Days of Awe
Nearly 15% of the regular Jewish year is devoted to the fall holiday season. From the first shofar blasts a month before Rosh Hashanah, till the Torah reading of Creation at Simhat Torah, we spend almost 2 months focused on special holiday themes, prayers, texts, songs, foods, rituals, paraphernalia, and emotions. We might best appreciate the spiritual power of the season by increasing our awareness of what these elements are before the moment is upon us, so that we are better able to take advantage of them.
ROSH HODESH ELUL The period of preparation for the Days of Awe begins on Elul 1, the new moon prior to Rosh Hashanah. According to the Midrash, that is the day God invited Moses to go up Mt. Sinai. It is customary that at the conclusion of the daily morning service, the Shofar is sounded. This sound links us not only with Jews all around the world, but with our people going back in time to Moses, and going forward in time to the dawn of the Messianic era, when the “great shofar” shall be sounded.
The period of introspection begins now, with each of us called to review our conduct of the past year. Some sages encourage us to work through the year chronologically; others suggest that we work from the outside towards the center: the world, our nation, our people, one’s locality, one’s community, one’s work environment, one’s friends, one’s extended family, one’s immediate family, one’s spouse; one’s self.
A heightened sense of self-awareness, built up in the 40 days prior to Yom Kippur, will immensely add to the spiritual success of that holiest day of the year.
SELIHOT On the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah (or a week earlier, if Rosh Hashanah occurs early in the week), a special late night penitential service helps us attune to the themes of introspection and forgiveness. Often, the physical preparation for the New Year begins now with the change to white garments for the Torah scrolls.
ROSH HASHANAH EVE Our table looks ready for the Holidays with the first appearance of the round challah, reminding us of the cycle of the year. We’ll make Kiddush using the unique Rosh Hashanah formulation of the prayer, and we’ll dip apple and maybe hallah into honey, wishing for a sweet new year. Other Rosh Hashanah food customs include the heads of fish or sheep, since “Rosh” means “head”; eating rice or black-eyed peas, which are symbols of plenty; carrot tzimmes, based on a Yiddish pun that we should increase our meritorious deeds in the new year; and a new fruit in season, often a pomegranate, to give thanks for the new season.
At the synagogue, we’ll pick up the special prayer book for the season, and notice how special everyone looks for the solemn beginning of the year. We’ll get our first hearing of the seasonal melodies, and a few tidbits of the liturgical changes for the season, such as the keener focus on God’s attribute of Sovereignty.
The evening liturgy has few, if any, major changes or additions. There are insertions and modifications highlighting God’s attributes of sovereignty. The most notable change is the special nusah, prayer modes, that are used for the chanting of some of the prayers.
Please plan to enjoy the fellowship of the congregation after the service at an Oneg Yom Tov provided for our enjoyment by our Board of Trustees.
ROSH HASHANAH MORNING The sacred power of Rosh Hashanah is emphasized with the prayer U’netanah tokef. The imagery of the Book of Life, in which our names are inscribed by God, teaches us that our actions in the past may have consequences for the future. As moderns, we are often troubled by the sense of fate expressed in this prayer. Indeed, we wonder why it has not been excised from modern texts. One reason is that its presence in our books helps connect us to the sense of powerlessness we might feel against what life throws at us.
The most significant addition to the service on Rosh Hashnah morning is the sounding of the Shofar. If you miss this, you’ve missed Rosh Hashanah.
The horn itself can come from any kind of animal except a cow, which explains the wide variety of shapes, colors, and sizes of shofarot.
There are three different shofar calls:
- Tekiah – a plain blast: _________.
- Sh’varim- three sets of low/high: _- _- _-
- Teruah, three sets of three … … …
- A fourth call, tekiah gedolah, is an extended tekiah.
Traditionally, the shofar is sounded at several different times during the service: 1) just after the Torah service, 2) during Musaf, the additional service – [a] during the silent part and [b] during the repetition, and 3) during the full kaddish following Musaf. It was customary in some communities to include a total of 100 blasts during these shofar soundings. Reform Judaism eliminated Musaf, so it moved the three Rosh Hashanah sections within Musaf called Sovereignty, Remembrances, and Shofarot from Musaf to the spot after the Torah service.
It has become customary, since the middle of the 20th century, to partially fulfill our responsibility toward the land and State of Israel on Rosh Hashanah by encouraging investment in Israel Bonds. Some of our high school students who spent time in Israel this past summer will speak to us over the course of the holidays. Your generous response to the B’nai Sholom Israel Bond Fund will allow us to assist other students in the future.
