- Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day of the Jewish year. Jews have observed Yom Kippur for millennia.
- Yom Kippur observance is based on Leviticus 16, where procedures are laid out for atonement for all the sins of Israel. The key verses are 29-31: “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”
- Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, sacrifices were no longer possible. Yom Kippur remains a day of fasting and earnest prayer. Even in extreme situations, Jews will do whatever they can to fast from sundown to sundown.
- The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, but it only atones for sins against one’s fellow human beings if one has already gone through the process of teshuvah. Follow the link for more information about teshuvah. Because often proper teshuvah takes time, the entire month of Elul is set aside for preparation for the Days of Awe.
- The evening service that opens Yom Kippur is called Kol Nidre, after the legal formula with which it begins. Kol Nidre means “all vows.” It is both a nullification of foolish vows we may be tempted to make during the day of fasting, and a remembrance of the many times our people were given the bitter choice of conversion (to Christianity or Islam) or death.
- Yom Kippur is unique in the Jewish Year in that there are five complete services for the day. A normal Jewish weekday has three services. Shabbat has four. (The number of services corresponds to the number of sacrifices in Temple times.)
- On Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally observe five different practices: We fast from food and water, we do not wear leather shoes, we do not bathe, we do not “anoint ourselves” (use lotions or wear makeup) and we refrain from sexual relations. Fasting is the most widely observed of these among liberal Jews. However, people with medical problems and pregnant women are forbidden to fast. Children under 13 do not fast.
- Yom Kippur is the day when Jews who do not otherwise enter a synagogue will go to services. Many Jews spend the entire day at synagogue, going to services, studying, confessing personal and communal sins, and discussing serious matters.
- On Yom Kippur, Jews who have lost close relatives attend Yizkor, a service of mourning and remembrance.
- The last service of the day is Neilah, “locking,” which refers to the poetic idea that during the Days of Awe, the “gates of repentance” are open. It is a dramatic service in which the cantor and service leaders plead for God’s forgiveness for Israel.
- Yom Kippur appears to “move around” in the Gregorian calendar. That is because Jewish holy days are set by the Jewish calendar, which is lunar and works differently than the Gregorian. In the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur always falls on the 10th of Tishri, in the autumn.
- In 2014, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on October 3.
- The words Rosh HaShanah mean “Head of the Year,” Jewish New Year.
- The number of the year changes on Rosh HaShanah. This year, we change from 5774 to 5775.
- Rosh HaShanah is the first of the month of Tishri in the Jewish calendar.
- Rosh HaShanah is the first of the ten “Days of Awe” that culminate with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
- Rosh HaShanah, with Yom Kippur ten days later, are often referred to as the High Holy Days.
- On Rosh HaShanah, we remember the Creation of the world and we look ahead to the Judgment of God.
- Traditionally we eat sweet things on Rosh HaShanah: apples, honey and such to express our desire for a sweet year ahead.
- We prepare for Rosh HaShanah during the month of Elul.
- Rosh HaShanah is marked by feasting and solemnity.
- Many if not most Jews try to be in synagogue on Rosh HaShanah.
- One of the themes of Rosh HaShanah is the “Book of Life.” It is an ancient metaphor expressing the idea that we don’t know what lies ahead of us, but that God knows all.
- The traditional greeting for Rosh HaShanah is L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu (l’sha-NAH toe-VAH tee-ka-TAY-vu) which means “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year.”
- A shorter form of the greeting is Shanah Tovah which means “[Have a] Good Year”
- A very short greeting for the day is “Goot yom tov!” Yiddish for “Good holiday!”
- On Rosh HaShanah we hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.]
- On Rosh HaShanah, we make a special effort to make teshuvah, to repent old sins and to forge new ways of living.
- Many Jews around the world celebrate two days of Rosh HaShanah.
- This year, Rosh HaShanah starts at sundown on September 24, 2014.
A reader asked: “Is there a general pattern to the service, or not?”
The Jewish service may seem aimless to a newcomer. We stand, we mumble, we sit, we sing, we repeat a prayer from earlier, we do something that looks suspiciously like the hokey-pokey, we read some more prayers, we sing, we’re done. It is no surprise that many newcomers are left wondering: “What was THAT?”
I supply links to more detailed material. Click on any word you don’t understand or want to learn about more deeply. If I haven’t supplied a link, let me know in the comments and I’ll fix that.
