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!


2nd Week of Elul

September 3, 2014
1st quarter moon

2nd week of Elul

We’re in the second week of the month of Elul.

Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. In just a few weeks it will be Rosh HaShanah. Between now and then, there is work to do. It’s time for a personal inventory.

Last week was a week for contemplating the snapshot of my life now. What is good? What is lacking? With whom am I on good terms? Do I owe an apology to anyone? What have I left undone? About what do I feel uneasy.

I’ve been stirring the pot. Things have come up, some of them difficult. If they were easy, I’d have dealt with them already.

This week is the week to begin contacting people: the neglected people, the estranged people, the people I may have wronged. Who has been avoiding me? Whom have I avoided? Those are the people I need to reach.

This is the week for reaching out.

Some will reach back, some will not. That is not my concern.

Some will want to talk, some won’t. That is not my concern.

Some will accept my apology, some won’t. That, too, is not my concern.

This is my week to reach out.


Guilt vs Shame

September 1, 2014
Rodin's Eve after the Fall.

Eve after the Fall, by Rodin

The soul-searching of Elul can be healthy and productive. It helps us to get back on track. It can provide the push we need to resolve unfinished business. It can allow us to start the new year with a clean slate and a clean conscience.

One way to get off track, though, is to get confused about the difference between guilt and shame.

Guilt is the fact or state of having committed an offense. The feeling of guilt is useful: it’s a feeling of responsibility for having done (or failed to do) the deed in question. It might include remorse at the behavior in question. Guilt says “I did something” or “I neglected to do something.” 

Guilt is redeemable. It is fixable. The way to cure guilt is to make teshuvah. I wrote a post a while back called The Jewish Cure for Guilt about how to deal with guilt.

There are a lot of jokes about “Jewish guilt” but those jokes are not really about guilt. They are about shame.

Shame says, “I am a bad person because X.” Shame wracks the soul and can twist a psyche into a pretzel. Shame is not useful, although people try to use it on each other all the time. Shame may or may not be connected to a particular deed; it’s misery connected to a person’s sense of him- or herself.

Shame is paralyzing. Shame denies the possibility of redemption or change.

Shame requires healing. Part of that healing may be to deal with guilt over things that we have actually done. (See article about the cure for guilt.) The rest of the healing requires a healing of shame about things that were not our doing: things that were done to us, things that were said to us, things that were out of our control. We human beings like to think we’re in control of everything, so some of the healing comes when we acknowledge that we don’t control as much of the world as we’d like.

This Elul, as you do the work of this month, pay attention to your feelings. If you notice that you are in extraordinary pain, or if the list of things to repent seems endless and overwhelming, consider seeking help: a trusted friend, a counselor, a therapist, your rabbi. Elul is for making ourselves and the world better. Sometimes that happens by letting go of shame.


An Upbeat Take on Elul

August 31, 2014

Feeling downbeat after a week of soul-searching? Feeling discouraged, knowing that there are three more weeks to Rosh HaShanah?  Here’s a video that both celebrates the joy of the coming new year and speaks to the task of making ourselves new in time for it:

It’s a classic from the Maccabeats. Enjoy!


#BlogElul – Accept (for Now)

August 29, 2014

Kinetic photography

Shabbat

is the day

when we sit with the world as it is.

We accept the Now.

I may notice

something needs fixing,

needs action

needs a letter to the editor but

on Shabbat I must sit

accept the unacceptable

for a few hours.

I must wait for the stars.

Then I may fly

like an arrow from the bow of Shabbat:

potential

unleashed.

 

         ——-

Image by theSmart77 some rights reserved


Growing into Shabbat

August 29, 2014
Shabbat on a card table.

Shabbat on a card table.

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.

 

 

 

 

 


#BlogElul – Bless Your Heart!

August 28, 2014

heart“Bless your heart!”

The urban dictionary and my not-Southern friends tell me that these words are the way Southerners tell a person that he or she is a fool without actually saying so.

This grieves me.

I grew up using this phrase to express genuine sympathy. There may be parts of the Southeast US where people use it sarcastically, but I guess I’m from a different part of the South. Or maybe I’m such a fool that I didn’t realize it was sarcasm.

It springs to my lips when a friend tells me that they have cancer, or that their dog died. I know I can’t do or say anything that will fix things. All I can do is express my solidarity with their situation, and those are the words with which I learned to do it. The phrase springs directly from my own heart to theirs: “Bless your heart!”

In good times, a blessing is a celebration of the good. In bad times, it is a fervent wish for better times. In Jewish tradition, it is a pause in the flood of experience to stop, to pay attention, to be present.

I think the world would be a better place if we blessed each other more often.

So know that if I say to you, “Bless your heart!” I’m not being sarcastic. I’m just the kind of fool that loves blessings.


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