliefs that human beings are created in God’s image and are called to be co-creators in the world are all very familiar to followers of Jesus. By recognising their ancient roots we become more aware that G-d, and our faith in Him, is ‘ever ancient, ever new’, to use St Augustine’s phrase.

[1] In the Jewish tradition, the name of God is never said or written in full as a sign of respect.

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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The links between Jewish high holy days and Christianity