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

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?

Teshuvah 101

For the last month, Jews have been preparing for the High Holy Days. During Elul and the High Holy Days, we work to make teshuvah, to return to the right path.

Teshuvah literally means “turning.” When we “make teshuvah” we notice what we’ve done wrong, we acknowledge that it is wrong, we take responsibility for it, we do what we can to apologize and make amends, and then we make a plan for not doing it again.

1. READ a Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days. It’s an entry on this blog, just follow the link.  This will give you an idea of the season as a whole.

2. 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 you aimed at something and you missed.  In Judaism, the focus is not on what a terrible person you are for doing something, the focus is to aim more carefully when you next are in that situation

Very Important:  The point of the season is not to beat myelf up, it’s to make myself better.  Taking responsibility and expressing sorrow are important but the act of teshuvah [repentance] is not complete until I do better.  Remember, in Judaism the focus is on doing, not so much on one’s state of mind.

3. PEOPLE are the prime concern during the process of teshuvah. I need to go through my address book and think, is there anyone I have treated badly? Have I apologized? The only time an apology is not required is if it would cause greater pain. Is it possible to make restitution, if that is appropriate?  The tradition is very clear that it is essential we apologize to those we have offended or injured and do our best to make things right.  If they will not accept an apology, or if something cannot be made right, then we have to do the best we can.

4. It is possible to sin against MYSELF, as well. Have I treated my body carelessly, either by neglect or by abusing it? Do I follow my doctor’s orders? For any of these things, I need to take responsibility, and to think about change.

5. Sins against GOD also require teshuvah. As a Reform Jew, I may or may not keep the commandments in a traditional way. Whatever my practice, it needs to be genuine: I should not claim to be more observant than I am. Which mitzvot do I observe? Are there mitzvot I think I should observe, but don’t? Why don’t I? What could I change so that I will be the Jew I want to be?

6. ADJUSTMENTS  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.  A fresh pair of eyes and ears may see options that I don’t.

7. DON’T GO TO PIECES As I said above, the point of all this is not to beat yourself up, it’s to make the world better by making your behavior better. Do not wallow in guilt, just note what needs to change and make a plan for change. If the list is overwhelming, pick one or two things and then take action. 

8. PRAYER. During Elul the shofar is sounded at morning services in the synagogue on weekdays. Some people find that the ancient sound of the ram’s horn “wakes them up.” That may sound silly, but try it and see.  Towards the end of Elul, on a Saturday night, there is a beautiful service called Selichot (Slee-CHOT) in which we gather as a community to read through prayers and lists that will help us identify the things we need to improve. If you can, attend; it can be a big help.

These eight elements can help you have a fruitful High Holy Days. Each year 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.

L’shana tovah:  May the coming year be a good year for you!

The Art of the Good Apology

The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, not for sins against man, unless the injured party has been appeased.”– Mishnah Yoma 8:9

If we are normal people leading normal lives, there will be times we owe someone an apology. Our offenses may be big, or small, and in some cases we may even feel they have been blown out of proportion, but something must be done about them.

A fascination with Intentions can distract from this process.  Nothing messes up a good apology like “I intended X but you clearly misunderstood, you idiot.”

Imagine for a moment that you are standing in line somewhere. It’s crowded, and you step sideways or backwards because you are trying to keep your balance. Your foot, and all of your weight, lands firmly on the instep of another person. He yelps.

Now: what do you say?  Most people would agree that the thing to say in this situation is “I’m sorry,” “Pardon!” or better yet, “I’m so sorry I stepped on your foot.”  It should sound like the stepper actually regrets stepping on the foot.  Then the other person might, if he is gracious, say, “That’s OK” or “That’s OK, but be careful!” or, if there was a crunch and severe pain, or a stiletto involved, “I think it may be broken, can you help me get to a doctor?”

What would NOT be OK is for the first person to say, “Your foot is in the wrong place!” or “Quit complaining, you big baby!” After all, she just stepped on someone’s foot!  And it would be ridiculous to say, “Well, I didn’t intend to step on it, so it doesn’t count. Get over yourself!”

