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!

What is the Beit HaMikdash?

Image: Model of the Temple in Jerusalem before its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. (noamhen / Pixabay)

Beit HaMikdash means “the holy house,” and it refers exclusively to the Temple in Jerusalem. Bayit means house (beit is a grammatical construct that makes it into “house of.”) HaMikdash comes from the root kuf-dalet-shin, which denotes holiness. The specific term Beit HaMikdash appears in rabbinic literature but not in the Tanakh.

In Tanakh, the Jewish Bible, the Temple is usually referred to as HaBayit, the House. It is the dwelling place for God’s presence with Israel.

Some terms to know:

  • Beit HaMikdash – The Temple in Jerusalem
  • 1st Temple or Temple of Solomon – built by Solomon, destroyed by Babylonian armies in 586 BCE.
  • 2nd Temple – rebuilt with permission of Cyrus of Persia in 538 BCE.
  • Herod’s Temple – the 2nd Temple, expanded and elaborated by Herod the Great in 20 BCE.
  • Churban – (khoor-BAHN) The destruction of the Temple.
  • Holy of Holies – the centermost enclosure of the Temple where only the High Priest was permitted to go.
  • Kotel, Western Wall – An area on the western side of the Temple Mount where Jews traditionally go to pray (since the Temple Mount is forbidden.) Sometimes it is referred to as the “Wailing Wall” but Jews do not use that name for it, because it was coined in derision of the Jews who wept for the lost Temple.

A timeline of the Temple and its site:

  • 10th c. BCE – Built by King Solomon, heir of King David.
  • 587 BCE – Destroyed by the Babylonians. (Tisha B’Av)
  • 538 BCE – Rebuilding authorized by Cyrus the Great of Persia.
  • 168 BCE – Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes orders sacrifices to Greek gods in the Temple, Maccabean Revolt erupts.
  • 165 BCE – Rededication of the Temple (Chanukah)
  • 20 BCE – Expansion and decoration of the Temple by King Herod
  • 70 CE – The Temple is destroyed by Roman legionnaires. (Tisha B’Av)
  • 361 CE – Roman Emperor Julian makes plans to rebuild the Temple
  • 363 CE – Julian’s death and the Galilee earthquake of 363 put an end to rebuilding plans.
  • 7th c. CE – Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan ordered the construction of an Islamic shrine, the Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount, as well as the Al Aqsa Mosque.
  • 1967 CE – Israeli troops capture the Old City in Jerusalem from Jordan during the Six Day War. This marks the first time since 70 CE that Jews have been free to visit the Western Wall at will. The Muslim Waqf retains administrative control of the Temple Mount itself.

Some Jews continue to pray daily for the Temple to be rebuilt on the same site in Jerusalem. Other Jews believe that the time of the Temple is past and they do not look to rebuild it.

Who Was Rashi?

Image: A monument to Rashi, marking the spot that scholars believe was the Jewish cemetery for his era in Troyes, France. This photo of La Maison de Rhodes is courtesy of TripAdvisor.

His name was Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaqi, or Solomon ben Yitzchak, abbreviated to the acronym RaSHI. He was born in the year 1040, in the city of Troyes. He was the only child of a winemaker-rabbi named Yitzchak and his wife, whose name is not known to us but whose brother was Rabbi Simon the Elder was the Rabbi of Mainz. As a young man, Solomon studied at yeshivot (schools of Torah learning) in Worms and in Mainz, along the banks of the Rhine River. Some of his teachers were among the greatest of that age.

Rashi was an industrious note-taker as he studied in the yeshivot of Worms and Mainz. At age 25, he returned to Troyes to stay. He was invited to serve on the rabbinical court (beit din) of Troyes, and his fame spread as someone who could answer subtle questions of halakhah (Jewish Law.) In about 1070 he opened a yeshivah of his own, and students flocked to it.

The work for which Rashi is best remembered are his commentaries on the Torah and on the Talmud. He took his notes, oral tradition from his teachers about the subtleties of the texts, and he spent his later years writing them all out as commentaries on the texts. This was fortunate, because when the Crusaders came through the Rhine Valley on their way to the East in 1096, they murdered about 12,000 Jews in the region, including many of the teachers in the yeshivot. All of their learning would have been lost forever, had it not been for R. Solomon ben Yitzchak.

While only a few oblique clues in his commentaries mention anything about the horrors of 1096, there is a piyyut (liturgical poem) attributed to Rashi which many congregations still say in the Yizkor service, Av Harachamim. It is said in memory of all the martyrs of Israel, from earliest times to the present day:

The Father of mercy who dwells on high
in His great mercy
will remember with compassion
the pious, upright and blameless
the holy communities, who laid down their lives 
for the sanctification of His name.
They were loved and pleasant in their lives
and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles and stronger than lions
to carry out the will of their Maker, 
and the desire of their steadfast God.
May our Lord remember them for good 
together with the other righteous of the world
and may He redress the spilled blood of His servants 
as it is written in the Torah of Moses the man of God:
“O nations, make His people rejoice
for He will redress the blood of His servants
He will retaliate against His enemies
and appease His land and His people”.
And through Your servants, the prophets it is written:
“Though I forgive, their bloodshed I shall not forgive 
When God dwells in Zion”
And in the Holy Writings it says:
“Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?'”
Let it be known among the nations in our sight 
that You avenge the spilled blood of Your servants.
And it says: “For He who exacts retribution for spilled blood 
remembers them
He does not forget the cry of the humble”.
And it says:
“He will execute judgement among the corpse-filled nations
crushing the rulers of the mighty land;
from the brook by the wayside he will drink
then he will hold his head high.”

