A Mitzvah for Shmini Atzeret

Image: A laptop covered with post-it notes. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

The fall holiday cycle is almost done. Today is Shmini Atzeret, and then Jewish life will settle down for the quiet month of Cheshvan. Only one holiday, Sigd, twinkles at the far end of the month — otherwise it is quiet. It’s the longest such break in the Jewish Year, and it comes at a good time, because anyone involved in putting on all those celebrations is worn out.

Your clergy and staff at synagogue are exhausted from the past two years of Covid, Israel, political upheaval, rising antisemitism, and whatever has been going on locally in your community. This is a great time to write them a note about the sermon you liked, or the beautiful music, or something that went right. They have worked very hard and any expression of appreciation will be a blessing. Notes, emails, silly homemade postcards– it’s all wonderful.

The big thing is, if you’re happy about something to do with synagogue life, this is a great time to let your clergy know. They often wonder who notices things, and who cares. They hear about what went wrong but they rarely hear “thank you.”

To the person who says, “Well, it’s their job!” I have one thing to say: no, it isn’t “just a job.” It’s a labor of love, and particularly for staff, it is often a very poorly paid job. For clergy, it is months of work informed by years of training, and it is often done in tandem with volunteers who are full of good ideas and enthusiasm that have to be coordinated into a manageable whole. It’s WORK.

I am not a pulpit rabbi. I substituted for a colleague who was injured, so I had none of the preparations to do, just showed up to officiate for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even at part-duties, it was a big job, and I appreciated their thanks very much. In fact, those notes gave me a boost I needed after a stressful summer of other work — something of which they had no inkling. They refreshed my rabbinate more than they will ever know.

The expression of gratitude is a mitzvah: it restores the soul of both the speaker and the recipient. We are at the official end of the High Holy Day cycle. If there was anything you liked about your High Holy Days, whether it was the services, or the way the signups worked, or the call that was returned after you left a message, or someone’s cooking — this is a great time to say, “Thank you.”

What, Another Jewish Holiday Already?

Image: A family picnicing in the park. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

The High Holy Days are behind us.

One common feeling at this point in the fall cycle of holidays is to be really sick of sitting in synagogue or in front of the computer screen, praying.  Yep, me too.

Sukkot is the perfect Jewish holiday for this year. The main idea is, get outdoors!

The good news is that this holiday isn’t primarily a synagogue holiday. Sukkot is celebrated in the YARD.

Or on the balcony.

Or on the roof.

You can celebrate Sukkot anywhere you can build a temporary shelter.

Or — to keep things very simple – anywhere you can put a few lawn chairs and a card table.  Or a blanket on the grass. Don’t get too fussy and spoil the fun. Enjoy!

Yes, it’s nice to have a sukkah. And if you have any connection at all to a Jewish organization, you can go sit in their sukkah, but if you want to get at the heart of the holiday, call up some friends and take them with you. Or go to the park.

This holiday is all about appreciating nature and the harvest. Yes, food. Eaten outdoors. With friends. Or strangers soon to be friends.

Maybe you can think of a friend who could also use a little outdoors time now.

The beauty of Sukkot is that whether you live in an apartment or a mansion, you celebrate it in a temporary shelter outdoors. If you don’t have a yard, take a picnic to the park. If you don’t have a sukkah the lawn chairs I mentioned above are fine. Or a beach umbrella. Just grab your stuff, pack some food, call a friend, and GO. You’ll figure it out.

The heart of Sukkot is hospitality and enjoyment, and a recognition that most of the stuff we build in this world is temporary, anyhow.

Sukkot starts on the evening of Monday, September 20, 2021. But don’t stress – it goes on for a week. There will be time.

Sukkot is the kick-back Jewish holiday. We’ve mended our relationships, now we get to enjoy them. No hurry, no worry, just share some food and enjoy the season. If it’s too hot outside, make some lemonade. If it’s too wet, stay inside by a window, or just get wet.

