What is Selichot?

Image: A waning moon. Photo by Thomas Bresson.

Tonight is Selichot at many synagogues around the world.

1. WHAT IS SELICHOT? Loosely translated, it means “Please forgive.”  The word has two meanings at this time of year: (1) prayers asking God’s  forgiveness for misdeeds and (2) a service of such prayers, usually on the evening of the last Saturday before Rosh HaShanah.

2. WHAT HAPPENS AT THE SERVICE? The Selichot service marks the beginning of the High Holy Day season. While individuals may have been observing Elul, this is the point at which we see big changes in the synagogue. Torah covers are changed from the regular covers to white ones. The clergy may begin wearing white robes. The music and the tunes of the prayers change from the familiar tunes to the High Holy Day tunes.  We read lists of sins (vidui) that individuals or the whole community may have committed.

3. WHAT ARE HIGH HOLY DAY TUNES? For a taste of the High Holy Day nusach [tune], listen to this playlist of melodies assembled by Rabbi Ahuva Zaches. It’s particularly nice because it shows you the words while you learn the tunes, and because it is so simply done that you can really hear the melodies.

4. WHY READ LISTS OF SINS, ESPECIALLY IF THEY AREN’T MY SINS? First, we are fallible human beings, and it is easy to forget things, especially things we do not want to remember. Going over a list can disturb the memory and the heart. Secondly, we approach the High Holy Days both as individuals and as a community, responsible for one another. My neighbors and I are responsible for each other’s well-being, and so their sins affect me. Finally, some sins are communal: for instance, we may talk about “the poor” and the need to “love the stranger” but what action have we as a community actually taken? Are we a community who fosters sinful behavior such as gossip? The lists bring up those questions as well.

5. WHY ALL THIS FOCUS ON SIN?  When we sin — do things that damage relationships, do harm to the world or ourselves — our actions have consequences. When we pray for mercy, we are praying that those consequences will be light. However, wishing alone won’t do the job — we have to take responsibility for our deeds, and take action to minimize the damage we have done. That’s teshuvah, or repentance.  All the sins listed in the vidui [list of sins] are behaviors that will have bad consequences if left unchecked. If we have done any of those things, we need to take responsibility and take action to change our behavior in the future. Ideally, this is more than “resolving to do better” – it involves an action plan.

6. WHY IS THE SERVICE HELD  AT NIGHT? In some communities, Selichot may be a midnight or late night service.  Traditionally, the hours between nightfall and midnight are hours of din, of stern justice, but the hours after midnight are a time when the presence of God is gentler. We are asking for mercy in these prayers, so we say them late at night. (This has to do with the darkness, which will begin to lift towards morning.) In more modern terms, it gives a very solemn feel to the service, and breaks us out of our usual routine, which is a way of saying, “Look out! The High Holy Days are almost here!”

6. WHAT IF I DON’T BELIEVE IN GOD? Even if we don’t believe in God, we need to deal with things we have done.  Whatever is your highest ideal, focus on that and substitute it for the God-language.

7. WHAT IF I USUALLY FIND SERVICES BORING? Selichot is a different kind of service, wherever it is held. It is usually not a long service. You will get an introduction to High Holy Days music. But more than anything else, it is a service to get us ready to change our ways for the better. Also — added bonus! — if you are not going to be able to go to the High Holy Day services for some reason, this is a small taste of them that does not require tickets.

L’Shana Tova Umetuka!  I wish you a good and a sweet New Year!

Books to Prepare for the High Holy Days

Image: Man blowing a shofar. Photo by jonathunder via wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

Do you hear the sound of that distant horn?

The High Holy Days are on their way sooner than we realize. This year they begin with Rosh Hashanah at sundown on October 2, 2016. Yom Kippur will begin at sundown on October 11.

In other words, school begins in the Northern Hemisphere and then “bam!” it will be time to welcome 5777.

Are you reading anything to prepare for the season this year? Doing anything else to prepare?

Here are some books I’ve found useful for High Holy Days preparation. Don’t try to read them all! Spending quality time with one good book can be an excellent help.

The official start date for preparation is the first of Elul. This year (2016) that will fall on Friday, Sept 2 at sundown. I’m publishing this list now so that you can have a bit of lead time to visit your local Jewish bookshop!

What does Kol Nidre Mean?

