The Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are quickly coming up.
Rosh Hashanah will begin Sunday evening, Sept. 29 and run through Tuesday, Oct. 1.
What is Rosh Hashanah? It literally means “First of the Year,” and it is the Jewish New Year celebration. Starting Sunday evening, it will be the Jewish year 5780. This is a holiday where many Jews spend a lot of time in religious services, both in the evening and all morning.
Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a 10-day period of deep reflection about our lives and how we should do better next year. We try to do a thorough examination of our souls (cheshbon ha-nefesh is the Hebrew word) during this period of time. We are expected to go to those we have wronged and ask for forgiveness.
But Rosh Hashanah is also a time for families to gather and to enjoy festive meals. We traditionally eat a round loaf of challah, and also apples and honey, to represent our wish for a sweet New Year.
This solemn 10-day period culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which will start Tuesday evening, Oct. 8. Yom Kippur is very solemn, and Jews frequently spend much of the day in religious services.
Furthermore, Yom Kippur is a 26-hour fast. We will eat before sundown and before we go to services on Tuesday evening. After that, we do not eat or drink until after services conclude after sundown the next day. Fasting is very hard for most people, but it does help focus one’s concentration on the prayers and on connecting with God.
It is on Yom Kippur that we go to God and ask forgiveness for our shortcomings and our sins against God. We cannot ask God to forgive us for hurting another human being; rather we must go to that other human and ask him/her for forgiveness. We are expected to resolve to do better next year.
The tradition of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holds that God judges all living beings at this time. On Rosh Hashanah, God “writes” the future of each being for the next year into the Book of Life. But on Yom Kippur, after we fast and plead with God for forgiveness, God seals the Book of Life with the fate of every living being.
Yom Kippur is an exhausting holiday, but it is one where the entire community comes together to pray for renewal and peace. At the end of the Yom Kippur services on Saturday evening, we will light the Havdalah candle, and bless the wine, thus ending the day, and moving us back into secular time. The community often breaks the fast together immediately afterward.
Almost after Yom Kippur is over — only five days later — we start a joyous holiday known as “Sukkot,” the Festival of Booths, which runs for seven days. This year Sukkot starts Sunday evening, Oct. 13.
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A “Sukkah” (plural is “Sukkot”) is a temporary dwelling in which we live and eat during this holiday. It is traditional to start building a Sukkah as soon as Yom Kippur ends. A Sukkah is a very flimsy building. It is generally just a structure made of wood, with sides made of cloth or a tarp, and a roof covered with corn stalks or branches of trees. It will not keep the rain or wind out, but it is decorated to make it pretty—with paper decorations, with fall gourds and flowers.
During the holiday of Sukkot, Jews will eat meals in the Sukkah; some will even sleep out in the Sukkah. You may see a Sukkah erected at the Asbell Center on the Dickinson campus.
During Sukkot, we have a lovely tradition called the 4 Species, or the Lulav and Etrog. The Lulav is a collection of three branches — palm, myrtle and willow — that are combined in a palm-leaf “holder.” The Etrog is a beautiful smelling, bright yellow Citron. It looks like a large lemon, but smells much better!
These four species are a symbol of the bounty of the earth. It is traditional to say a blessing over the four species and to shake them. This is called “benching” the Lulav. One holds the Lulav and Etrog in one’s hands and says the blessing “Blessed are You Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us by Your Commandments and commanded us to wave the Lulav.” We then, while facing east, shake the Lulav in front of ourselves (to the east), then to the south, then to the north, then to the west, then up and down.
At the end of Sukkot, on the seventh day, we celebrate Hoshanah Rabbah, on Oct. 20. Hoshanah Rabbah is the day on which God seals the Book of Judgment on how much water will be available on Earth.
Perhaps this is a good time for us all to think about how we use and waste water, which is essential for all life. As the climate changes, our relationship to water will change—we will experience more droughts and more floods. In our community we have water on demand, but many people in this world do not have that luxury. We must be mindful of this and work hard to reduce our waste of this precious commodity.
Shemini Atzeret, which means the Eighth Day of Assembly, comes the next day. This is when we start the yearly “Geshem” prayers for Rain in the Land of Israel. During our daily prayers, we include the prayer “Bring the wind and cause the rain to fall.” This prayer will be said until Passover.
Finally, comes Simchat Torah on Oct. 22. Simchat Torah means “Rejoicing in the Torah.” It is a fun holiday, in which we actually take out the Torah Scrolls in the evening and dance around with them. Children will carry flags and wave them around. It is traditional to lead the congregation in dancing circuits, called “hakafot.”
One of the most important events on Simchat Torah is the end of the yearly cycle of the Torah readings and the beginning the cycle all over again. We will finish the last part of the book of Deuteronomy, and then immediately begin with the first part of Genesis.
If anyone is interested in attending our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, please check the schedule for locations and times.
We wish you all a very good New Year, a good harvest and change of seasons. And let us be grateful for seasons, for water and for each other.