Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur have come to be known, in the parlance of our times (to quote “The Big Lebowski”), as the “High Holidays” or “the High Holy days.” But which term is correct? Should one be favored above the other? Should either phrase even be used at all?
According to dictionary.com a “holiday” can be anything from “a religious feast” to a “vacation” to “an unintentional gap left on a plated, coated or painted surface.’”
“Holy,” on the other hand, means “sacred,” or “pure.”
“I think that everything in the world has the potential to be either holy, or a holiday,” said Rabbi David Novitsky of Beth Israel Congregation in Washington, Pa. “‘Holiday’ implies happiness, but ‘holy day’ has a much more spiritual significance.”
Considering their meanings, Novitsky believes that both terms are appropriate when speaking about the Jewish New Year.
“Our festivals are considered half for God and half for man,” Novitsky said. “It’s the right balance to celebrate the holidays, and to observe the holy days. You sit in synagogue, and then you go home and eat all these lovely foods. It’s not just to be something spiritual. You’re living in this world, and living in the spiritual world, too.”
Perhaps a clue to proper phraseology can be gleaned from one of the biblical names for the new year: Yom Teruah, which means “Day of the Major Blast,” said Rabbi Stanley Savage of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol-Beth Jacob. Although the reference of a major blast originally referred to the sounding of the shofar, today the phrase might be used to justify a pretty awesome celebration.
“Unless you’re a Pirates fan,” said Savage. “They haven’t been blasting in 16 years.”
One local Orthodox rabbi, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that neither “High Holidays” nor “High Holy Days” were appropriate terms for the Days of Awe.
“I don’t know where these terms come from,” he said. “They imply that these days are ‘higher’ than other holidays, and that’s not the case. It’s not like some holidays are on a regular level, and some are on a higher level. In religious circles, we don’t use the term ‘high holidays.’”
When pressed, however, the anonymous rabbi did admit that there was a difference in the meaning of the two phrases.
“The way we celebrate holidays today,” he said, “is typically with a day off work, like on Martin Luther King Day, or Veteran’s Day. But a holy day should be set aside, it should be special. It’s not just a day off, but a day for holy things.”
So is it inappropriate to use the two phrases interchangeably?
“It’s the same exact word, the same exact term,” said Rabbi Moshe Edleman, of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Synagogue Resource Center. “The only difference is that “holy days” has been merged into one word. The ‘y’ has been dropped, and the ‘i’ has been
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)