The 2019 High Holy Days arrive on Sept 29 at Sundown – What’s Your Plan?

Image: A shofar, the ram’s horn blown on Rosh HaShanah. (Wikimedia)

Rosh Hashanah this year (2019) begins at sundown on September 29. That may sound like a long way off, but it’s closer than you think.

What are your plans for the High Holy Days (HHDs) this year? Are you planning on going to synagogue for services? Planning to make it a quiet time for reflection? Planning to ignore them entirely?

If the third possibility is your plan, I invite you to reconsider. The High Holy Days can be fulfilling and renewing, but only if you decide what you want out of them and then invest yourself in them.

If you are planning on going to services: If you are a member of a synagogue, that one is simple – go to shul. If you aren’t a member, then it’s trickier, and you definitely need to start thinking now. In most metropolitan areas, there are two options: free services and services requiring tickets. Call around, find out what’s available. More and more Jewish groups are offering free HHDs services, but not all congregations can afford to do so. If tickets make you angry, don’t go to those places.

Another option: streaming services!: Many synagogues now stream their services, including High Holy Day services. This too may involve some sleuthing: check out the websites of synagogues in your time zone, or maybe that of your childhood synagogue. (Pro tip: If you like the experience and want them to continue doing it, consider sending them a donation with a letter thanking them for the streamed service.)

If you are planning on a do-it-yourself HHDs experience: Decide what you want to accomplish. Then look for the resources you need. There are some wonderful books about the HHDs. I have a list of them in the post titled Books to Help Us Prepare for the High Holy Days. Some are books designed for preparation, and some are machzorim (HHDs prayer books.) Sometimes a quiet place to sit and something good to read is exactly what we need.

If you are not sure what you want, learn about the High Holy Days themselves. You can start with the article High Holy Days for Beginners, 5780/2019 edition. They can be a hugely fulfilling process of taking stock and putting one’s house in order. They can be an opportunity to connect with other Jews who are seeking community and wholeness/holiness. If past experiences of the HHDs were more about new clothes or stuffy synagogues, the one who can change that is you. Learn, then put your learning to use in making the experience you want.

Whatever you do, remember that the High Holy Days are coming. Anticipation is part of the process!

I wish you a good year, a year of sweetness and fulfillment, in the coming year of 5780!

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High Holy Days for Beginners, 5780/2019 edition

Image: Rabbi Sharon L. Sobel of Temple Beth Am in Framingham, MA blows the shofar. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Sobel.

The High Holy Days are coming!

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 29, 2019. It will begin the Jewish Year 5780. 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 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!”] The proper reply is also “Shanah Tovah.” For other greetings, see A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings.

First, Prepare!

Preparation for the High Holy Day Season will begin at sundown on August 31 with Rosh Chodesh Elul. Jews worldwide take the month of Elul to examine their lives in the light of Torah, looking for things about ourselves that need to change. For more about preparation, look at Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days and Teshuvah 101.

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 accidentally, 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.”] Teshuvah 101 explains this concept in more detail – it isn’t about beating ourselves up, it’s about change for the better.

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 God. We atone for sins against other human beings 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.

Tickets for Prayer?

Very important: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. Because of the high attendance, some 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 holiday (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues 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. A growing number of synagogues offer 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. Many non-orthodox synagogues stream services on the Internet, too.

Another Option: Even synagogues that have tickets for the main services also have other services for which there is no charge and usually smaller crowds. Selichot services (the evening of September 21, 2019) usually feature the music and prayers of the High Holy Days.

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 put into 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.

In October I shall offer an online class, Introduction to the Jewish Experience, through HaMakom: The Place (formerly Lehrhaus Judaica.) The class meets on Sundays but is also available via recordings. I will post information about registration as soon as the new catalog is up.

L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5780!

Part 2: Mikveh as Metaphor

Image: Photo of the community mikveh at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, CA. This is the mikveh where I became a Jew. (Ruth Adar, 2006)

In Mikveh Part 1: What is it? I described the mikveh in prosaic terms: what it is and when we use it. In this part, I will introduce the important matter of the meaning of the mikveh.