Kol Nidre [All Vows] is one of the most dramatic and moving moments of the Jewish year. It is normally sung at the beginning of the service for Yom Kippur, and it sets the tone for the solemn Day of Atonement.

In a formal presentation of Kol Nidre, three leaders of the congregation stand before the open ark and before the congregation, holding one or three Torah scrolls. The cantor sings the text three times, with emotion:

All vows we are likely to make, all oaths and pledges we are likely to vow, or swear, or consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Our vows are no longer vows, our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.

The whole community of the Children of Israel, and the strangers dwelling among them, shall be forgiven, for all of them were without premeditation. – Numbers 15:26

O pardon the iniquities of this people, according to Thy abundant mercy, just as Thou forgave this people ever since they left Egypt.

The Lord said, ‘I pardon them according to your words. (three times) –Numbers 14:20

That’s a literal translation of Kol Nidre from its original Aramaic into English. The lines in italics are Hebrew, and from the book of Numbers. What does it all mean?

First let me talk about what Kol Nidre is not: it is not a “get out of jail free” trick. It does not apply, nor has it ever applied, to business obligations, contracts, or to personal promises and vows.  Through history, it has caused a lot of trouble when those who hate Jews have read it that way. And let’s be honest – the words do sound quite problematic on a surface reading. Rabbis have challenged its use periodically, but it is one part of the service ordinary Jews have always seen as essential.

Kol Nidre is a very old part of the service. We know that it was already part of the Yom Kippur service well before the year 1000 CE.  Unlike most prayers, it is a legal formula, echoing the legal formulas of Babylon during the period of 800-1000 CE. As with many things in Jewish life, there are several explanations for its origin and meaning:

  1. Some say that it began during a period of extreme persecution, when many Jews were forced to convert to the dominant religion against their will. Those Jews then approached the Day of Atonement with false vows on their consciences, and Kol Nidre was a release from that guilt. While this is an appealing and very popular understanding of the prayer, it doesn’t hold up historically. For one thing, while the persecution mentioned in this version of the story is usually located in Spain, the Expulsion from Spain took place in 1492 CE, and we know that the prayer is at least 500 years older.
  2. A passage in the Zohar suggests that we recite Kol Nidre at the beginning of the Day of Atonement because on that day we are painfully aware that we have sinned and God has issued decrees [vows] of Heavenly judgement from which there is no escape. By standing up and making a formal statement of annulling our vows, we are suggesting that God reconsider any decrees of judgment against us. First we recite the formula, then we quote from the Torah itself examples of God pardoning the people of Israel.
  3. Another understanding of Kol Nidre is that we say it as we embark on 25 hours of intense fasting and prayer. As the day goes on, perhaps we will be so overwhelmed by our sins, and disoriented by the fast, that we will make promises we cannot keep. How many Jews have promised, on Yom Kippur, to stop smoking tobacco? And by the next Yom Kippur, how many have managed to keep that vow? We ask God to give us the benefit of the doubt: we’ll try very hard to keep our vows, but we may foolishly make vows we cannot keep.
  4. Rabbi Eric Solomon has suggested that the truth of Kol Nidre is not intellectual, but emotional. The words are in Aramaic, a language few understand. The music (which has its own complicated origins) is solemn and heart-wringing. It is one of the few tunes in the year where the cantor is encouraged to embellish for the greatest emotional impact. Rabbi Solomon writes that the purpose of Kol Nidre is not so much the annulment of vows as the opening of hearts and souls to the vulnerability required for Yom Kippur. It sets the tone for the day – an explanation that I think comes as close as any to explain the fierce affection for this prayer that is evident in every synagogue.

What does Kol Nidre mean? It means that the day like no other days, the Sabbath of Sabbaths has begun. It means “Get Serious.” It is a signal sent to every Jewish heart that the Day of Atonement is here, an opportunity not to be missed.

Approaching Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur begins today at sundown.

Ready or not, it’s here. If you are thinking, “Wait! I didn’t get it all done!” bear in mind that while the symbolic “Gates of Repentance” close at sundown on Yom Kippur, the work of teshuvah is really a life-long project. No human being is without flaw, and for the wise, teshuvah is a way of life. 

However you observe the day, use the time wisely. It is truly the holiest day of the Jewish year, and as such, our hearts are especially open now. No matter what you do or do not believe about God, the fact is that for thousands of years, Jews have taken this day to reflect and plan a better path for themselves. It’s a day for taking responsibility and telling the truth to ourselves.