I’ll keep posting about the Jewishy stuff, the sukkah, the lulav, the history — that’s all interesting. But remember, the heart of this holiday is hospitality.

Prepare to enjoy yourself!

Yom Kippur Greetings for Beginners

Image: Rabbi Sharon Sobel blows a large shofar. She wears a colorful tallit.

The High Holy Days have one good all purpose blessing that actually keeps working through the end of the cycle, at the end of Sukkot. We can say, “Shana tova!” [Good year!] to which “Shana tova!” is a perfectly acceptable reply.

But if you are spending any time, even online, with other Jews, you may hear some other greetings. Here are some of the choices:

G’mar tov! — (g’MAHR TOHV) — A good finish

G’mar chatimah tovah! — (g’MAHR khah-tee-MAH tow-VAH) — A good final sealing

Tzom kasher! — (zohm ka-SHAYR) — Have a proper fast

Tzom kal! — (zohm KAHL) — Have an easy fast

The good news is that all of those are answered just as they are asked. Just say them back, and it’s all good.

There are also some all-purpose greetings you may hear. They are a bit less common on Yom Kippur, given its sober tone.

Chag sameach! — (khag sa-MAY-akh) — Happy holy day!

Goot yuntiff — (goot YUN-tif) — Yiddish — Good Holy Day.

Join Me for the High Holy Days?

Image: Brightly colored logo for Jewish Gateways‘ High Holidays 2021 Logo. A pomegranate is cupped in a blue arc like a hand. A rainbow surrounds.

L’shana tova! Happy New Year! The Jewish New Year of 5782 begins at sundown on Monday night, September 6, and continues until sundown September 7.

Normally I’m a “Jew in the Pew” for High Holy Days, but this year I am pinch-hitting for Rabbi Bridget Wynne, who is recovering from an accident last week. If you’d like to join me for online services with Jewish Gateways, the registration and information for that is available on their website.

For more information about the High Holy Days I recommend reading my article High Holy Days for Beginners, 2020. The dates have changed but the information is the same.

Other ways you may hear Jews refer to these days, all correct:

  • High Holidays
  • Days of Awe
  • Yamim Noraim (Hebrew) (ya-MEEM no-rah-EEM)
  • Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (ROSH ha-sha-NAH and YOM kee-POOR)
  • “High Hols” (very informal)
  • HHD’s (in tweets and other shorthand media)

Whatever you call them, I wish you a Good and Sweet New Year. May it bring you health, healing, light, and love.

L‘shana tova! Happy New Year!

High Holy Days for Beginners, 2020

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 18, 2020. It will begin the Jewish Year 5781. 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 began at sundown on Aug 20 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.

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 look for classes and services online.

This High Holy Day cycle of 2020 will be like no other. Synagogues are streaming services, and most services will be streamlined a bit. If you want to attend, check the synagogue website for information.

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

A Final Mitzvah, as the High Holidays Close

Image: Sunset. Photo by Ruth Adar.

The fall holiday cycle is almost done. We have Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah to go, and then Jewish life will settle down for a bit.

FYI: Your clergy are almost certainly exhausted from the past couple of months. This is a great time to write them a note about the sermon you liked, or the beautiful music, or something that went right. They have worked very hard and any expression of appreciation will be a blessing. Email is fine, but I know a couple of rabbis who save written thank-yous in a box, specifically to help them keep going when things are tough.

The big thing is, if you’re happy about something to do with synagogue life, this is a great time to let your clergy know. They wonder, sometimes, who notices things, and who cares. They hear about what went wrong but they rarely hear “thank you.”

I am not a pulpit rabbi – I’m a Jew in the Pew. I will be writing my rabbis with my own thanks.

I just thought some of y’all might want to know when letters of appreciation are particularly welcome. The expression of gratitude is truly a mitzvah.

Teaching the High Holy Days

Today I taught an online class on the Fall Holiday Cycle, aka the High Holy Days. I did a demonstration of shofar blowing and gathered a crowd here in the house. The dogs are fascinated by the shofar but a bit shy of its sound.

