On Wednesday evening, Sept. 20, all over the world Jews will gather to begin the annual 10-day period known as the High Holy Days.
These days start with Rosh Hashanah (the First of the Year) and end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These days are both solemn and happy days. During this period of time, Jews specifically concentrate on “heshbon ha-nefesh,” the examination of the soul. This is a time for deep self-reflection about our relationships with others and with God. It is a time for repentance, when we realize that we need to change certain behaviors and that we must commit to a better path.
On Rosh Hashanah we observe the Birthday of the World, which will be the year 5778, according to the Jewish calendar. But we do not concentrate on how old the world is; we don’t have a birthday party. Rather on the Birthday of the World, all humankind stands in judgment before God.
We think about our own lives, about how we are treating others inside and outside of our families and communities, and about how we are treating the earth. It is said that on Rosh Hashanah that God writes the fate of every human being in the Book of Judgment.
Knowing that our fate hangs in the balance, we look carefully at our lives and repent where we have departed from God’s moral and ethical teachings. We repent our mistakes in our behavior, and we resolve and commit to do better in the year to come. In our prayers we plead with God for forgiveness for our failings.
However, Jewish teachings require that we must first reconcile with our fellow humans before we can ask God for forgiveness. If you have treated a friend, family member or co-worker poorly during the last year, you must go to that person and request forgiveness. Only after that can you ask God for forgiveness.
During these 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Ten Days of Repentance, each of us has to reach out to others for forgiveness and to grant forgiveness to those who have wronged us.
Rosh Hashanah is a serious, but joyous Holiday, and often families get together for celebration, to attend services together and to eat special holiday meals together. Some Jews send Rosh Hashanah cards to friends, wishing them “Le-Shanah Tovah,” meaning “to a Good Year.”
One highlight of the Rosh Hashanah services is the Shofar Service, which will occur during the morning services both days. We blow the Shofar, made of the horn of a ram, several times in response to prayers recited by the congregation. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Friday Sept. 30, some Jews perform “Tashlikh.” Tashlikh is a ceremony in which we symbolically cast our sins into a body of moving water, to be carried away. Traditionally we empty the lint in our pockets into the water, and we also bring bread and breadcrumbs to throw into the water for the fish, while we read special prayers.
All this close examination of our lives and souls culminates with Yom Kippur, which will start Friday evening, Sept. 29 at sundown, and ends at sundown on Saturday, Sept. 30.
It is said that at the end of Yom Kippur, God seals the Book of Judgment that was written on Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur is a very solemn day and requires a 25- to 26-hour fast. We fast from sundown to sundown, avoiding any food or water, unless one must eat and drink for health/medical reasons.
The fasting serves to concentrate our minds on our prayers, and helps us to block out thoughts of everyday concerns. Traditionally we spend most of Yom Kippur in prayer services. We start in the first evening with the “Kol Nidre” service, in which we ask God to release us from vows we made to God during the past year, but were not able to keep.
The Yom Kippur day services, both morning and afternoon, include reading the Torah, and chanting special services that recall the days of the Temple in Jerusalem. We hold a service of remembrance of our Martyrs and also a Yizkor service to remember our departed loved ones.
Late in the afternoon, as the sun starts to set, we begin the Neilah service. Neilah refers to the closing of the gates, the last chance for us to ask God for forgiveness before God seals the Book of Judgment. At this point in the day, we are very tired and thirsty and are feeling weak. But we stand throughout Neilah to plead with God to hear us and to forgive us.
Finally at the end of Neilah, as the sun sets, we end our services, with the knowledge and confidence that God does forgive us. The end of the Yom Kippur Holy Day is marked by the blowing of the Shofar and the recitation seven times that “Adonai Hoo Elohim,” “God is God.” Many congregations gather after services end for a community Break the Fast. We finish Yom Kippur very tired, but we feel renewed and ready to work in the New Year toward improving our lives and the lives of our families, of our communities and of the world.
This has been a very difficult year for me and my family due to family illness. The logistics of pulling together High Holy Day Services for Congregation Beth Tikvah have seemed especially overwhelming this year to me. But I am very blessed because, like every year, many wonderful friends in our congregation are taking on many of the jobs needed for successful High Holy Days services.
I wish to add that our services are open to everyone who wishes to join us at services. Please check the Beth Tikvah website, for the latest Newsletter, that will have the dates, times and places for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. There is no cost for attending services with us, and we welcome your participation.
The Jewish Community of Carlisle wishes for you all a Good New Year in 5778.