Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days, 5776

Shofar

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 13, 2015. Here are some basic facts to know about the holiday season:

Happy Jewish New Year!

Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”] For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

Days of Awe

Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.

Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance

The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”]

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.

In the Synagogue

Very important, for newcomers: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time. The services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.

Tickets for Prayer?

Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.

There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to direct you to a synagogue which offers free High Holy Day services.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students or members of the military. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.

Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days

To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.

There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many classes in synagogues start immediately after the holidays.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5776!

Seven Shofar Facts

Rabbi Michal Loving blowing Shofar
  1. The only clear mention of Rosh HaShanah in the Torah – and then not by name! – is the Zichron Truah [Memorial Horn-Sounding] of Leviticus 23:24 and the Yom Teruah [Day of Horn-Sounding] of Numbers 29:1. The sound of the shofar and our obligation to hear it is right at the heart of Rosh HaShanah, the mitzvah [commandment] for the day.
  2. The shofar itself is a very plain object: the horn of a kosher animal, hollowed out so that it can work like a bugle. The halakhah [Jewish law] is clear on this: it has to be animal horn and it cannot be fitted with a metal mouthpiece or other fancy fittings.
  3. The person who blows the shofar is called the ba’al or ba’alat tekiah [master or mistress of the blast.] It is an honor to sound the shofar for the congregation.
  4. Sometimes you may see a shofar that has been plated with gold or silver, but those shofarot are decorative objects. The kosher shofar is a simple animal horn.  Under no circumstances should it have a metal mouthpiece.
  5. According to tradition, the shofar should be a ram’s horn, or that of a greater kudu (used by Yemenite Jews) both of which are curved. Occasionally you may see the horn of an ibex or a gemsbok (oryx), but they are relatively rare and quite expensive.
  6. The curved horn is required because the text for Rosh HaShanah is the story of the Binding of Isaac from Genesis 22. Near the end of the story, Abraham lifts his eyes and seems a ram caught in the bushes by his curved horns, a substitute for the human sacrifice.  When we see the curved shofar, we are reminded of the story and the mercy of God.
  7. Someone asked recently how a Deaf person can fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar. At Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California, they have come up with an ingenious way to allow even those with no hearing at all hear the shofar. Before the service, congregants inflate plenty of balloons. Then, when it comes time for the sound of the shofar, all who need help hearing the sound hold a balloon in their hands. The vibrations of the shofar cause the balloons to vibrate (just as it makes the eardrums of a hearing person vibrate) and so the Deaf congregants can hear it with their hands.

Thank you to Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr, Coral Springs, FL for the photo featured with this article. I use it by permission of Rabbi Loving, and all rights to its use are hers. The shofar pictured is in the Yemenite style, made from a kudu horn.

A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings

Rabbi Michal Loving blowing Shofar

There are a number of ways Jews greet one another during the High Holy Days.  The easiest, all-purpose greeting is:

SHANA TOVA – (shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “Good year” it means “Happy New Year.” You can reply with the same words.

Some other greetings you may hear leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on the day:

L’SHANA TOVA (luh-shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “To a Good Year.” It also means Happy New Year, and you can reply in kind.

L’SHANA TOVA TIKATEIVU (shah-NAH toe-VAH tee-kah-TAY-voo) literally, “May you be written for a good year [in the Book of Life.]

GUT YUNTIFF – (GOOT YUN-tif), (Yiddish) “Happy Holiday.”

From Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, it’s polite to assume that someone has already been “written in the book of life” so you wish them a “good sealing”:

GAMAR CHATIMAH TOVAH – (ga-MAR chah-ti-MAH toe-VAH) – “May your final sealing be good.”

Remember, you can never go wrong greeting or answering with “Shana Tovah!”

Thank you to Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr, Coral Springs, FL for the photo featured with this article. I use it by permission of Rabbi Loving, and all rights to its use are hers.

It’s Not Too Early to Think about the High Holy Days!

"ShofarSound" by Jonathunder - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Rosh HaShanah begins this year at sundown on September 13, 2015. That’s less than two months from now.

Every pulpit rabbi is busy with sermons and service plans. Every synagogue staff is frantically busy with preparations. But for the rest of us, fall seems a long way off.

Are you interested in attending services this year? If you are not a synagogue member, now is the time to start thinking about where you would like to attend. For every person who wants a seat in an urban or suburban synagogue, there may be several people who want that seat. That’s one of the reasons that synagogues sell tickets for the big High Holy Day services. And that is why you should start looking for your service very soon.

Don’t want to “pay to pray?” There are probably free services available in your area if you live in a city in the U.S., but again, you may want to locate those services sooner rather than later. Call your local Federation or Jewish Community Center office and ask what they know about free High Holy Day services.

If you have been thinking that this is your year to join a synagogue, I strongly suggest that you visit synagogues before the High Holy Days. This has several advantages:

  1. Your dues will include your High Holy Day tickets.
  2. You will not be stuck in a strange synagogue for the High Holy Days.
  3. Summer is a good time to visit synagogues. The High Holy Days are a terrible time to visit synagogues.

If you are a synagogue member, now is the time to remind yourself that this is the most stressful time of year for synagogue office staff. In addition to their regular work, they are preparing mailings, service books, and handouts. As the membership agreements come in, they have to deal with people’s questions about tickets, their complaints about last year, their worries about this year, and assorted kvetching about the weather and the parking last year. If you aspire to be a mensch (and you should aspire to be a mensch!) BE NICE TO THOSE PEOPLE!

So yes, the High Holy Days are coming, and fast. Be menschen, that you may be sealed for goodness  in the Book of Life!