If you have ritual objects in your home, keep in mind that shofarot smell like fabulous chew toys, as do scrolls and the klaf in your mezuzah. Keep the shofar, etc. out of reach of pets.

Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.

Moving the Furniture

Image: My computer, unplugged and out of the way.

We have to rearrange the house to get some repairs done. Sukkot is coming, which means at least one gathering, and some other events as well. We are cleaning and repairing things in expectation of guests, holidays, and (soon) a new grandchild.

Funny, if you move the furniture around, you find stuff. We discovered when we moved the couch that there was a line of shmutz (Yiddish for dirt) just under it. I’ll have to clean that up before we replace the couch.

Yom Kippur is a lot like that. Our tradition gives us a season to drag around the furniture of our lives, checking for shmutz, fixing what’s broken. That season culminates in a serious 24 hour period for reflection, stripped of our usual distractions of food, or drink, or sex. If we use it well, we will be renewed. If we waste it by clinging to distractions, we are the losers.

Many of us are worried about the state of the world and the country right now. That, too, can be a distraction from dealing with the things that are truly ours to control: our behavior, our attitudes, and our choices.

I wish you a thoughtful, prayerful time as you traverse the Days of Awe 5780.

A Rosh Hashanah Letter to my Christian Friends

Image: Apples, Honey, and Pomegranates are among the traditional foods for Rosh Hashanah. (Lakovleva Daria / Shutterstock/ all rights reserved)

Dear Friends,

You’ve likely noticed words like “Rosh Hashanah” and “Yom Kippur” are coming up in the calendar. You may or may not know that those are Jewish holidays. You also may have noticed Jewish friends or co-workers maneuvering to take time off for those days. Here are some things to know if you want to be a good friend and a supportive ally:

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, but it isn’t like secular New Year’s Eve. We spend part of it in synagogue and often the rest of it at a holiday gathering with relatives. For many of us, synagogue is not optional on that day, nor is the time with family: we really have to be there. It is both a joyful and a solemn day.

Yes, this applies even to the Jews you don’t think of as “religious” Jews. Rather than make a joke about how you wish you had holidays that “gave” you time off (which you do, it’s called Christmas) why not give a friend a break and help them take the time?

“Happy Rosh Hashanah” is OK but please don’t wish me a “Happy Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” and we spend it fasting and praying for 24 hours. For many of us, that fast includes water. It’s not a fun day, nor is it intended to be, and we may not feel great the next day, either.

If you are curious about the High Holy Days, here are some articles that may help you understand what we’re up to:

18 Facts about Rosh Hashanah

What’s Yom Kippur? 12 Facts

The Jewish Calendar: Why 5779?

May the year 5780 be a good year and a year of peace for all the world!

What is a Kittel?

Image: A kittle, folded up like a shirt.

A kittel is a garment you might see during the High Holy Days or at a wedding. It is a white garment made of lightweight fabric, usually cotton or a polyester blend. It looks a bit like a very light lab coat with a cloth belt, generally in a mid-calf length, and it is worn buttoned-up.

You may also see a kittel on the chatan [bridegroom] at a wedding.

In both cases, the kittel signifies the purity of heart one tries to bring to those situations. The color white is sometimes said to take its inspiration from this verse from the prophets:

Come now, and let us reason together, says the Eternal; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be like wool.

— Isaiah 1:18

A kittel may also be worn by the meyt [body of the deceased] in the coffin for burial. Usually it is paired with long trousers of the same material. The persons who wash the body for burial dress it before putting it in the casket. You are unlikely to see a meyt in a kittel because it is not the custom to view a body after death; Jewish funerals are always closed-casket.

This gives us another reason that some people choose to wear a kittel during High Holy Day observances. There is a focus on the end of life during those days, especially Yom Kippur. Wearing the garment in which one might be buried is a sharp reminder of our mortality.