Many are familiar with the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah (occurring on Tishri 1 and 2) and Yom Kippur (occurring on Tishri 10), but fewer are familiar with Aseret Yeme Teshuva, also known as the Ten Days of Penitence or the Days of Awe. The Days of Awe refer to ten days of repentance and renewal that commence upon sundown on Rosh Hashanah and conclude on Yom Kippur. This is an annual season of making atonement not only with God but also with fellow human beings, insofar as it is within our abilities.
The message of Rosh Hashanah begins with the words, "May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life," but one cannot be inscribed in the Book of Life with sin on one’s record. Hence the tradition of the Days of Awe—ten days to seek amends with God, repair and reconcile broken earthly relationships with our brothers and sisters in Yeshua, and repent of any sins so that we are cleansed and purified, ready to stand in holy judgment before God Almighty on Yom Kippur.
Within Jewish religious life, it is not simply God’s grace that corrects broken relationships, but a matter of intentional effort for one who has hurt someone to seek out the one he or she has hurt and repair what damage was inflicted. The name "Days of Awe" comes from the awesome burden one feels, individually and collectively, to atone for sins and make peace with anyone we may have offended during the past year while recommitting oneself to obedience to the law as taught in the Torah.
Yet, there is an understanding that reconciliation with fellow men is a miracle, that nothing good can happen in Heaven or on Earth without the grace of God, and that God is the righteous judge. His ways are just and true, and the wickedness and inequity perpetuated on this earth will not go unpunished. Surely there is a reward for the righteous, and surely there is a God who judges on earth (Psalm 58:11). Judaism seems to place more of a focus on forgiveness than personal salvation compared to Christianity, and this forgiveness seems to be granted by God on a temporary basis, requiring renewal during the Days of Awe in next year’s High Holy Season.
For Orthodox Jews, the Days of Awe begin with a special prayer service at the local congregation, seeking forgiveness for sins and transgressions. The prayer may even be said at midnight, when it is believed the gates of heaven open wide (compared to being closed the rest of the year). Most Jewish people overall promote teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (charity or good deeds) during the Days of Awe, such that God’s decree that He issued on Rosh Hashanah can be fulfilled at sundown on Yom Kippur. This conclusion of the Days of Awe is when, according to tradition, the gates of Heaven close at the Nillah service and one’s holy judgment for the year is sealed. This contrasts with Christianity, where Yeshua proclaims He is the gate for His sheep, and the gates to Heaven are open all year long, not just during the High Holy Days, for all sinners who want to enter via Him (some relevant Bible verses include John 10:1, 9, John 11:25–26, John 14:6, Revelation 22:14–15).
Hence fasting on Yom Kippur, the final day in the Days of Awe, for those who are in good health and can safely participate in fasting, as the emphasis on that day is the fate of one’s soul. It is on Yom Kippur that one’s name may or may not be inscribed in the Book of Life, depending on whether sin was purged from one’s record and amends made prior to this time. Some relevant Bible verses include Daniel 12:1, Revelation 3:5, and Revelation 20:15.
Some ultra-Orthodox (Chassidic) Jewish communities, and sometimes even some Orthodox Jewish communities, will also include a kaparot ritual on Erev Yom Kippur. The purpose is ritualistic atonement, where a person’s sins are believed to be symbolically transferred to a chicken while cleansing the individual of said sin. In performing this kaparot ritual of unknown origin, a person will hold a chicken over the head using his right hand and move in a circular motion three times around the chicken’s head while reciting the prayer, "This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement (kaparah). This rooster (hen) shall meet its death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace." Afterward, the chicken is slaughtered in a kosher manner, and the remains are donated to the poor, hungry, or otherwise needy. Kaparot is not mentioned in the Talmud or other rabbinic writings to anyone’s knowledge, so many rabbis dismiss the practice as foolish, quackery, unnecessary, unscriptural, or pagan, with no place in faithful Jewish religious life.
Some other Jewish communities during the Days of Awe may utilize religious rabbis using a belt strap to implement light lashes on the back of a boy or man to inflict small amounts of discomfort without causing lasting marks or wounds, so as to symbolize the pain of sin and hopefully inspire subsequent repentance.
The whole purpose of both of these untraditional ceremonies is to inspire people to teshuvah—repentance to God and making amends both before God and with fellow men. More commonly today, however, Jewish people will give money to their congregations, which will then be directed to charity (tzedakah) rather than sacrificing chickens or accepting lashes. Judaism views tzedakah as a foundational pillar of the faith, and in some communities or congregations, it may go so far as to suspect the authenticity of one’s Jewish heritage and genealogy if a Jewish person fails to extend his hand to the poor and needy. Furthermore, the Days of Awe are a season where Jewish people often give tzedakah above and beyond the normal amount they may extend in mercy to those in need throughout the rest of the year.
Yet we must remember that divine forgiveness and pardon of sins are not granted through the sacrifice of chickens, coins, or any form of tzedkah or other works. Yes, loving our neighbor and extending our hand to the needy is important—so important that Yeshua Himself commanded us in no uncertain terms to do so. But how can we extend holy love to our neighbors if there is no godly definition of what love unto others is? Hence the other commandments of Yeshua, which outline not only how to live holy lives but also what love looks like for those seeking to live out pure and undefiled religion.
No matter how genuine the cause, no amount of gold or silver donated to charity, the congregation, or the needy can atone for our sins if our hearts are not consecrated before God, sin remains on our record, and we refuse to repent or change our ways such that our lives are in line with the Laws of Yeshua rather than the carnal desires of man. God certainly does call us to be generous to the poor and needy and for us to perform these deeds in secret and not to be seen by others, but that alone does not secure our salvation. We cannot tithe, buy, or sacrifice our way into Heaven if our hearts are not right, and Yeshua is not our personal Lord and Savior. Tzedakah does not overcome the carnal heart or mortal frailties that plague all of mankind, especially if it is not done for the right reasons. Relevant related Bible verses include Deuteronomy 15:10, Deuteronomy 15:7-8, Zephaniah 1:18, Isaiah 52:3, and Hebrews 9:12.
While the Jewish people use the Days of Awe as a time of communal searching of one’s heart and ways, making amends with God and with others, examining their lives, confessing and repenting of sins, asking for divine mercy upon oneself, one’s family, and perhaps even all of Israel for transgressions against the teachings of the Torah, while genuinely seeking the face of God Almighty, Christianity views this as an activity that can be conducted all year long. As expressed in Matthew 18:14, God desires that everyone repent and that no one perish. Hence, atonement is available all year through Yeshua the Messiah, not only during the Days of Awe.
Judaism views the Days of Awe as a time when God withdraws His presence in hopes His people will pursue Him with all their hearts and souls, His forgiveness, and His divine pardon and mercy for our sins. This contrasts with Christianity, which teaches that God is with us always, even to the end of time, and that forgiveness for our sins is available anytime by confessing, repenting, and taking the matter directly to Yeshua without being limited to the ten Days of Awe.
During the Days of Awe and the entirety of the High Holy Days, may we all celebrate the victory that Yeshua, our Lord, Savior, and Redeemer, fulfilled for us in His atoning work at Calvary and His soon return.