– Ashkenazi Siddur
A page of Talmud with the Rashi commentary highlighted.
The Rashi commentary on this page of Talmud is the light-blue area.

Can I Convert to Judaism and Still Believe in Jesus?

Image: The image of Christ the Redeemer that stands above Rio de Janeiro. (Photo by Fabio Wanderley / Pixabay)

In a word, no. I get this question from time to time, and I always feel sad having to give news that often people do not want to hear.

If what you mean by “believe in Jesus” is believe that he is God, or that he rose from the dead, or died for your sins, no. Jews do not believe those things. Jews are strict monotheists – no Trinity – and we do not have any belief in what Christians call “original sin.”

If Jesus is important to you as the Son of God or as your Savior, you aren’t Jewish. That’s OK – we are happy for you to be a good Christian, and we hope you find a branch of Christianity that works for you. Judaism doesn’t have an opinion on a “one true religion,” unlike Christianity and Islam; we believe that there are many different ways to be in relationship with the Holy One. This way is our way, and it does not involve a belief in Jesus as anything but an ordinary guy who died a long time ago. To learn more about what Jews believe about the man from Nazareth, read What Do Jews Believe about Jesus?

If you find that you are attracted to Judaism, but still believe that Jesus is the Christ (the Anointed One) then you are welcome to be a friend to the Jewish community. If you have Jewish ancestors, but Jesus is your Savior, that’s fine – but you aren’t “Jewish,” you are a Christian with a Jewish heritage. That’s wonderful! And we are happy to have that relationship with you.

Someone’s going to jump in here and talk about Messianic Judaism, so I’m going to repeat my policy on that. Messianic Judaism is not Rabbinic Judaism. It’s a form of Christianity in which Jesus is the savior of mankind. What I’m teaching here is Rabbinic Judaism.

See My Policy Regarding Messianism.

For why I dislike terms like “Judeo-Christian:” read The Interfaith Potluck.

What is the Mishnah?

Image: A stained glass window in Or Torah Synagogue, in Akko, Israel picturing the six orders of the Mishnah at Mt. Sinai. Photo by Ilana Shkolnik, via PikiWiki. Some rights reserved.

The Mishnah is a collection of discussions of Torah which were written down in 200 CE by Rabbi Judah the Prince (R. Yehuda haNasi.)

The Jewish Bible, or Tanakh, is Torah Shebichtav (Written Torah.) The Mishnah is the first part of Torah Shebal Peh, Oral Torah. z

Rabbinic Judaism understands the Oral Torah to be handed down from Sinai just as the Written Torah was handed down, only Oral Torah was passed only by word of mouth. The early rabbis sought it out by searching their memories for what their teachers had taught them. They also sought it out via reason, as you will soon see if you read a bit of Mishnah. For many Jews, the process of understanding Torah continues today.

The early rabbis were engaged in trying to understand the Written Torah. The Bible is often vague about the details of commandments, for instance:

Impress [these words] upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.

Deuteronomy 6:7

“These words” refer to the Shema. It is clear from the text that recital of these words is very important, and that there are times when it should happen. But when, exactly? In Mishnah Berakhot (Blessings) we have a record of the beginning of the rabbis’ discussion of the time to say the Shema in the evening:

From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening? From the time that the priests enter [their houses] in order to eat their terumah until the end of the first watch, the words of Rabbi Eliezer. The sages say: until midnight. Rabban Gamaliel says: until dawn. Once it happened that his sons came home [late] from a wedding feast and they said to him: we have not yet recited the [evening] Shema. He said to them: if it is not yet dawn you are still obligated to recite. And not in respect to this alone did they so decide, but wherever the sages say “until midnight,” the mitzvah may be performed until dawn. The burning of the fat and the pieces may be performed till dawn. Similarly, all [the offerings] that are to be eaten within one day may be eaten till dawn. Why then did the sages say “until midnight”? In order to keep a man far from transgression.

Mishnah Berakhot, 1:1

If you felt a little confused after reading that, you aren’t alone. In one short paragraph, we have three different opinions, a story, and a principle of Jewish Law! This is typical of the Mishnah: it is incredibly compact, almost in code. The rabbis are just beginning their discussions and when they continue (in the Gemara, which won’t be redacted until at least 300 years later) they will have more to say. This bit of Mishnah concludes with something that will become a principle in shaping Jewish life: “In order to keep a man far from transgression” some rabbis set limits beyond “the letter of the law” so that people won’t accidentally make a mistake.

