A Time of Repentance
The Days of Awe, also known as Yamin Noraim (Days of Repentance), are a special time in the Jewish calendar. During those ten days, each person has a chance to reflect on the past year and amend for the mistakes and transgressions he or she had made through a process known as teshuvah (turning or returning to God), which begins with an intense examination of one's actions and the desire and intent to strive toward being a better person.
Teshuvah is based on the Jewish belief that humans have within them the capacity to do both good and evil, and that every day each person chooses between right and wrong. Judaism recognizes that people are not perfect and that they make mistakes. Even the heroes of Jewish history have had the faults and frailties that make them human—just think of David's affair with Bathsheba.
Observance of Jewish holidays and festivals is determined by the Hebrew calendar, which is based on the lunar cycle and adjusted to the solar year by the device of the leap year. Unlike the Gregorian calendar's leap year, which contains February 29, the Hebrew leap year has an extra month, and there are seven leap years in every nineteen-year cycle.
During the Days of Awe, Jews make an effort to become better people and seek forgiveness for the sins they committed. The Jewish tradition makes it clear that we need to seek forgiveness from those we had wronged. God will only absolve sins committed against Him, so a person who acted unjustly toward another person must seek forgiveness and reconciliation from that person.
The Book of Life
According to Jewish tradition, God has a heavenly ledger known as Sefer Ha-Chayyim (The Book of Life). During the Days of Awe, God writes down the names of those who will have a good life and those who will not, those who will live and those who will die in the ensuing year. God opens the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah and closes it at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.
Traditional Jews believe that each person's actions during this ten-day period can alter the initial determination. This can be accomplished with the proper combination of tefilah (prayer), performing acts of tzedakah (good deeds and charity), and the process of teshuvah.
Tsom Gedaliah and Shabbat Shuvah
In addition to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the period of the Days of Awe contains other special days. On the third day, observant Jews participate in a minor fast known as Tzom Gedaliah (the fast of Gedaliah). This fast marks the execution of Zedekiah (Gedaliah), the last governor of Judea before the destruction of the First Temple.
The Sabbath that occurs during the Ten Days of Repentance is known as Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return. It is customary that at this service the rabbi reads a rather lengthy sermon about repentance that includes excerpts from the Books of Hosea, Micah, and Joel.
During this season, many people visit the graves of their loved ones. This custom likely originated with the belief that the thoughts or prayers of the deceased can intercede in heaven on behalf of the living. Obviously, such assistance would be particularly welcome during the Days of Awe.