Warm Up with Blessings and Praise
In the beginning, the service leader takes us through a series of “warm-ups” designed to help us prepare to pray. They might include a greeting, songs or psalms, and some prayers. This is one of the parts of the service that will vary greatly from place to place.
You will know this section is over when we stand for the “Barechu” prayer. It signals that we’re ready to get down to serious business.
Prelude and Postlude: Blessings
The Shema is preceded by two blessings. These prayers lead us into the proper frame of mind for the Shema. The first blessing has to do with Creation, the natural world. The second has to do with Revelation, how we have received Torah. The Shema itself is a passage from Torah. Then we say a blessing of Redemption, and the passage “Mi Chamocha” remembering our deliverance from Egypt.
The Core of the Service: Shema & Amidah
The service addresses two specific sets of mitzvot (commandments.) The first set is to say the Shema twice daily.
The second set is a little more complex. We say the Amidah [Standing Prayer] in order to fulfill our duty to maintain the Temple sacrifices. Back when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, we sacrificed animals according to the directions in the book of Leviticus. The book of Deuteronomy makes it clear that we are not to make sacrifices anywhere other than the Temple in Jerusalem. So once the Romans destroyed the Temple, we had a problem: how could we meet our obligation to maintain the sacrificial cult?
The Jewish people came up with an ingenious replacement for the sacrifices. Instead of sacrificing animals, we would make sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. If you read the first four chapters of Leviticus, you will see that every sacrifice was stacked upon the altar in a very specific way. Ever since the loss of the Temple Jews have kept the obligation to sacrifice by chanting the “stacked” prayers of the Amidah.
The final prayer in the Amidah is a prayer for shalom, for peace.
Sermon & Torah
At this point in the service, the “Torah service” (reading from the Torah) may be inserted. Traditionally Torah is read only in daylight on Shabbat, Mondays, and Thursdays.
If there is to be a sermon it will also usually come at this point.
Cool Down with Aleinu and Kaddish
We finish the service with the “concluding prayers.” Aleinu [“It is upon us”] is a mission statement for the Jewish People. If that sounds like a tall order, it is, which is why there are many versions of this prayer. Kaddish is a prayer for transitions; you will have heard it previously at least once in the service, but the Mourner’s Kaddish is usually the last big prayer in the service. We say it to recognize the last big transition in life, the transition from life to death. We recall the names of people who have died recently and in the past when we say this prayer.
These last prayers get us ready to go back out into the world, reminded of our mission in life and that life itself is actually very short.
Just as we do not stop a Torah or Haftarah reading on a sad verse, we don’t finish the service with the Mourner’s Kaddish. One very popular song for the end of the service is Adon Olam. Another is Ein Keloheinu:
A few other notes:
- The exact parts and order of the service will vary by time of day. Check this chart for details.
- The Shabbat Amidah is different from the weekday Amidah. This article has details.
- Services on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur have the same elements, with considerable additions.
- It takes time and practice to learn the service. This article may be some help for beginners.
A siddur (seh-DOOR or SID-der) is a Jewish prayer book. It is an anthology of prayers, readings, and poetry, some of which date to the time of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The word siddur means “order.” It is just that: it gives the proper order for the service. The plural is siddurim.
There have been many different siddurim since medieval times because each siddur reflects the custom of a particular group of Jews. There are some major, well-known siddurim with wide distribution, such as Mishkan T’filah (Reform), Siddur Sim Shalom (Conservative), Kol HaNeshamah (Reconstructionist), Siddur HaShalem and Siddur Rinat Yisrael (Orthodox.)
Some smaller communities produce their own siddurim. For instance, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco has published its prayer book, Siddur Sha’ar Zahav.
What prayer book is best for you? The one your community uses. While the basic order of service is the same in every siddur, small differences in wording, pagination, and arrangement can be extremely frustrating. Unless you want to have a copy for home study and prayer, there is no need to buy a prayer book: most synagogues provide them for worshippers. However, if you want to take it home or put marks in it, buy your own!
Liturgist and Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski once described the siddur as “the journal of the Jewish People.” Torah is God’s gift to Israel, but the siddur is in the words of our ancestors, our scholars, and our poets.
How does a person begin to keep Shabbat?
Maybe you’ve read a description of Shabbat observance, and found it overwhelming or just plain impossible. Or perhaps you had relatives who did observe Shabbat, and the way they went about it left you feeling that it was a burden, not a joy.