High Holy Day Tickets: Why Pay to Pray?

TicketsSometimes people are a little shocked at the idea of tickets for the High Holy Days. Sometimes they are shocked at the price. Often the next question is, “Why do I have to pay to pray? What’s wrong with you people?”

The rest of the year, there is no charge for attending regular services. So why on the HHDs?

  • Jews who never attend synagogue otherwise attend HHD services. This is true not only of unaffiliated Jews, but also of temple members. Most synagogues are jammed on those days, with a corresponding rise in the cost of operating: extra chairs, special sound equipment so everyone can hear, and an extra load on the physical plant. Members pay for this via their dues, but the visitors don’t, unless there are tickets.
  • These are often very special services, with choirs or (in liberal synagogues) with musicians. Unless the shul is fortunate to have members who are gifted musicians, these people may have to be hired for the occasion.
  • With the heavy demand, there needs to be some mechanism for limiting the seating without excluding members. If Temple Shalom knows that it has 250 members to seat, and it has seating for 275, there are only 25 extra seats.

    So what is a person to do, if they can’t afford the tickets?

  • Most communities have a venue where tickets for services are low-cost or free. You can find it by calling the Jewish Federation, JCC or other Jewish institution.
  • If there’s only one synagogue, explain that you can’t afford these tickets and tell them nicely what you can afford. (The same is true for membership dues. If they don’t fit your budget, tell the person at the synagogue in charge of membership. Often they can make you a deal.) If they truly have only a few seats, though, they may simply be unable to help you.
  • Generally, the only services with tickets are Erev Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah Day One, Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur morning. You can often attend Selichot, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and the afternoon services on Yom Kippur for free. Again, just ask.

And if you can afford the tickets, but are put off by the idea of “paying to pray,” understand that if you want a free prayer experience, you are free to organize one. Organize some friends at your home or at the park, buy a couple of machzors (HHD prayer books) and go for it. It may turn out to be a wonderful experience and an annual event!

Remember: every other Shabbat of the year, all you have to do is walk in, and a seat is yours. Why wait for the High Holy Days to attend a service?

What is the Book of Life?

Cuneiform tablet
Cuneiform Tablet: Assyrian accounting

There is an ancient tradition that on Rosh HaShanah our names are “written in the Book of Life” if we are living good lives, and that sinners have the ten days to Yom Kippur to do the work of teshuvah. (Click the link if you are not familiar with teshuvah. It means more than the English “repentance.”)

Do modern Jews believe that God has an actual account book in which our lives are measured? In a word, no.

This tradition has its roots in Biblical metaphor. In Isaiah 4:3, the prophet speaks of the survivors of the Babylonian invasion as those who are “recorded for life in Jerusalem.”  It is referenced more clearly in a book of midrash called the Book of Jubilees that was not accepted for inclusion in most Bibles. The idea of a divine accounting book has its origins in Babylonia, where the concept of a Day of Judgment also first appeared. The civilizations of Mesopotamia were enthusiastic about bookkeeping. Much of the written materials we have from them are accounting books; it’s not surprising that they thought the gods would love accounting, too.

So why keep this tradition, if we don’t take it literally? The written word is a powerful image in the Jewish imagination. Words are powerful (they are the means of Creation in Genesis) – the written word even more so. God writes on the tablets at Sinai, to establish the laws of the covenant. The medieval teacher Bachya ibn Pekuda wrote, “Our days are scrolls. Write on them what you wish to be remembered.”

God may not keep an actual accounting book, but our lives are finite. None of us knows when we are going to die, only that we will not live forever. On Yom Kippur, we take a day to think seriously about our lives. What have we neglected? What have we done that we would regret? On Yom Kippur, there is still time to make it right. But the image of the Book of Life pushes us to get moving. Do not delay another hour! Because we don’t know how long we’ve got, how many more pages there are in our book.

While Jewish tradition is very vague about afterlife, it is sharply clear about this life, and unromantic about death. Death is an end to this life. On that day, whenever it comes, we’ve used our last opportunity to do good or to reconcile. Yom Kippur is a day and the month of Elul is a season, when we remind ourselves of that.

What would you regret if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? What would you change?

What can you do about it while you are still alive?

 

18 Facts about Rosh HaShanah

Shana Tova
Shana Tova, by Jen T.
  1. The words Rosh HaShanah mean “Head of the Year,” Jewish New Year.
  2. The number of the year changes on Rosh HaShanah. This year, we change from 5774 to 5775.
  3. Rosh HaShanah is the first of the month of Tishri in the Jewish calendar.
  4. Rosh HaShanah is the first of the ten “Days of Awe” that culminate with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
  5. Rosh HaShanah, with Yom Kippur ten days later, are often referred to as the High Holy Days.
  6. On Rosh HaShanah, we remember the Creation of the world and we look ahead to the Judgment of God.
  7. Traditionally we eat sweet things on Rosh HaShanah: apples, honey and such to express our desire for a sweet year ahead.
  8. We prepare for Rosh HaShanah during the month of Elul.
  9. Rosh HaShanah is marked by feasting and solemnity.
  10. Many if not most Jews try to be in synagogue on Rosh HaShanah.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.”
  13. A shorter form of the greeting is Shanah Tovah which means “[Have a] Good Year”
  14. A very short greeting for the day is “Goot yom tov!” Yiddish for “Good holiday!”
  15. On Rosh HaShanah we hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.]
  16. On Rosh HaShanah, we make a special effort to make teshuvah, to repent old sins and to forge new ways of living.
  17. Many Jews around the world celebrate two days of Rosh HaShanah.
  18. This year, Rosh HaShanah starts at sundown on September 24, 2014.