The Creation of Jewish Time


The Jewish “day” begins at sundown. This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with anything.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

Why not accommodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because in Judaism, time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Notice the passage of time.

Notice the cycle of seasons.

Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention!

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:

“Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”

Food Traditions for Rosh HaShanah

Many Jewish holidays have special food traditions associated with them, and Rosh HaShanah is no exception.

The main theme for Jewish New Year foods is “Sweet,” in hopes of a sweet year to come. That will take many forms, depending on context: in an Ashkenazi family, it will mean a carrot tzimmes with dinner, or roasted apple brisket. In a Sephardic home, it will mean roast chicken with fruit and honey cakes made with ground nuts instead of flour.

Apples and honey are also a major item at Rosh HaShanah. Some say that has to do with the associations with Creation, and the infamous fruit eaten by Adam and Eve. However, apples didn’t grow in the ancient Near East; it’s more likely that the Biblical writer was thinking of a fig tree, so perhaps fig recipes are in order as well!

There is also the tradition of round challah for the holidays. You can add raisins or apple bits to the dough, but braid it into a round loaf instead of the usual oblong. For directions on how to braid a round challah, this YouTube video may help:

Askenazi menus & recipes

Menus for Rosh HaShanah from Kosherfood

Menus for Rosh HaShanah from

Sephardic menus & recipes

Turkish Rosh HaShanah Delights

Menu from the Global Jewish Kitchen

American Twists on Rosh HaShanah Favorites

For interfaith families and converts to Judaism, Rosh HaShanah’s theme of sweetness offers a chance to import favorite treats from regional holiday menus. For instance, I grew up eating Chess Pie on December 25, but now that Southern favorite has become a Rosh HaShanah tradition for me. It’s super-sweet and rich, perfect for a Jewish New Year dessert.

One last thought – and link! – about Rosh HaShanah cooking: Kenden Alfond has written a wonderful piece for about the Jewish “tradition” of over-cooking for the holidays. The joy of the season is not enhanced by straining one’s credit or guilt-tripping others over food. It’s much better to fill everyone up with good feelings than to push a third serving of kugel at someone who doesn’t want it. (By the same token, can we all agree not to torture our relatives with diet talk and health trolling for just a couple of days?)

I wish all my readers fun planning your holiday menus, and joy around your holiday table!

Ready, Set, Sukkot!


For years and years, I intended to build a sukkah in which to celebrate Sukkot, but when the holiday came around, I was somehow caught by surprise. It took me an embarrassingly long time to catch on to the fact that I needed to do some Sukkot preparation during Elul, as well as the preparation for the High Holy Days.

The two sets of preparation are not mutually exclusive. Preparation for the High Holy Days is mostly a private matter for anyone who is not on a synagogue staff.  We examine our hearts, we go back through the previous year, we make amends. It can be hard emotional work. Preparation for Sukkot is a matter of mechanics:

  1. Do I have the stuff to build the sukkah?
  2. Do I know where all of it is?
  3. Do I need to repair or replace anything?
  4. Do I want to add anything? New decorations? Lights?

After the first year, it’s really not a big deal, but it has to be done, because sukkah building should begin, ideally, immediately after Yom Kippur. I have learned that most of it dovetails quite easily with preparations for the High Holy Days; while I am checking through supplies, I make my mental lists.

This year I’m still looking for my sukkah walls, but I have found the rug and the furniture. I’ve ordered a new bamboo mat for schach, and I got some new twinkly lights. Prep done, if I can just find those walls…!

So this is my reminder to you, dear readers, that if you are planning to build a sukkah this year, it’s time to figure out where you put the sukkah supplies from last year. If you don’t plan to build a sukkah, I also have a suggestion: as you make your lists of people with whom you need to have important conversations, make a list of people with whom to sit and enjoy during Sukkot. If you can’t sit in a kosher sukkah, sit in an almost-kosher sukkah. If you have no access to any kind of sukkah, think where you might share a cup of tea or coffee (or chocolate!) with those friends, one by one.

Sukkot, too, is part of our renewal at the beginning of the year. Don’t wait to prepare – have your plans ready. Beyond the solemn self-examination of the High Holy Days awaits the joy of Sukkot!

Counting Blessings, Elul Style

exercise equipment

“I’m not in the business of making people skinny, I am in the business of making people strong.” – Brittany Shaddle

Elul is a time for taking stock of one’s life, and part of that is counting blessings. In May of 2010 I made an appointment that I wasn’t sure I wanted to make: I called a personal trainer.

I thought only movie stars and billionaires worked with trainers, but I had a problem: I had a long history of getting hurt while exercising. I’d start with great intentions, and then in a week or two I’d be in the doctor’s office getting a review of RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) for a dinged-up body part. I figured it was time to get some supervision.

This is how I wound up calling Brittany. She had a review from a man in his 70’s in which he talked about how much she helped him. Her credentials were impressive: a degree in Kinesiology and certification as a trainer. Mostly I hoped she wouldn’t be mean to me.

That was five years ago, and now I count Brittany among my blessings. She’s kept me moving from 55 to 60, and taught me that whatever the diagnosis for my pain problems, the best medicine is movement. A sciatica flare-up last weekend was limited largely because she had taught me how to move through it. As for the expense, her fee for an hour was less than I had expected, and it’s worth it.

Brittany is a good woman: she and her husband Mike are two of the best and kindest people I know. She’s younger than my kids, but she’s one of my best teachers, and not just about exercise. Her positive attitude about every challenge inspires me.

Who is a blessing in your life? Be sure to take some time this Elul and let them know what they have done for you. As the liturgy will remind us, we don’t know what the future will bring. Let’s not leave the good words unsaid.

Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days, 5776


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.

Update on the Online Torah Study


I’ve heard from 15 of you that you are interested in studying together. The tricky bit is that we’re scattered all over the earth.

I have sent emails with possible class times to all those who replied. Check your email box – and if you left me a comment but haven’t got anything, please check your spam folder!

Pick the times that might work for you, and hit “reply” to let me know. Please don’t “reply to all” – I don’t want us to be a nuisance in each other’s in-boxes!

Shavua tov – have a good week!