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.

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Teshuvah, With a Little Help

Image: Woman holds her head as she talks with another. (Serena Wong / Pixabay)

We talk a lot about making teshuvah in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah. An observant Jew will take stock of their life (cheshbon nefesh) and see what needs to change. They will look at their relationships, and see what needs mending and to whom they owe an apology. They may also hear apologies from others, and have to respond to those.

Maimonides teaches a standard for making teshuvah, that it is only complete when we are in the same situation and act rightly. The gossip, for instance, needs to walk away the next time people begin telling juicy stories (and the successive times after that, as well.)

In order to act rightly in a tempting situation, we need a plan. Without a plan, we are apt to fall into old ways of behavior, because that is easiest. The plan needs to be specific: “when X happens, I will do Y.”

This is a point at which a counselor, rabbi, or even a good friend can be helpful. We don’t always see our options (which is often how we got in trouble in the first place.) We may see one or two things we can do, but without suggestions from outside, we may not see the option that will allow us to make genuine change.

It can be embarrassing to say to someone, “I yell at my children too much,” or “I need help thinking of ways to stop gossiping” or “I haven’t been to the dentist in 10 years because I am afraid.” But if our inner response to something is “I just can’t help it” then it is high time to get help from outside.

If you are preparing for the New Year by searching your heart for the things that need to change, know that you don’t need to do this task alone – in fact, you may do a better job of it with a little help from a friend.

A classic on the subject!


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!

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!

“When are the High Holy Days?” and Other Pressing Questions

Image: Large, lighted letters that spell “Coming Soon” in caps. (By 3D Animation Production Company / Pixabay)

We’re nearing the home stretch of the Jewish year. Every time someone wants to schedule things a couple of months out, I have to check my calendar: “Wait, does that conflict with the High Holy Days?”

I offer you a mini calendar of the coming attractions, with the year 5779 winding down to a close. Links will take you to an explanation of each holy day, fast, or observance:

And then it will be time for the High Holy Days and a New Year 5780:

The Fall Holidays of 5779: How were yours?

Image: Israeli Rabbi Stacey Blank blows the shofar. (Photo: Rabbi Stacey Blank)

So how has your Fall cycle of holidays gone this year?

We began back in August with the month of Elul, thinking upon our relationships and our own behavior, mending what we could.

Then with Selichot, things got serious: we said penitential prayers, the tunes changed, the clergy and the Torahs wore white.

When Rosh Hashanah came with all its pagentry, a combination of awe and celebration, we welcomed the New Year and hoped for a good year to come.

The Ten Days of Awe sped past, with so much to do and so little time to do it.

And soon it was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – how was that for you?

Now we are almost at the end of Sukkot. The weather is beginning to chill even as our hearts warm. It’s good to spend time with friends and family, good to be grateful.

As the ancient cycle turned this year, the world intruded again and again with upsetting news at home and abroad. A giant earthquake and tsunami wracked Indonesia; a different kind of earthquake rocked Washington, D.C.

As the final festivities of the fall cycle approach (Shimini Atzeret  Simchat Torah, anyone?) where are you? What about you has changed? What has gotten better? Any reflections to share with us here in the comments?

 

What is Teshuvah?

Image:  An archer takes aim with a bow and arrow. (skeeze/pixabay)

Teshuvah means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah:”

  1. We notice what we’ve done wrong,
  2. We acknowledge that it is wrong,
  3. We take responsibility for it,
  4. We apologize and make amends, and then
  5. We make a plan for not doing it again.

SIN in Judaism is a slightly different concept than in Christianity. The Hebrew word chet (sounds like “hate” only with a spitty sound on the front) is an archery term. It means that I aimed at something and I missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person I am for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when I am next in that situation.

Very Important:  The point of the teshuvah is not to beat ourselves up, it’s to make ourselves better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  According to Maimonides, until I am in that situation again and behave differently, I cannot be certain that my teshuvah is complete.

In Judaism, the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind. It does not matter how lousy I feel about what I did, it matters that I address what I have done with the people I’ve hurt and do what I can to make sure there are no repeats.

Follow-through is important: it is not enough to be sorry for things I have done or failed to do. What is my plan for the future? How exactly am I going to do better in the coming year?  Sometimes this means asking for help, calling a rabbi or a therapist to talk about strategies for change.  Sometimes it means getting into treatment, or joining a 12 step group. A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat myself up, it’s to make the world better by making my behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. When I feel embarrassed at what I have done, that’s part of the process. Making teshuvah will help with the shame.

Each day of our lives is an opportunity to do better, to rise above the past. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet you are not free to desist from it.” No one does any of this perfectly. The point is to improve.