December 11, 2023 /
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The days known as the High Holy Days in the Jewish calendar are the most intense, introspective, and deeply emotional days of the year. These days begin with Rosh Hashanah (literally the head of the year, or the Jewish New Year) – a day of both celebration and hallowed ritual. Yom Kippur (literally a day of atonement) comes ten days later and is marked by fasting and solemn prayer. The days between these two auspicious holidays are known as the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe); they serve as a time of introspection, reconciliation, and self-awareness. The High Holy Days serve to bring us together. They help us to conclude another year gone by, and ready us to begin the new year to come. May these High Holy Days give us strength, growth, and community in the days ahead.
Rosh Hashanah marks the New Year for the Jewish calendar, and while it is indeed a celebration, it is a far cry from what you might see in Times Square for the secular calendar. Instead, Rosh Hashanah carries far deeper traditions, beliefs, and customs. It is a day whose prayers call us to be introspective and thankful, in addition to feeling celebratory. Rosh Hashanah is a time to look back at the year just ending, and dream of the days coming in the year that is about to unfold.
The Torah mentions just a one-day celebration of Rosh Hashanah, but because the day depended on the sighting of a new moon, difficulties sometimes arose. To be sure that the exact day was observed as Rosh Hashanah, long ago, our ancestors celebrated two days of the holiday. In modern times, some Reform communities, reasoning that science can now tell us exactly when a day begins and ends, concluded that we should revert back to the biblical roots and celebrate only one day of Rosh Hashanah. Most Jews, however, continue to celebrate two days, as we do here at Anshe Emeth.
One of the most celebrated and exciting observances of Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the Shofar. Traditionally, no less than 100 blasts are heard on each day of Rosh Hashanah. Some long, some short, the sounds of the shofar remind us of our higher purpose and serves as a clarion call to the importance of the High Holy Days.
The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah highlights three important themes: Tefilah (prayer), Teshuvah (repentance), and Tzedakah (responsible giving or charity). Each plays a significant role in our observance of the New Year.
Coming together for prayer marks one of the most noticeable rituals of Rosh Hashanah. We come to the synagogue to pray together as a community, dealing with our personal and communal shortcomings. We join together as a community both in celebration and in renewal. We seek forgiveness from others, and we hope to use the new year to build a better world together.
Teshuvah is a key theme of the High Holy Day season. Repentance begins with the recognition of our faults, failures, and weaknesses. We move from recognition to a willingness to make amends with anyone we have wronged. We seek their forgiveness and understanding, just as we hope others will with us.
On Rosh Hashanah, most of our prayers of repentance are written in the plural form, meaning that we take responsibility for each other. One of the best ways to show our understanding of this important value is to give to those in need. One way to practice the value of Tzedakah is to bring non-perishable food items to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. While we fast out of choice, too many in our world are forced to fast. During these times of introspection, giving to others can help us reach our highest potential.
There are a couple of other ritual observances related to Rosh Hashanah – Selichot and Tashlich.
Traditionally, late at night immediately after a Shabbat that precedes Rosh Hashanah, Jews gather for a liturgical service devoted to special Selichot prayers that ask for forgiveness. Indeed, the word selichot literally means repentances. In modern times, during this service we begin to chant High Holy Day prayers and we change the mantles on our Torah scrolls from the colorful everyday mantles to special white mantles that symbolize the purity of spirit we hope to attain during the High Holy Days.
Tashlich is a special service that usually occurs on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. The origins of Tashlich are not known, though some say that it originated with the Kabbalists. The service takes place near a body of water. After reading a selection from the prophetic book of Micah about casting away one’s sins, we symbolically cast away our sins by tossing breadcrumbs into the water.
While prayer and liturgical services make up the bulk of our traditions for the High Holy Days, there are a number of cultural aspects to this time of year that also bring us together as a community.
Traditionally, we eat round braided challot on Rosh Hashanah. The shape of the challah symbolizes the cycle of life that we celebrate on the New Year. Some also suggest that the round challah represents our hope for a new year of completeness, unbroken by difficulties.
Also, apples and honey are served on Rosh Hashanah to mark our hopes for a sweet New Year. The apples are served for two reasons. First the apples are seen as first fruits, which traditionally were a customary offering at the Temple in Jerusalem. Second, the apples sometimes have a tart taste. Thus by eating the tart apple with honey, we are reminded that life has both happy and challenging times, and that we hope the sweet will overpower the sour in our lives.
Yom Kippur marks the most important, holy moment of our religious calendar. It is a time, when we come to God seeking absolution and atonement for the past year. In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, we were given the opportunity to rectify and atone for grievances to one another. On Yom Kippur, we are given the opportunity to atone for grievances regarding God, as a community.
Liturgically, Yom Kippur begins with Kol Nidre services and the singing of the prayer by the same name. During Kol Nidre, we utter prayers that make the vows we have made during the previous year null and void. The prayers only refer to vows made between humans and God; as our tradition teaches, vows between people can only be voided by the people involved. This service is our opportunity to come together as a community to engage both our personal and communal shortcomings.
The word tzom is the Hebrew word for a fast. Traditionally, on Yom Kippur, we fast from sundown (coinciding with Kol Nidre) until sundown the next day (at the end of Yom Kippur). The fast, which is mentioned in Leviticus and Numbers, is meant to help us focus completely on our prayers during this solemn day. Those who are under the age of 13 (before bar or bat mitzvah), or are ill or under doctors’ orders to eat are exempted from fasting.
Yom Kippur morning services are much like those of Rosh Hashanah. During these prayers, we liturgically seek repentance, and spend time recalling our actions during the year just ended.
Also during Yom Kippur, we take time to remember and honor family and friends who have passed away. This service is a special service (that also happens on Sukkot, Passover, Shavuot) that contains memorial prayers. As a community, we at Anshe Emeth also produce a special memorial book listing the names of the loved ones we remember.
The final service of Yom Kippur is called Neilah. It is a beautiful service, and has a bit more uplifting tone than either Kol Nidre or the Yom Kippur morning service. Neilah concludes with a long shofar blast. We invite you to bring your children and grandchildren with you to our concluding service. As we have at Anshe Emeth for many years, we will invite all of children to the bima to hear the final blast of the shofar.
Many of our High Holy Day cultural practices are encompassed in the more celebratory Rosh Hashanah. There are, however, cultural trappings of Yom Kippur as well. On Yom Kippur, we come together as a community to share both our strengths and weaknesses. Our families remember those who are no longer with us. We commiserate over our fasts. And we reflect upon what the book of life has in store for us in the coming year. Some have also taken on the custom of writing of a Cheshbon HaNefesh, or an Accounting of the Soul. A Cheshbon HaNefesh is similar to the writing of a journal or memoir of the past year. In them, we chronicle all that we have done and we use what we have written to engage our year gone by. Also, on Yom Kippur many wish each other a Gut Yontif (Yiddish for a good holiday) or a Sweet New Year (even though Rosh Hashanah has already past). We might also hear people wishing one another with a tzom kal, or an easy fast. Perhaps most of all, people wish that others may be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year or Gamar Chatimah Tovah.
Special thanks to www.ReformJudaism.org for their wonderful links.