For every ritual, there is an exterior reason and an interior experience. The exterior reason for many things in Jewish life is halakhah: “this is the Jewish WAY of doing things” or “this is what we understand ourselves to have been commanded to do.” We hang a mezuzah on the doorpost a particular way. We circumcise our sons at eight days of age. As I said in the earlier post, we use the mikveh for conversion, as part of the rituals surrounding sex and bodily emissions, for the purification of new cooking vessels, and for spiritual practices connected with holidays and significant life events.

The meaning of the mikveh, as with any other ritual experience, goes far beyond “what” and “why.” It extends into the interior experiences of the participants and the sense they make of those experiences. Some of those experiences are intellectual, but many of them are sensory. Many may be difficult to put into words. Some shape themselves into metaphor.

I’m going to limit myself to talking about mikveh for conversion in this article, but with the note that all its uses are interconnected and inform each other.

Strangeness: Candidates prepare for immersion by showering off, combing their hair, and removing anything that might get between them and the water. This usually happens in a room adjacent to the mikveh. The immediate impression is of going into the restroom at the synagogue, but then abruptly deviates from the norm. We do not normally walk into the restroom at shul and strip. There is not usually a grooming “to do” list on the wall. We have entered liminal space: there is nothing normal about this. Depending on the preparation the candidate has had for this ritual, the strangeness may engender anything from a feeling of being slightly off balance to a mild panic.

Nakedness: We go naked to the mikveh. This calls up the metaphor of birth, but it also speaks to the vulnerability of the convert. Even more than on Yom Kippur, we have to shed all masks to enter the mikveh: no clothing, no eye glasses, no hearing aids, no wedding ring, no jewelry, no fingernail polish, no “extras” that can reasonably be removed. Hair is washed and combed out beforehand. We enter the mikveh completely unadorned. I recall being acutely aware that the beit din (rabbi/witnesses) outside the door were all fully clothed.

Modesty: In order to deal with nakedness while remaining modest, everyone’s behavior alters. The candidate usually gets into the water before the witness enters, then calls out “ready!” The witness enters, looking at the ceiling, or a book, and will only look directly at the candidate when they are fully immersed, to certify that the immersion is total. This, too, may feel awkward to the candidate, whether they are embarrassed to be naked or not. Again, we are reminded that we are in liminal space, the space between Jewish and not-Jewish, born and not-yet-born.

Steps: The mikveh has steps going down into the water. It may look, to some eyes, like a stairway to nowhere. The candidate has been on a journey for a long time, a journey to this place, this moment. It is a stairway to a place we cannot see but for which the heart longs. As we walk down the steps, we gradually experience the feeling of the water.

Buoyancy: Our experience of gravity is altered by the mikveh because water is buoyant. This may be an exhilarating feeling, or a relief; it may be unnerving or even frightening. It puts some candidates off balance, heightening the sense of vulnerability. Buoyancy also may make total immersion tricky – in a natural body of water with salt water, total immersion may even require effort.

Temperature: In a modern indoor mikveh, the water is usually heated and may feel quite spa-like. Some candidates describe this feeling as womb-like, comforting, relaxing. If it is a natural body of water, or there is no heat, then the water may be bracingly cold, even uncomfortable. A cold mikveh reminds us that this water is not our natural element, and may introduce a feeling of danger.

Death: Water is not the natural element of human beings, no matter how well they swim. If we breathe water, we will die. The candidate for conversion is making a change of identity, which is like a little death and a rebirth. The candidate is required to be completely immersed, every hair, every fingertip: it is a statement of total commitment and nothing less. They must be “all in” for this transformation. For some candidates, for whom water is a frightening element, this aspect of the experience is all too real.

Rebirth: The waters of the mikveh, mayyim hayyim, “living water,” is often likened to the amniotic fluid in the womb. When a candidate for conversion immerses in the mikveh, it is as if they are returning to the womb, and when they emerge, it is a new birth into a new Jewish identity. Certainly, there are elements of the old self – the whole body! – but a new Jew is born.

