A Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days

September 4, 2014
Shana Tova

Shana Tova, by Jen T.

This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 24, 2014. Here are the 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!"]

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. Work is forbidden. 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 make a referral, and there are synagogues who offer free High Holy Day services as a form of outreach.  Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students. 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.

Another option, almost always free, is to attend Selichot services which are usually on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah. You will hear the High Holy Days music, often the clergy will be wearing their High Holy Day robes, but it is an evening penitential service that is so little known that only regulars attend. Call your local synagogue for information.

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 things in synagogue start immediately after the holidays.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5775!


Weather and the Jewish Year

July 31, 2014

 

A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.

A map of the world, centered on Jerusalem, c. 1260 CE.

Queentimely wrote in response to a recent post:

I don’t know how many readers you have in the southern hemisphere, but it might interest those in the north to be reminded that it’s actually winter here — cold (in Melbourne terms), blowy and dark early.

Excellent point!

One of the quirks of living in California is that the climate and the seasons match that of Israel pretty closely. That’s very handy for us, because the Jewish calendar is rooted in the seasons of the Land of Israel. I am prone to forget that for most of the world, it isn’t so tidy.

For instance, Jews worldwide begin praying for rain on Shemini Atzeret, the day after the close of Sukkot. In both Israel and California, that day falls at about the earliest date one might reasonably expect some rain. Therefore the weather is perfect for eating and sleeping in the sukkah: not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too wet. However, if one is celebrating in Minnesota or in Sweden, the sukkah is apt to be downright soggy and cold, because autumn had already arrived weeks before.

The same goes for Passover: it’s a spring holiday, hence the parsley and the egg on the seder plate. However, the 14th of Nisan may be a bit early for spring in some northern climes. In the southern hemisphere, Jews sit around the seder table in the fall.

So why not simply attune the holidays to the local climate? Long ago, when Jews were forced into Diaspora, outside the Land of Israel, we decided to keep our calendars aligned with that of our homeland. So Jews in Spain, Jews in South America, Jews in Australia, and Jews in Finland keep the same calendar, no matter what the weather is doing in their local neighborhoods. Just as we face towards Jerusalem for prayer, we align the Jewish year with that of the Land of Israel, because it is, and always has been, home.

So, readers: if your climate or seasons are radically different from that of Israel, how does it affect your observance of the calendar? If you have celebrated the Jewish Year in the far North or south of the equator, I hope to hear from you.


What is Yizkor?

April 19, 2014

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If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

Image by Bill Barber, some rights reserved.

 


What is Chol HaMoed?

April 18, 2014
Matzah brei serving

Matzo brei – a Chol HaMoed treat.

In the middle of Passover and Sukkot, you may hear the term “Chol HaMoed” or “Hol HaMoed,” and you might wonder, “A Whole What???”

That’s what Jews call the middle days of Passover and Sukkot. Both festivals run for a week. The first day (or two) of the holiday is called a “Chag” and is extra special, almost like Shabbat. Same for the last day: ideally, one is home from work and attends synagogue.  The middle days of the week  are still special but do not have so many restrictions: some businesses in Israel might be open, and Jews in Diaspora go to work. “Chol” means “Ordinary” and “HaMoed” in this context means “of the festival” – these are more ordinary days of the holiday.

Now, just to confuse things, you may also encounter this term: Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. That’s the Shabbat in the middle of Passover, when it doesn’t fall on one of the “Chag” days. It has its own special Torah and Haftorah readings. There’s also one of those for Sukkot in some years. For information on this particular year, consult a Jewish calendar.

There’s a special greeting for these not-so-ordinary days in mid-festival: if someone says to you, “Moadim l’simchah!” it means “Festival of Joy.” You can reply with the same words, or you can just say, “Same to you!”

Note: There’s a trick for saying that “ch” sound in Hebrew. What noise does an angry cat make? The “ch” sound is a little bitty short version of that. If you truly can’t do it, use an “h” sound instead. 

Image: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


“Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy

April 13, 2014

Maybe you’ve heard something in the press about “blood moons” this year and next.  They sound scary, don’t they?

A “blood moon” is a vivid description of the full moon during a total lunar eclipse. I saw the one on December 11, 2011, and it was a sight to behold. The moon turned a dark coppery color for a while and gave us all a shot of amazement (or the creeps) and then gradually became its own silvery self again.  I said the blessing for seeing a wonder of nature and then went back to work at my desk.

The moon turns red because while the earth has blocked the light from the sun, the light from all the earth’s sunsets and sunrises still reaches the moon. That light seems blood-colored as it is reflected back to us. (Read this article for more about the science of this astronomical wonder.)

Lunar eclipses come in many varieties, but for our purposes, let’s just say they are “full” (like this one) and “partial.” (For the difference, read the science article.) Total ones are very dramatic; partial eclipses are less so. The next four lunar eclipses visible from North America represent the lunar equivalent of a high poker hand: we are about to see “four of a kind” total eclipses in a row. The fancy name for that is “tetrad.” For astronomers in North America, this is a great stroke of luck, because they can use this time to observe the moon and the sky in ways unavailable at other times.

This tetrad is remarkable in that it also lines up with the Jewish holidays of Passover and Sukkot, for two years running. We’ll have total eclipses on this Passover and the next, and for the next two Sukkots as well. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and rabbinic student David Markus have written a beautiful drash on the phenomenon which they published through Rabbi Barenblat’s blog, The Velveteen Rabbi. It’s a very Jewish take on the phenomenon of the tetrad.