And now it’s Elul, and the High Holy Days are coming, and perhaps some of you are thinking that you’d LIKE to keep Shabbat, but… (you fill in the blank.)
So let me suggest another approach. If you want to keep Shabbat, pick ONE THING on this list that you aren’t already doing.
1. Light candles Friday night.
2. Set aside some part of Friday night or Saturday for a family meal.
3. Go to services at a nearby synagogue.
4. Set aside the 24 hours of Shabbat as a “no-nagging” time zone, or maybe just Friday night.
5. Read a commentary or d’var Torah on this week’s Torah portion. (You can find it here.)
6. Call or write to someone you love.
7. Do something you don’t usually give yourself time to do: take a walk in nature, for instance.
8. Have wine or juice with dinner Friday night, and say a blessing (English is fine.)
9. Turn off your cell phone and/or computer for part or all of the day.
10. Choose not to do any shopping from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Let whatever it is wait.
Now, try that ONE THING it out this Shabbat. Afterwards, ask yourself:
How did that feel? Do I want to do it again?
If so, do it again. If not, pick something else on the list and try it. Later, you can add something, when you are ready. Add no more than one thing at a time.
This is how a person grows into Shabbat.
If you attend synagogue services, sooner or later you will encounter Adon Olam, an ancient hymn. It has been part of the daily service since the 15th century.
The words are beautiful, and in Hebrew they are perfectly metrical. Because it is a beloved prayer that scans perfectly to 4/4 time, (iambic tetrameter, for poetry geeks) it can be sung to any melody in 4/4 time. Beautiful melodies have been written for it. Here’s an example:
If you search for keywords “Adon Olam Traditional” on YouTube.com, you’ll find many more. Here’s one of my favorites:
Because it’s so perfectly regular, you can also sing it to pop tunes. Here’s one making the rounds of the Internet lately:
I’ll spare you the one of two tweens singing it to a Justin Bieber tune. Suffice it to say, you can sing it to anything from “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
For many Jews, myself included, the words can be a mantra in time of trouble. In essence, they affirm a faith in a God beyond all human understanding who is nevertheless present to my distress:
Adon olam, asher malach,
b’terem kol y’tzir nivra.
L’et na’asah v’cheftzo kol,
azai melech sh’mo nikra.
V’acharey kichlot hakol,
l’vado yimloch nora.
V’hu haya, v’hu hoveh,
v’hu yih’yeh b’tifara.
V’hu echad, v’eyn sheni
l’hamshil lo, l’hachbira.
B’li reishit, b’li tachlit,
v’lo ha’oz v’hamisrah.
V’hu Eli, v’chai go’ali,
v’tzur chevli b’et tzarah.
V’hu nisi umanos li,
m’nat kosi b’yom ekra.
B’yado afkid ruchi
b’et ishan v’a’irah.
V’im ruchi g’viyati,
Adonai li v’lo ira.
Translation: (note: Hebrew is a gendered language. In the interest of giving a fairly literal translation, I employed masculine pronouns. However, God is beyond all gender.)
The Eternal Ruler who reigned
before anything was created:
When all was made by His will
“Monarch” he was proclaimed to be.
And when everything is no more
He still all alone shall reign.
He was, He is,
and He shall be in glory.
And He is one, and there’s no other,
to compare or join Him.
Without beginning, without end
and to Him belongs dominion and power.
He is my God, my living Ransomer.
my solid Rock in time of trouble,
and He is my miracle and my refuge,
who answers on the day I call.
To Him I commit my spirit,
in the time of sleep and at waking,
And as with my spirit, so my body:
God is with me, I shall not fear.
Do you have a favorite tune for Adon Olam? What’s your favorite Jewish song?
Looking for some basic reading about Judaism? Here are some of the best bets around:
Settings of Silver, an Introduction to Judaism by Stephen M Wylen – This is the book I use for my Intro courses. I chose it because the information is solid, it includes a brief history, and it has a good index.
Living Judaism: The Complete Guide to Jewish Tradition, Belief, and Practice by Wayne Dosick – Another good basic text, used by many rabbis.
Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg – Published in 1947, this is still a classic work. It’s small but powerful.
What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzer – This book has a Q&A format and it’s extremely basic. If you are looking for just some basic facts without details, it might be the right book for you.
These are not holiday or “how-to” books – I’ll post a list of those soon.
Do you have a favorite basic Judaism text?