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.
If you go to a synagogue with weekday services, you’ll hear it: the primitive sound that comes from a raw-looking piece of animal horn. It’s meant to wake up your soul. When you hear it, just shut your eyes and let yourself feel it. Let the vibrations shake you up.
Jews have listened to that sound since the earliest days; there are records of the shofar sounding in the Torah, as the Hebrews traveled through the desert. We know the shofar was blown in the Temple. The sound echoes down the centuries.
On Thursday, Sept 5, 2013 we’ll hear it again: there’s a whole short service dedicated to it in the Rosh Hashanah Day service.
Here are some basic facts about the shofar:
The singular is SHOW-far, the plural is show-fa-ROTE.
The commandment for Rosh Hashanah [New Year’s Day] is to hear the sound of the shofar.
No, you do not have to blow it yourself.
Do not ask to blow someone else’s shofar. It’s as personal as a toothbrush (and full of their spit.)
The shofar is usually a horn from a ram or kudu, but never a cow.
Most shofarot are plain, with no decoration or separate mouthpiece.
A man who blows the shofar is a Ba’al Tekiah (bah-AHL Teh-kee-YAH).
A woman who blows it is a Ba’alat Tekiah (bah-ah-LAHT Teh-kee-YAH.)
Rosh HaShanah is coming, and the temple bulletin says about something called Selichot. What’s that? Do I want to attend?:
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, or 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 Student 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 jogs the memory and the heart. Secondly, we approach the High Holy Days both as individuals and as a community, responsible for one another. While I am not responsible for the sins of my neighbor, he and I are responsible for each other’s well-being, and so his 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 IS IT HELD SO LATE 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 you don’t believe in God, you may need to deal with things you have done. If you find the idea of a God who sits in judgment problematic or even ridiculous, that’s OK. 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 things that left unchecked will have bad consequences and hurt someone. If we have done any of those things, we need to take responsibility (ask forgiveness), and take action to fix and prevent in the future.
7. WHAT IF I USUALLY FIND SERVICES BORING? Selichot is a different kind of service, wherever it is held. You will get an introduction to High Holy Days music. It is usually not a long service. But more than anything else, it is a service with a very distinct purpose: to get us ready to change our ways for the better. This is not your usual synagogue service. 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!
When I hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn] it seems to echo down the centuries.
The first time I heard it, I was surprised at the rawness of the sound. The shofar is not a fancy musical instrument. It is merely the hollowed-out horn of a ram. There is no mouthpiece, no reed, no metal in it whatsoever.
If you have the opportunity to handle one, you will see that it is just an old piece of horn. And yet this simple object can work wonders on the Jewish heart. It wakes up our souls during the month of Elul. It thrills us on Rosh HaShanah. On Yom Kippur, it shakes us to our core. It awakens ancient memories.
When you hear the shofar, close your eyes. Feel time drop away from you. You are one with all the Jews of history: one with Joshua, one with David, one with the Maccabees. Feel the disturbance in your soul, the urgency of the shofar’s call.
This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.
Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 16, 2012. Here are the basic facts to know about the holiday season:
1. HAPPY NEW YEAR. Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and are required to do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] 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!”]
2. 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.
3. SIN AND 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 inadvertently, 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.”]
4. 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. Work is forbidden. 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 other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent future problems.)
5. ATTENDING SYNAGOGUE. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time: the services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.
6. TICKETS FOR PRAYER?Because of the high attendance, many 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 visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that while High Holy Day tickets are rarely discounted, synagogues often 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. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to make a referral, and there are synagogues who offer free High Holy Day services as a form of outreach. 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.
7. GETTING THE MOST OUT OF IT. 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 invest in 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 things in synagogue start immediately after the holidays.
L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5773!
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!”
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 for 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!”