The same applies when we step on people’s feelings. The first, indispensable thing to say is “I’m sorry,” in a tone that conveys genuine sorrow. It’s good to say it as soon as possible, but it’s never too late to say it. It doesn’t matter what you intended; what has to be attended to is the hurt.  That’s why it’s good to name the hurt: “I’m sorry I didn’t think before I spoke/ ran over your dog / etc.”  No subjunctive mood nonsense, either:  none of this “If your feelings were hurt, I’m sorry” stuff. That makes you sound like a shifty politician, and it just compounds the injury.

Next step: What are you going to do, so that this doesn’t happen again? This needs to be something specific. “I am going to make an appointment with my eye doctor!” or “I am going to talk to a counselor about why I am always late!” or “I am going to do some study about racism, because I have a lot to learn!”

If at any point they want to tell you how they are feeling, LISTEN. Don’t interrupt, don’t tell them how they should feel, don’t tell them you already apologized. Don’t justify, don’t argue. LISTEN. Then repeat back to them what you heard: “I get that you are very angry, and I am so sorry I left you wondering if I was safe.”

I live in California, and people are lawsuit-crazy here. They love to sue each other, and it’s tempting to live in fear of lawsuits, never taking responsibility for anything, lest someone take that to court and make money out of it. But folks, that is no way to live, and it is no way to run relationships with our neighbors or friends.

Here is Rabbi Adar’s recipe for a good apology:

1. “I am sorry that I _____ .”  Say it in a sincere tone of voice, so they can hear that you are sorry.

2. “Here’s what I will do to make sure this never happens again.” (alternatively, “Here is what I will do to make restitution.”)

3. If they have something to say, listen. Do not defend or argue.

That’s it.  That’s all that is required. It’s hard, but if you are going to the trouble of making amends and apologies, they might as well be good ones, right?

Think back over the apologies you have received in your life. When has an apology actually helped? What about that apology worked?

A Guide to High Holy Day Greetings

There are a number of ways Jews greet one another during the High Holy Days.  The easiest, all-purpose greeting is:

SHANA TOVA – (shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “Good year” it means “Happy New Year.” You can reply with the same words.

Some other greetings you may hear leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on the day:

L’SHANA TOVA (luh-shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “To a Good Year.” It also means Happy New Year, and you can reply in kind.

L’SHANA TOVA TIKATEIVU (shah-NAH toe-VAH tee-kah-TAY-voo) literally, “May you be written for a good year [in the Book of Life.]

GUT YUNTIFF – (GOOT YUN-tif), (Yiddish) “Happy Holiday.”

From Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, it’s polite to assume that someone has already been “written in the book of life” so you wish them a “good sealing”:

GAMAR CHATIMAH TOVAH – (ga-MAR chah-ti-MAH toe-VAH) – “May your final sealing be good.”

Remember, you can never go wrong greeting or answering with “Shana Tovah!”

Thank you to Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr, Coral Springs, FL for the photo featured with this article. I use it by permission of Rabbi Loving, and all rights to its use are hers.

Books for Elul & the High Holy Days

Wondering how to prepare for the High Holy Days? One way many Jews prepare is with a good book. Here are some  books I have used for this purpose:

And now, dear readers, what have I left out? Is there a book you’ve used for High Holy Day preparation that you particularly recommend? Please share it with us in the comments!

Chodesh Tov! It’s Elul tonight!

At sundown tonight, not only will it be Shabbat, it will be Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first of the month of Elul.

Elul is the 12th month of the Jewish year – so yes, a month from now we will be celebrating Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year.

Elul is a month of quiet preparation for the renewal of the High Holy Days. Traditionally, we take this time to “wake up our souls” with the sound of the shofar and with penitential prayers (selichot.)

It’s a time for cheshbon nefesh – taking an accounting of one’s life. In what ways have I fallen short in the last year? What regrets would I have, if I died tomorrow? What do I have to show for my one, precious, singular life?

Many Jews also take some time this month to visit the graves of loved ones. Going to a cemetery reminds us of our own mortality.

I’ll write more about these customs over the coming month. In the meantime, do you have plans for Elul? How do you go about your personal accounting?

It’s Not Too Early to Think about the High Holy Days!

Rosh HaShanah begins this year at sundown on September 13, 2015. That’s less than two months from now.

Every pulpit rabbi is busy with sermons and service plans. Every synagogue staff is frantically busy with preparations. But for the rest of us, fall seems a long way off.

