Ten Things to Know About the Jewish Days of Awe

Apples and Honey
Apples and Honey (Photo credit: slgckgc)

This post is part of an ongoing series “Especially for Beginners” in which I will try to give simple explanations for words and concepts in Jewish life. There is always a lot more to learn than in these little posts. If you want more, follow the links. To see what other topics I have covered in this series, click “Especially for Beginners” in the Category cloud on the right side of your screen.

Things to know about the Days of Awe:

  • The Days of Awe are the ten days from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
  • The Hebrew for the Days of Awe is Yamim Noraim [yah-MEEM no-rah-EEM].
  • The Days of Awe are a time for concentration on teshuvah [turning, repentance], for mending relationships and adjusting the trajectory of our lives.
  • Many Jews approach others during the Days of Awe to apologize for misdeeds, slights, and misunderstandings in the previous year.
  • The teshuvah of the Days of Awe should be not only personal, but communal. Jewish groups, and the Jewish People as a whole confess their wrongdoings and make changes.
  • Sometimes the Days of Awe are referred to as the Days of Repentance.
  • The Shabbat that falls during the Days of Awe is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance.
  • Synagogue services during the Days of Awe are unusual. They have their own music, and they are frequently much longer. They are not typical of services the rest of the year. Hence this is not a good time to “shul-shop” [look for a synagogue.]  During services, someone may sound the shofar, the ram’s horn.
  • Synagogues often charge or sell tickets for the most crowded services, but most larger communities have services that are free or low-cost. Call a local synagogue or Federation to find out about your options, and do so well ahead of time (a month ahead is about right.)
  • The simplest greeting for the Days of Awe is “Shanah Tovah!” [sha-NAH toe-VAH]. It means (roughly) “Happy New Year!”

How can a beginner participate in the Days of Awe?

  • Attend services.  If you cannot find a free service and do not want to pay, know that many services do not charge for some of the less-attended services: Selichot, Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur afternoon services. Shabbat services (other than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur) are open to visitors as they are all year long.
  • Listen to the sound of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.
  • Read about the Days of Awe, either online or in a book. The Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days is a place to begin.
  • Participate in making teshuvah. For more about that, read Teshuvah for Beginners and The Jewish Cure for Guilt.
  • Eat the traditional foods of Rosh Hashanah: Apples, honey, sweets, pomegranates (for a sweet new year.)
  • Fast all or part of the day on Yom Kippur. See Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur.
  • Wish your Jewish friends “Shanah Tovah!”
  • Consider signing up for a Taste of Judaism or Intro to Judaism course at your local synagogue. They often begin right after the High Holy Days.

I wish you a Shanah Tovah, a Sweet and Good New Year!

Why is the Jewish Calendar so Weird?

Elul, the month of looking inward, is almost over.  Wednesday night is Erev Rosh HaShanah, the evening of the New Year.

Jewish “days” start at sundown, because in Genesis 1 it says, over and over, “It was evening, and it was morning.”  This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with it.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

There is no doubt about it, we are a stiff necked people, as the God of Israel comments to Moses in Exodus 32:9.  Only a stiff necked people could insist on their own cockeyed timetable for thousands of years of diaspora, tripping over other people’s holidays and calendars and clocks and whatnot.  Ask anyone who asked for Rosh HaShanah off this week:  it’s a nuisance.  Yet we stick out our stiff necks and insist on it year after year after year, annoying our bosses, confusing our neighbors, and making some paranoid types certain that we are Up to Something, an international conspiracy, perhaps.

Why not accomodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Pay attention, because some years, like this year,  Rosh HaShanah is “early.” Mind you, it always comes on the first day of Tishrei, but if you usually live on the Gregorian calendar, this year 1 Tishrei comes on the evening of 4 September, which is unusually early in September. Pay attention, because while in the “regular” world it is 2013, in the Jewish world, it is about to be 5774.

Notice the passage of time.  Notice the cycle of seasons.  Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention.

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote in Gates of Prayer:

Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!

The Jewish Cure for Guilt

Image: An iron gate stands open in an ornate stone doorway. Tama66/Pixabay.

Rabbi Chananya bar Papa asked Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman, “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘As for me I will offer my prayer unto Thee in an acceptable time?'” He replied, “The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes closed, but the gates of repentance are always open.” – Devarim Rabbah, II.

I’m a perfectionist, very hard on myself. If I goof up, my anger with myself is beyond all reason. This is a not attractive, but it is the way I am.