“Telling the truth” is different from “beating yourself up.” If you find that you are tipping over into unmanageable guilt or mental anguish, take a break, talk to someone, be kind. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to another human being. Listen to your heart!

As for fasting, I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about both the mitzvah of fasting and the mitzvah of taking care of a sick body. Resist any urge to make a competition or a display out of the fast. It is, ultimately a means to an end, not an end in itself. Whether we fast or not, I suggest we all ponder the teaching on fasting in Isaiah 58:2-9 :

Day after day they seek me
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
    and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
    they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
    Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
    and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
    will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
    and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

I wish you a fruitful Day of Atonement, full of insight!

What is Kapparot?

Yom Kippur is almost upon us, and some of you may have seen news  stories about Kapparot, a Jewish folk custom for the day before Yom Kippur.

In the most colorful form of Kapparot (the kind that makes it into the news), Jews take a live chicken, swing or wave it around their head three times, then slaughter it as a “ransom” for their sins, giving the chicken to the poor for them to eat. This practice was first reported roughly a thousand years ago: it is neither a Biblical nor a rabbinic practice, and it is certainly not a mitzvah in and of itself.

Rabbis have spoken out against kapparot for centuries. Only teshuvah atones for sins. No amount of chicken-waving will do a thing to remove sins. The rabbis also expressed concern that it might be confused with the sacrifices of idolaters or with the Biblical practice of animal sacrifice. Also, while ideally the chickens are given to the poor for food, in actual practice many of them are simply thrown out: that is both wasteful and a cruel slaughter for nothing. As distinguished an authority as Rabbi Josef Caro warned against the practice of kapparot.

There are also Jews who practice a milder kind of kapparot, using money put in a white handkerchief, swung around the head, and then given to charity. This is still problematic, because it isn’t teshuvah. Giving to the poor is a mitzvah, but it is not a substitute for the sincere repentance for our sins. God cannot be bought off. Instead, we should make teshuvah for our sins, and give tzedakah to agencies that serve the poor.

Don’t let anyone tell you that “all Jews” do this to chickens, as some antisemites have written and said. The vast majority of Jews don’t do anything of the sort.

Torah is not magic; it’s better than magic, because it is real. Unlike kapparotteshuvah actually works to mend relationships and change lives. Kapparot is a superstitious old practice for warding off demons and bad luck. Real Torah challenges us to make changes in our behavior which bring about genuine improvement in the world.

May your remaining Days of Awe in 5776 be filled with tefilah [prayer], tzedakah [charity] and gimilut hasidim [deeds of lovingkindness], and may this year be a good year for you!

Image: Gady Munz PikiWiki Israel Project

What is Shabbat Shuvah?

You may have noticed the words “Shabbat Shuvah” written on the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It means “Shabbat of Returning” or “Shabbat of Repentance” because it falls in the midst of the days in the Jewish calendar dedicated to teshuvah.

Sometimes I find this Shabbat is especially good for reflection, because I have become accustomed to the High Holy Day tunes, but there is less pomp and circumstance in the service. I can gather my thoughts and feelings and let my process of teshuvah progress. Also, for those who are not members of congregations, these are services that don’t require tickets, so they are easily accessed.

Don’t think, “The rabbi will know I wasn’t at Rosh Hashanah, and will glare at me.” The Rosh Hashanah service was a crowd scene. No one will scold you for showing up at Shabbat Shuvah, I promise. Just the reverse!

There are several special Shabbatot [sha-bah-TOTE, plural of Shabbat) scattered throughout the Jewish year, and this year I’m going to identify them as we encounter them. Each points to something special that’s on our minds that Shabbat, often a nearby holiday.

L’Shanah Tovah! I hope that your holidays are sweet and full of blessing!

What Song is in Your Head?

There’s a refrain that always bounces around in my head during the Days of Awe:

These are the days of miracle and wonder
This is the long-distance call
The way the camera follows us in slo-mo
The way we look to us all
The way we look to a distant constellation
That’s dying in a corner of the sky
These are the days of miracle and wonder
And don’t cry baby don’t cry
Don’t cry

–from “Boy in the Bubble” by Paul Simon

The whole song sings to me during these days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. (You can read the whole lyric by clicking on the link.) I don’t know exactly what it means, but it feels to me like it’s pointing towards my state of mind: Look. Listen. Think. Reflect. Wonder.

Is there a pop song that says “Days of Awe” to you?