Emergence: From the moment the new Jew ascends the stairs of the mikveh, they are part of Am Yisrael forever. Just as we make aliyah (“go up”) when we immigrate to the Land of Israel, and when we go up to chant Torah or its blessings, the candidate ascends to their Jewish life, a life full of the joys and the responsibilities of Torah.

Mikveh, Part 1: What is it?

Image: Mikveh sign at the Congregation of Georgian Jews, a Georgian-Jewish Orthodox synagogue in Forest Hills, Queens, New York City. (By Bohemian Baltimore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The purpose of the mikveh is not physical cleanliness, although a properly maintained mikveh is always clean. The purpose is twofold: a ritual purification, and the physical experience of immersion in water as part of a ritual. For more about Jewish ritual purification, or taharah, see Clean and Unclean: A Primer. Taharah is an ancient concept that often feels awkward in modern life, especially since much of it is theoretical, since without a standing Temple in Jerusalem, true ritual purity is an impossibility.

A mikveh is a pool of water used for several different ritual purposes in Jewish life. Immersion (tevilah) in the mikveh is employed:

  • For conversion
  • For niddah, also called the laws of family purity
  • For the purification of new cooking vessels
  • As a spiritual practice before holidays (e.g., Shabbat or Yom Kippur)
  • As a spiritual practice marking major life transitions

Without a mikveh, halakhic conversions cannot take place, adoptions are held up, Jews who observe the laws of niddah cannot have sex, new cooking pots cannot be used, and many of the spiritual needs of a Jewish community cannot be met. Mikva’ot (the plural) are essential to Jewish living, even though many less observant Jews go through their entire lives without ever visiting one.

For a more poetic, mystical view of the mikveh, see the next post: Mikveh Part 2: Mikveh as Metaphor.

Mikva’ot are complex and expensive to build and to maintain. Roughly speaking, a mikveh must contain enough water to allow immersion (tevilah) of an adult human being. A specific portion of that water must be mayyim hayyim (“living water”) meaning that it meets traditional standards for having come from a natural source such as rainwater or a natural body of water. (For specifics, the website mikveh.org offers lot of detailed information on mikveh construction.)

A natural body of water can also serve as a mikveh. An ocean or a lake can serve as a mikveh; a stream can serve as a kosher mikveh provided some technical standards are met. There are challenges to using a natural body of water for a mikveh including modesty, safety and comfort. Therefore Jewish communities worldwide have put a priority on constructing indoor mikva’ot that meet the ritual standards.

The mikveh below is an ancient natural spring water mikveh in Israel known as the Mikveh of Shemaya and Avtalyon, two sages of the 1st century BCE. According to the tradition Shemaya used to immerse in this mikveh. For more about Shemaya and Avtalyon, see Advice from our Uncles elsewhere on this blog.

Ramping Up, Getting Real

Image: A photo of the sort of ramp we have ordered for the front entrance of our home. (Shutterstock/TrofimenkoSergei)

Making our homes safer and more accessible is a mitzvah. Exodus 22:8 commands that we “make a railing for your roof” to lessen the danger of falling from the roof, back during a time when roofs were flat and used much like another room in the house. The rabbis interpreted that command to mean that all hazards around the home should be dealt with promptly, teaching us that home safety is a priority in Torah.

This past week Linda and I did something overdue: we called a company that supplies ramps for homes and businesses and ordered ramps for the front door and a back door.

The front door has one five-inch step up and one smaller step up at the threshold. Until this summer, I could navigate them with a cane. Then I wrenched my “good” knee and the step up or down became a much bigger deal. I found myself hesitating to leave the house because I hated getting from the front door to the car. I spent less time on the patio with the hummingbirds, because stepping over and down that threshold was scary – I was always worrying about falls. I did not like to think what would be involved in leaving during an emergency.

Once I made the call, and the guy came out to measure, I wondered why we had waited so long. He was able to make a number of suggestions that were less expensive than I expected. They aren’t going to be glamorous (that gets into some major expense) but I will be safer, and we will be able to invite guests who are on wheels! What on earth was I waiting for?