When I was a young woman, I believed that mistakes were fatal. Mess up, and no one will ever love me again.  Ever.  Go to Hell, do not pass go, do not collect $200.  The real problem, of course, was getting me to ever love me again. And in the meantime, because I was flopping around in an agony of guilt, I’d hide or lie or get defensive, or do anything to try to escape getting a cross word from someone else, because I thought I couldn’t bear it – I was already my own private Spanish Inquisition. In the meantime, the wrong would compound like interest in a banker’s wildest dream: the person I offended or hurt would be more hurt.

Judaism offers me something wonderful: an actual plan for dealing with my mistakes. It gives me the gift of teshuvah (repentance.) When I make a mistake, when I do something wrong, I just have to follow the steps of teshuvah:

LEAVE THE SIN  I have to recognize that what I did was wrong and I have to resolve to make teshuvah.

REGRET I have to be genuinely sorry and embarrassed that I did such a thing.  This step I do quite well – a Catholic childhood and a Jewish adulthood add up to a finely tuned duet of guilt. My trouble was that I used to stop here, wallowing in misery. This is not the place to stop!  Move quickly to the next step:

SINCERE APOLOGY AND REQUEST FOR FORGIVENESS I have to go to the person I offended or hurt or failed in some way, and take responsibility for my actions. Taking responsibility also means listening to their reaction. Then I have to ask for forgiveness.

CONFESSION BEFORE GOD Then, having apologized, I have to go through the whole thing again, aloud, before God. Early on, I was suspicious of this step; it seemed excessive. I have found, though, that without it I lack the resources to make a good job of the last step:

RESOLVING NEVER TO REPEAT THIS SIN This requires more than a wish; it requires a plan. I have to figure out how I am not ever going to see a repeat of this particular failure, and I have to put that plan into action.

The gift is, that when I do a good job of teshuvah, that crushing, tearing misery of guilt will lift. I will feel better, and what’s more, so will some of those people against whom I sinned.

Lately I’ve been going through a patch of sins. They’ve been largely sins of disorganization, and they have come about because my workload has increased and I have not set myself up to be adequately organized.  Other errors were not intentional, but they affected other people, nevertheless. So now I’m following up with a patch of teshuvah: noticing the messes, feeling mortified, apologizing and doing what I can to make things right, having some serious prayer sessions, and making plans for change. Not fun now, but the results are worth it: while I will always be sorry I messed up (I’d rather be perfect, after all!) I won’t feel that gut-wrenching guilt.

I’m sharing this because I suspect I am not  the only person who wants to disappear through the floor or hide under the furniture every time she fouls up.  If any of this sounds familiar, you might want to give teshuvah a try. We have a season of it, of course, every late summer and fall, but why wait? Relief from your pain is only a few steps away: the gates of repentance, they say, are always open.

Three Ways to Take an Inventory of the Soul

Checkbook-ageddon
Checkbook-ageddon (Photo credit: adamthelibrarian)

The month of Elul is for taking inventory of the soul. The Hebrew term is cheshbon hanefesh, literally “an accounting of the soul.”  This is not an easy task, because many of us have trouble seeing ourselves clearly. Here are three nontraditional but effective ways to get a reality-based take on what’s really going on in our lives:

1. ROLODEX.  I know, you have something more high-tech, a contact list on your phone, an address book, something. Whatever lists all the people in your life, look through it, slowly. Be aware of your body: are there any names that make you a bit uncomfortable?  Make a list of those names, the uncomfortable names. That’s your Elul to-do list: call those folks and deal with that discomfort. Take responsibility for your end of whatever happened. Do not try to get “satisfaction” from anyone – just take responsibility for yourself.

2. CHECKBOOK. “Checkbook” means whatever document gives me a fact based sense of where I spend my money. It may be last year’s tax return, or a budget, or a computer application. Ask: how do I spend my money? How much did I spend on food, housing, clothing? How much did I spend on entertainment? What were those entertainments? Where did I spend my money: what criteria did I use to decide with whom I would do business and with whom I would not? What did I spend on justice, on tzedakah, on relieving human suffering? Are there any red flags in this record: too much spending on alcohol, gambling, compulsive shopping? Would I be ashamed if my budget appeared in the newspaper?  How would it be different, to be a budget of which I could feel proud? What about the sources of my income: was all of it honestly earned?

3. APPOINTMENT BOOK. How do I spend my time? How is the balance between work and family? Does the record show appointments to take care of myself, my body, my soul, my legal obligations? What do I do on Shabbat, really? Do I show appointments for any volunteering or work that benefits others? Look through the appointments in the book: does anything here make me feel uncomfortable? Do I have appointments of which I am ashamed? Is there anything here I would not want my spouse or children to know? Is there anyone who does not appear in my appointment book because we have an unresolved conflict? What about the blanks in the appointment book: what filled those? Were they pursuits that really rested me, or were they pastimes in which I hid from something – and if so, what?

How do you take stock of yourself during Elul?