ROSH HASHANAH AFTERNOON Tashlikh is a custom which arose around the 15th century. People would gather around bodies of water and symbolically cast their sins away into the water using crumbs or lint. Albany’s synagogues sponsor a communal tashlikh at 5:00 PM at the northern side of Buckingham Pond, at the foot of Colonial Ave near the playground.
ONE DAY OR TWO? The Torah speaks of one day of Rosh Hashanah. In the aftermath of the Destruction of the Temple 2000 years ago, the sages added additional days to some holidays in the Diaspora. Very early in its history 200 years ago, Reform Judaism eliminated those second days. When Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, traditional synagogues reserve the shofar for Day 2 only. Similarly, Tashlikh is moved to the second day. Reform Jews do both on Shabbat.
THE TEN DAYS OF REPENTENCE The solemn but joyful mood of Rosh Hashanah takes a turn as we build up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which is the holiest day of the Jewish year. We intensify the self-examination of our deeds during the past year, and repent our misdeeds. We ask those closest to us to forgive us for the wrongs we may have committed against them. If we are aware of others whom we have wronged, we reach out to them. If we ourselves have been wronged, we forgive those who have offended us .
We prepare for the fast day which is approaching by increasing our intake of water, and decreasing our intake of caffeine.
YOM KIPPUR EVE Prior to sundown we eat our final meal, avoiding salty foods which will make us thirsty. We light Yahrtzeit candles for those close relatives whom we wish to remember. We make sure to get to the synagogue with ample time to spare, because the highlight of the evening occurs early in the service. It is customary to wear one’s tallit for all the services of Yom Kippur, and not just in the morning.
For the chanting of Kol Nidre, all the Torah scrolls are removed from the Ark, and the congregation stands. The formula for the nullification of vows goes goes back over a millennium, and the chant itself, made up of several melodic fragments, goes back several hundred years.
A major liturgical addition for Yom Kippur are the Confessions of Sin, a short one of single words, and a long one of sentences. We’ll recite these several times during the day.
YOM KIPPUR MORNING The liturgical additions include u’netaneh tokef, and the Confessions.
YOM KIPPUR AFTERNOON In the midst of our personal repentance, our liturgy calls for a reflection on the past history of the Jewish people. Traditionally, the Musaf service included a synopsis of the High Priest’s sacrificial service of atonement, recollections of the Hadrianic persecutions during the Roman period, and poems recalling the massacres by the Crusaders. Reform liturgy, while eliminating Musaf, moved these elements to the Afternoon service. Our prayer book also includes a poetic recollection of the world’s history until our own time, and offers a modern and insightful confession of sins in the Afternoon.
Before Yom Kippur is over we will remember our loved ones at Yizkor, one of the four annual memorial services. We will conclude Yom Kippur with Ne’ilah, a service which gives us a final opportunity to petition God for forgiveness. It has a joyful tinge to it, as we feel hopeful that our sins have indeed been forgiven and we are therefore able to begin the new year with a clean slate. We’ll conclude the service with a hundred year old melody for the Full Kaddish, and the final shofar calls of the season. Please plan to join in the congregational break-fast afterward.
SUKKOT Just 5 days later at the full moon the joyous harvest festival of Sukkot begins. We give thanks for the plentifulness of the harvest, ensuring that we will have enough to sustain us during the winter ahead. Many build Sukkot, tent-like structures covered with natural materials, and try, weather permitting, to take as many of our meals in there as possible. B’nai Sholom’s sukkah is available for anyone who wishes to use it.
The Four Species, i.e. the lulav and etrog (palm branch, citron, willow and myrtle) are waved or shaken during 6 of the 7 days of Sukkot as a petition for rain in the land of Israel, and to focus on our individual places in the world order.
SHEMINI ATZERET/SIMHAT TORAH – The festival season comes to a close with Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day of Closure festival which in Reform synagogues and in Israel is combined with Simhat Torah, the Torah Rejoicing festival on which we conclude – and begin again – the reading of the scroll. It’s been our B’nai Sholom custom since 1988 to unroll the Torah scroll around the room for everyone to hold and see. This is an amazing visual feast.
Each one of our holidays has its own special mood and feeling. Part of their greatness is how they enrich our lives, and how they bring us closer to each other, to our heritage, and to God. May we all find new meaning in each and every holiday celebration, continuing to grow spiritually year by year.
May you and those close to you be blessed with a meaningful holiday season, and with a sweet, joyous, and prosperous New Year.