The Mishnah is arranged into six orders, or parts:

  • Zera’im (Seeds) Agricultural law, as well as blessings.
  • Mo’ed (Festival) Laws of Shabbat and holidays.
  • Nezikin (Damages) Civil and criminal law.
  • Nashim (Women) Laws of marriage, divorce, and some kinds of oaths.
  • Kodashim (Holy Things) Sacrifices and ritual slaughter.
  • Taharot (Ritual cleanliness) Ritual purity and impurity.

Each of these parts is further broken down into tractates, which focus on more specific topics. Berakhot, which has to do with blessings, is a tractate within Order Zera’im.

The discussions in the Mishnah are unfinished, so why study them?

First, this is the document in which the precedent was set for including minority opinions. Rabbi Judah the Prince included not only the opinions that would eventually become law, he included minority opinions so that those ideas would not be lost. This reflects an attitude about discussion that would color Jewish education forever going forward: all opinions are important, even those that aren’t in favor at the moment.

Second, it is a snapshot of the rabbinic world at a critical moment in time. The First and Second Jewish Revolts against Rome had gone badly for the Jews. Life in the land of Israel (by then, Palestina) was becoming untenable for Jews. The centers of Jewish scholarship were moving to Babylon, outside the Roman Empire. There were still living individuals who remembered the Temple services (Much of Tractate Yoma is essentially an account of what went on at the Temple on Yom Kippur, for instance.)

Mishnah plus the further discussions of Gemara equal Talmud. The Talmud is also a collection of discussions, arranged in the same orders as the Mishnah. It, too, is often unfinished in spots and includes many minority opinions. For more about what the Talmud is, and how it functions, read What is the Talmud?

What Does a Cantor Do?

Image: Three Cantors: Allan Michelson z”l, Nathan Lam, and Ilene Keys

A cantor, or chazzan, is an expert in Jewish liturgy and dinei hat’filah, the laws concerning prayer, who leads services and teaches.  In the Reform Movement, that means that the cantor has completed a grueling five year postgraduate course of study in Jerusalem and New York. You will find cantors on the bimah in larger synagogues.

From the view in the pew, cantors lead services and sing service music, and they may seem indistinguishable from a cantorial soloist, who may also do those things. Both may have very good singing voices, and both may have had extensive musical training.

The cantor, however, has something extra: a deep background in Jewish worship and Hebrew language, knowledge of both present and past liturgies, and training in leading and teaching a wide variety of Jewish musical forms. A cantor is clergy, qualified to officiate at all lifecycle events (weddings, funerals, namings) and to provide pastoral support.

Cantors are teachers as well as service leaders. Here’s an account of an adult who learned to chant Torah from Cantor Ilene Keys of Temple Sinai, Oakland. What I love about Ilana DeBare’s account is that she gives a good description of how that process works, how many different ways of approaching the texts her cantor provides. Cantors teach all ages and abilities, from the talented youngster to the devout Jew who wants to learn to leyn (chant) Torah but can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

Cantors are part of the shalshelet hakabbalah, the chain of tradition, the means by which Torah is handed down through the generations. I learned to chant Torah from Cantor Ilene Keys. She learned from Cantor Nathan Lam. Cantor Lam learned from Cantor Allan Michelson z”l. According to his obituary in the LA Times, Cantor Michelson learned from his father, also a cantor, in Latvia. Beyond Cantor Michelson’s father, the chain continues back all the way to the Masoretes, who found a way to safeguard the Torah text by inventing vowels and cantillation marks for it, and the Levites in the days of the Temple, when they sang to accompany the worship in the sacred enclosure:

There were never less than twelve Levites standing on the platform and their number could be increased into infinity. No minor could enter the court of the sanctuary to take part in the service except when the Levites stood up to sing. Nor did they join in the singing with harp and lyre, but with the mouth alone, to add flavor to the music.

Mishnah Arakhin 2:6

Cantors, like rabbis, strive to be klei kodesh, sacred vessels transmitting Torah from one generation to the next. They do this by first putting in years of study, filling themselves with skills and with Torah, and then by devoting their lives to the faithful transmission of tradition and to service to the People of Israel.

What are Zemirot?

Image: Young woman playing guitar and singing with friends. (bbernard/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Zemirot (singular is z’mirah) are Jewish songs with an association with Shabbat or holidays. Many zemirot are sung to several different tunes, and for the most popular, new tunes are being written all the time. Some Sephardic Jews also use the term to refer to the series of psalms in the morning service prior to the Barechu prayer.

The Zemirot Database is an online collection of zemirot with lyrics in the original language (Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, etc), and a translation into English. It also lists information about the origins of the song and links to recordings.

Another place to find zemirot is on YouTube.com. If you know the title (often the first few words of the song) you can search and find recordings on YouTube.

Some zemirot that may be familiar as Shabbat table songs:

Shalom Aleichem
Eleh Chamda Libi
Hinei Ma Tov

Another way to learn zemirot, the best way, is to learn with a bunch of Jews singing them together – learn around a Shabbat table, or at services at your synagogue.