Are you interested in attending services this year? If you are not a synagogue member, now is the time to start thinking about where you would like to attend. For every person who wants a seat in an urban or suburban synagogue, there may be several people who want that seat. That’s one of the reasons that synagogues sell tickets for the big High Holy Day services. And that is why you should start looking for your service very soon.

Don’t want to “pay to pray?” There are probably free services available in your area if you live in a city in the U.S., but again, you may want to locate those services sooner rather than later. Call your local Federation or Jewish Community Center office and ask what they know about free High Holy Day services.

If you have been thinking that this is your year to join a synagogue, I strongly suggest that you visit synagogues before the High Holy Days. This has several advantages:

  1. Your dues will include your High Holy Day tickets.
  2. You will not be stuck in a strange synagogue for the High Holy Days.
  3. Summer is a good time to visit synagogues. The High Holy Days are a terrible time to visit synagogues.

If you are a synagogue member, now is the time to remind yourself that this is the most stressful time of year for synagogue office staff. In addition to their regular work, they are preparing mailings, service books, and handouts. As the membership agreements come in, they have to deal with people’s questions about tickets, their complaints about last year, their worries about this year, and assorted kvetching about the weather and the parking last year. If you aspire to be a mensch (and you should aspire to be a mensch!) BE NICE TO THOSE PEOPLE!

So yes, the High Holy Days are coming, and fast. Be menschen, that you may be sealed for goodness  in the Book of Life!

Shana Tovah! and Happy Tishri!

shofar sound

In all the excitement of the New Year it is easy to lose track of the fact that it’s also a new month. Rosh HaShanah is also Rosh Chodesh Tishri, the first of the month of Tishri.

The main thing to know about Tishri is that it’s a month with many holy days: Rosh HaShanah, the Days of Awe, and Yom Kippur, followed by the week-long Feast of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. (Click the links for more info on those holidays.)

There is also a minor fast day, Tzom Gedaliah, which memorializes the death of a righteous governor of Judea in the years after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians. Read 2 Kings 25: 24-25 or Jeremiah 41 for the story.

It’s a busy month!

What’s Yom Kippur? 12 Facts

  1. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day of the Jewish year. Jews have observed Yom Kippur for millennia.
  2. Yom Kippur observance is based on Leviticus 16, where procedures are laid out for atonement for all the sins of Israel. The key verses are 29-31: “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”
  3. Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, sacrifices were no longer possible. Yom Kippur remains a day of fasting and earnest prayer. Even in extreme situations, Jews will do whatever they can to fast from sundown to sundown.
  4. The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, but it only atones for sins against one’s fellow human beings if one has already gone through the process of teshuvah. Follow the link for more information about teshuvah. Because often proper teshuvah takes time, the entire month of Elul is set aside for preparation for the Days of Awe.
  5. The evening service that opens Yom Kippur is called Kol Nidre, after the legal formula with which it begins. Kol Nidre means “all vows.” It is both a nullification of foolish vows we may be tempted to make during the day of fasting, and a remembrance of the many times our people were given the bitter choice of conversion (to Christianity or Islam) or death.
  6. Yom Kippur is unique in the Jewish Year in that there are five complete services for the day. A normal Jewish weekday has three services. Shabbat has four. (The number of services corresponds to the number of sacrifices in Temple times.)
  7. On Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally observe five different practices:  We fast from food and water, we do not wear leather shoes, we do not bathe, we do not “anoint ourselves” (use lotions or wear makeup) and we refrain from sexual relations. Fasting is the most widely observed of these among liberal Jews. However, people with medical problems and pregnant women are forbidden to fast. Children under 13 do not fast.
  8. Yom Kippur is the day when Jews who do not otherwise enter a synagogue will go to services. Many Jews spend the entire day at synagogue, going to services, studying, confessing personal and communal sins, and discussing serious matters.
  9. On Yom Kippur, Jews who have lost close relatives attend Yizkor, a service of mourning and remembrance.
  10. The last service of the day is Neilah, “locking,” which refers to the poetic idea that during the Days of Awe, the “gates of repentance” are open. It is a dramatic service in which the cantor and service leaders plead for God’s forgiveness for Israel.
  11. Yom Kippur appears to “move around” in the Gregorian calendar. That is because Jewish holy days are set by the Jewish calendar, which is lunar and works differently than the Gregorian. In the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur always falls on the 10th of Tishri, in the autumn.
  12. In 2018, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Tuesday, September 18.