Making things safe requires paying attention and telling the truth. We cannot make a place safe if we insist on kidding ourselves about the abilities of the people who go in and out. As often happens, Torah pushes us to see the realities in our world and to do something about them. It pushes us to have compassion for suffering, even when it is our own.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who commands us to open our eyes and see the realities around us, so that we can make our homes safer and more welcoming!

What is Hakafah?

Image: Hakafah in the 19th Century in Italy. Painting: The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, Italy. By Solomon Hart (1806-1881) via Wikimedia.

“During Hakafah, people may reach out to touch the Sefer Torah.”

If that sentence means bobkes (Yiddish for “nothing”) to you, that’s OK — that’s what this post is about!

As I wrote in an earlier post, Sefer Torah is the Hebrew word for the Torah scroll.

Hakafah is a Hebrew word meaning “to go around” or “orbit.” In Jewish services, it most often refers to the procession in which the Torah scroll is carried around the congregation so that people can celebrate and interact with the Torah scroll.

If you are in a service, for instance a bar or bat mitzvah service, the person who is being called to the Torah for the first time (the bar or bat mitzvah) may carry the scroll, in its coverings, around the congregation. People may reach out to touch the Torah scroll, either with the tzitzit (fringes) of their prayer shawls or with the spine of their prayer books. Then, after touching the scroll, they bring the fringes or the book to their lips to kiss. It is a way of showing reverence for the scroll and its contents. For some congregations, this is a regular part of the Torah service. For others, it happens only on special occasions.

For more on how we interact with Torah scrolls, see Kissing the Torah Scroll – Idolatry? elsewhere on this blog by following the link. Rabbi Barry Block wrote a wonderful sermon on The Deeper Meaning of the Hakafah which I recommend highly.

Other uses of hakafah:

  1. In a traditional wedding, the groom circles the bride seven times, orbiting around her. In an egalitarian wedding service, the bride an groom circle one another. Either way, it is proper to refer to the circling as hakafot (plural for hakafah.)
  2. At Sukkot, it is a tradition to encircle the bimah (speakers’ platform) with people bearing lulav and etrog.
  3. On Simchat Torah, many congregations get all their Torah scrolls out and dance with them.

Is Anybody Listening?

Image: Two birds interact on the edge of a birdbath. (Andrew Martin / Pixabay)

It’s a war out there. I’m talking about social media, but also our culture at large. I say it is a “war” because all I hear about is the need to fight.

The lefties are talking about the need to fight xenophobia, racism, white supremacy, white nationalism, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrationism, Trumpism, ICE, and Republicans, especially #Mitch. Some lefties are talking about the need to fight Zionism.

Folks on the right are talking about the need to fight Constitution-haters, liberals, socialists, communists, snowflakes, elites, Bernie Sanders, the Squad, reverse-racism, housewife haters, and Democrats, especially NancyPelosi. Some on the right are talking about the need to fight race traitors, the #Clintons, George Soros, and Jews.

And yes, I imagine I may have gotten your dander up just a little, with those lists. You’re thinking, “Not ALL…” or “Damn straight, someone has to fight for their principles!” and wondering what is wrong with me, that I don’t see the imperative to fight for what is right.

We’ve all got our talking points. I have mine, too – just read through a few posts on this blog, if you doubt me. We stand on our soapboxes and we holler our talking points at each other and when our words don’t make an impression, we start cussing, and when cussing doesn’t do it, we think of the meanest thing we can say and we throw that at those fools who Refuse. To. Get. It.

And what have we accomplished, after years of this?

We are screaming mad at one another, with no common ground upon which to build a peace. Some of our anger is rooted in tragic losses and real events. Some of our anger has been nurtured – cultivated! – fertilized, even! – by people with something to gain from us all being too angry to do anything but fight.

What would happen if we were to find something to do other than fight? What if I were to ask the next person who calls me an ugly name that I’ll listen to them – really listen! – if we could just identify some common ground?

What if we told each other our deepest fears?