This tetrad is getting attention from Christian writers as well: Pastor John Hagee of Texas has written a book about it. He sees these “signs in the heavens” as “foretold in Scripture” and specifically links them to disasters in Jewish history and, for this particular tetrad, to some sort of major event for the State of Israel.  This brings us to another interesting topic: the difference between Jewish understandings of the Prophets and Christian understandings of them.

For Jews, there was a specific time of the prophets, a historical period from the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) to the time of the restoration of the Second Temple in 516 BCE.   Prophets guided the People of Israel and our leaders, and they were understood to be spokespersons for God. (Yes, there were women prophets.) Sometimes they heard God’s voice giving them personal instruction (Genesis 12:1), and sometimes they were messengers to a specific person (2 Samuel 12: 1-25).  The “major prophets” spoke to the entire nation about matters of national concern, including idolatry, foreign entanglements, and the need to keep the spirit as well as the law of the Torah (e.g. Isaiah 1). When they talked about the future, they were talking about the immediate future, or speaking in general terms. They were not looking centuries ahead, they were talking about the specific geopolitical and theological realities of the time. To get a really good understanding of the Jewish prophets, there’s no better book that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets.

Today Jews revere the words of the prophets and read them every Shabbat because their comments and rebukes are timeless: they call us to observe the spirit of the Torah, and to remember that ritual observance alone is not enough to fulfill our lives as Jews.

For Christians, the Jewish prophets have a different meaning. While many Christians read the Jewish prophets for their ethical commentary, they also read them as fore-tellers of the arrival of Jesus as messiah. In the 19th and 20th centuries in some Protestant circles, there’s been an upsurge of interest in using Jewish prophetic and eschatological writings to “foretell” political events in the future, something called Dispensationalism. Dr. Hagee’s book about the “Blood Moons” falls into this category: he is using verses of Scripture and this astronomical event to make predictions about the future. I should also mention that not all Christians are Dispensationalists; they have gotten a lot of press in recent years because (1) they have sought to publicize their message and (2) it makes great copy for people who want to sell “clicks” in the media.

These two different ways of understanding prophecy are mostly incompatible. While Jews and Christians can agree on the ethical teachings of the prophets (don’t abuse the poor etc.), we disagree fundamentally about the role of the prophet, both religiously and historically. That means that we look a bit crazy to each other. Christian attempts to use the writings of 7th century BCE prophets plus astronomical events to “foretell the future” seem pointless and disrespectful to Jews. The Jewish insistence that nothing in Isaiah has anything to do with the 1st century carpenter from Nazareth seems stubborn and blind to Christians.

The truth is, we share some books of scripture, but we read them and use them quite differently. It would be great if we could all agree to treat one another respectfully and sit side by side to watch what is indisputably a show of marvels in the night sky. Whether you call them “blood moons” or “red moons” or “total lunar eclipses,”  they are moments of beauty and majesty.

I wish you a zissen Pesach (Yiddish for “a joyful Passover”)!


What’s Shemini Atzeret?

September 24, 2013
English: Jerusalem, Western Wall - Jewish holi...

Jerusalem, Western Wall during Sukkot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shemini Atzeret means “Eighth Day of Assembly.”

It is mentioned in the Torah in Leviticus 23:39, “and on the eighth day [of Sukkot] there shall be a solemn rest.” This is a little complicated, because Sukkot has seven days. So what is the eighth day?

Think of Sukkot as a great party (because it is a great party, after all.) Ancient Jews called it “HaChag,” THE Holiday, because it was the most joyful holiday of the entire year. Now, think about the last great party you attended. Did you leave early, or find yourself staying long after the official ending?

Shemini Atzeret is one more day of rejoicing before the rains start and fall comes and things get cold and dark. In the Diaspora, for reasons I’ve discussed before, it goes on for two days, the second of which is Simchat Torah.

This year (5774, or 2013, if you insist) Shemini Atzeret starts on the evening of Wednesday, Sept 25, continuing until sundown on Sept 26.

I hope you’ve had a great Sukkot!


It’s Half-Past Sukkot – Do You Smell Rain?

September 21, 2013
Areas with Mediterranean climate

Areas with Mediterranean climate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Israel and the California coast both have a “Mediterranean climate.” We have rain in the winter, and it is dry in the summer.

For California Jews, this means that we experience the seasons as if we lived in Israel.  At the end of Sukkot, we will change a phrase in our daily Amidah prayer from a prayer for dew (the summertime prayer) to a prayer for wind and rain.  And sure enough, a trifle ahead of schedule, there is rain in the forecast for Northern California. Ideally, it would wait a few days, but still — pretty close!

I love the way the calendar reconnects me to the natural world.  The new day comes when the sun sets, not when the clock clicks over a line. I can look at the night sky, and know where I am in the Jewish month. Certainly, I can look everything up on hebcal.com, but the daily observance of Judaism pushes me to open my eyes, take a walk outside, and notice the world.

Some may say, “Ah, this is because the Jewish Calendar has its roots in the agricultural calendar of the Ancient Near East.” That’s true. But as with many things in Judaism, while it may have its roots in something impossibly long ago and far away, the effect of the observance in the here-and-now is fresh and urgent. Torah calls out to us to pay attention: pay attention to the world of which we are a part, pay attention to the people around us, pay attention to our own words and behavior.

Pay attention!


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