High Holy Days
Download the 2013/5774 Beth Sholom High Holy Days Guide.
There are a number of wonderful customs that take place during the entire month of Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These customs include the blowing of the Shofar (a shaped ram's horn) in the morning after services before the saying of a special psalm - psalm 27 - which best captures the essence of Elul's ambiance. The Shofar in Jewish tradition has been likened to an alarm, one that calls us to a nearing judgment. During this month we increase our charitable contributions, and study and pray more intensely.
We have also found it moving to pray at the graves of relatives and righteous individuals before the High Holy Days begin. The key here is not merely to visit, but to recite Psalms and other prayers. Our tradition warns us to be careful to remember that we are not praying to the graves, but rather that we should feel a strong motivation towards repentance when facing the deaths of these loved people and remembering the influence that they had in our lives. As well , as we stand by their resting place, we remember that our lives are as temporal as theirs. We too, will come to an end, and this should draw us to appreciate the sanctity of time.
The services for the two days of Rosh Hashanah are standard in their format and times. We pray 3 times a day on Rosh Hashanah as we do throughout the year. These are Shacharit (morning), Mincha (afternoon), and Ma'ariv (evening). The morning has one additional service wrapped into the standard one, and this is called Musaf - which means "extra". The Musaf service is a commemoration of the additional sacrifice that was brought to the Temple when it stood in Jerusalem thousands of years ago to mark the uniqueness of the particular holiday. Judaism's development has moved beyond the "Avodat HaKarbanot" (the service of animal sacrifices), toward "Avodat HaLev" (the "Worship of the Heart", this being prayer).
It is a standing tradition for people to wear some white to symbolize our purity during the Holy Days. Often you will find people wearing white kippot (head coverings,) or in many Orthodox communities you will even see people wearing a white coat called a "Kittel".
It is also tradition that we serve honey during our meals to invoke the hope for the sweetest of years. Many other symbolic foods are brought down in Halachah (Jewish law), but aren't as commonplace as the serving of honey and apples. The challah (holiday bread) is also dipped into honey instead of the regular salt. People have also developed customs of avoiding bitter or salty foods in order to capture the essence of this "sweet" time.
In keeping with tradition , we also observe the custom of not sleeping during the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The reason for this is that Rosh Hashanah comes to represent what we want in the coming year. Do we want God? Then we go to shul. Do we want family? Then we spend time with them. Do we want to be active, or slumber through our new year? So, sleeping through this first day is difficult if you observe the custom of Tashlich. Tashlich literally means ' throwing, or casting' and what we do is make our way to a body of fresh, flowing water to throw pieces of bread into it. The bread symbolizes our sins, which remind us that they can be cast away as easily as these pieces of bread. They can be carried away from us just as quickly, providing we make the right choices. Tashlich has also evolved into a wonderful community observance, with throngs of people descending to the water.
Yom Kippur, which falls 10 days after the start of Rosh Hashanah, is the only fast that is mentioned in the Torah. It lasts for a total of 25 hours (from sunset to nightfall the following day). Tradition teaches that we make our final pleas to God on this day to accept our sincere promises for change so that He will grant us all of the things that each of us want in the coming year.
Unlike Rosh Hashanah, we pray five times on Yom Kippur. There are the thre regular services that we mentioned above, plus two more called Kol Nidre and Neilah. Kol Nidre is chanted at the start of the fast day, and it means "All Vows". The singing of Kol Nidre is a powerful moment for a variety of reasons. To many people, the sound that Kol Nidre initiates will evoke powerful memories of years past. Yet, Kol Nidre has always been a powerful moment because historically Kol Nidre developed far beyond its original intent. While it began as a simple Aramaic (the vernacular of the Talmudic era Jews) formula to annul forgotten or unfulfilled promises we have made, it became a dramatic moment when many Jews in Spain and Medieval Europe converted to other faiths to save their lives. The chanting of Kol Nidre, with the nullification of the past year's vows, carried great meaning for the Jews who had abandoned their Judaism only in words, but never in heart. To this day, these historical memories are still with us in the drama of the Hazzan's chanting. It is deep, dark, and near mystical.
Neilah is prayed at the other end of the spectrum. As the fast day closes out, with the sun setting, we begin Neilah - which means, "closing". The images of the closing gates of heaven and the finality of our judgment dominate this service. Neilah is remembered for being the service where it is required to stand the entire time. The Ark containing the Torah scrolls is opened, and out of respect we stand when this is done. The symbolism is evocative - as the gates of heaven are kept open even as the Day of Atonement draws to a close, so too the doors of the Ark are kept open. The day is never too far gone to return to what we are expected to be.
As the day concludes, 25 hours from when it began, the Shofar is sounded once more to end the fast and begin the New Year.