The Jewish High Holidays, also called the High Holy Days, consist of the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year and celebrates God’s Creation of the World. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement and is traditionally believed to be the day upon which God decides the fate of each person during the coming year. Together these holidays are the most important events on the Jewish calendar.
Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur have many traditions and symbols associated with their modern day observance. But in ancient times and during the Middle Ages, some Jews held superstitious beliefs that were associated with these holidays.
Confusing Satan on Rosh HaShanah
In addition to marking the beginning of a New Year on the Hebrew calendar, Rosh HaShanah also marks the beginning of the month of Tishrei. Since the Hebrew calendar is lunar based, this means that Rosh HaShanah begins with the arrival of the new moon. According to author Lesli Koppelman Ross, in ancient times some Jews attempted to use this correlation between Rosh HaShanah and the new moon to confuse Satan as to when the New Year began.
According to this superstitious belief, Satan was not a devil figure but rather the adversary portrayed in the biblical Book of Job. In the Book of Job, “Ha Satan” (The Adversary) spoke against Job to God, and as a result all manner of misfortune befell Job and his family. Hoping to avoid a similar situation where Satan would realize Rosh HaShanah was beginning and speak ill against someone before God passed Judgment on Yom Kippur, some Jews sought to hide the beginning of Rosh HaShanah from Satan. They did this by blowing the shofar every day during the preceding month of Elul so that when the shofar was blown on Rosh HaShanah it would not be a signal to Satan that Rosh HaShanah had arrived. (The shofar is still blown every day of Elul in modern times, though not because of a belief in Satan.) They also did not bless the new moon in the month of Tishrei to further avoid letting Satan know that Rosh HaShanah was beginning.
Sleeping (Or Not) on Rosh HaShanah
Many cultures have superstitious traditions associated with the beginning of a New Year. For example, in the American South some believe that eating black-eyed peas on New Years will bring luck in the coming year. In a similar fashion, some Jews believed that if you were happy on Rosh HaShanah then you would be happy during the new year. Indeed, according to Ross, in some Jewish communities people would make an effort to create a happy atmosphere at synagogue and at home in order to help bring about this connection between one’s state of mind during Rosh HaShanah and the New Year.
Another superstitious custom involved sleep – or lack thereof – on Rosh HaShanah. According to the Talmud “if one sleeps at the year’s beginning, his good fortune likewise sleeps” (Ross, 175). In other words, if you went to sleep on Rosh HaShanah you would have an unlucky year ahead of you.
Cemeteries and Yom Kippur Candles
In the Middle Ages some Jewish women would visit cemeteries during the month of Elul in order to prepare materials that would be used to make Yom Kippur candles. This preparation involved walking the perimeter of the cemetery while unrolling a spool of cotton string. After the string had touched the ground it would be gathered up again, then used to make wicks for Yom Kippur candles. Ideally these candles would be white and long enough to burn for twenty-four hours. During Yom Kippur some Jews would recite prayers asking deceased relatives to intercede for them before the Gates of Judgment were closed. Presumably the idea was that the cotton wick – having touched cemetery ground - formed a bridge between the world of the living and the dead.
Source: Ross, Lesli Koppelman. “Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holidays Handbook.” Jason Aronson Inc.: Northvale, 1994.