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Understanding the web of liturgy and customs behind the Jewish High Holidays

The Lake Chapala Jewish Congregation has announced its schedule of High Holiday services, which begin Friday, September 15 with Erev Rosh Hashanah and a potluck supper.  The holiday period runs through to Yom Kippur Day on September 25, when a morning service will be held at 10 a.m., followed by the Neilah concluding service in the afternoon.

According to the My Jewish Learning website, the High Holidays—the two days of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)—occupy three days only, but lie within a web of liturgy and customs that extend from the beginning of the preceding Hebrew month of Elul through Yom Kippur.

The focus of this entire period is the process of teshuvah, or repentance, whereby a Jew admits to sins, asks for forgiveness, and resolves not to repeat the sins. Recognizing the psychological difficulty of self-examination and personal change, the rabbis instituted a 40-day period whose intensity spirals toward its culmination on Yom Kippur, a day devoted entirely to fasting and repentance.

High Holidays Season

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The High Holiday period begins on the first day of the Jewish month of Elul. During this month of soul searching, the shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown each morning except on the Sabbath, to call upon listeners to begin the difficult process of repentance. Also in Elul special haftaroth— prophetic portions—focus on consolation and acknowledge the vulnerability of an individual grappling with personal change. During the week before Rosh Hashanah, intensity increases as traditional Jews begin reciting salacot, prayers that involve confessing sins and requesting God’s forgiveness and help.

10 Days of Repentance?

The culmination of the High Holiday period occurs during the Ten Days of Repentance, which begin on 1 Tishrei with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur. During this period, people have the chance to tip the scales of divine judgment in their favor through repentance, prayer, and tzedakah (performing righteous deeds and giving money to charitable causes).

Not only is Rosh Hashanah the Jewish New Year, which commemorates God’s creation of the world, but also the Day of Judgment, when God remembers and judges all human deeds. Except on Shabbat, services are punctuated with the call of the shofar, which according to Maimonides, is saying, “Awake, you sleepers, from your slumber … examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator.”

On the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the theological bent of the morning services is reinforced in a concrete way during the Tashlikh ceremony, during which individuals symbolically cast away their personal sins by throwing breadcrumbs into a flowing body of water.

Shabbat Shuvah & Yom Kippur

The Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return (or Repentance), after a verse from the haftarah declaring “Return O Israel to the Lord, your God” (Hosea 14:2).

The transition to Yom Kippur begins in the hours preceding the evening onset of the festival with the recitation of the first viddui, or communal confession of sins, at the afternoon service. Some Jews choose to go to the mikveh, or ritual bath, to purify themselves before the holiday.

Within the Ten Days of Repentance, Yom Kippur is the pinnacle of intensity, moving toward the decisive moment at its close when God is imagined as sealing the books of life and death. The day’s total focus on spiritual concerns is exemplified by fasting and abstaining from everyday activities such as bathing, sexual relations, and the wearing of leather shoes.

The day of Yom Kippur, also known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths, begins with the Kol Nidre service immediately prior to sunset. The heartrending poems and prayers of the Machzor, the prayer book used for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which express the themes of repentance, human frailty, and humility before God, combine with the nusah, or musical style of the service, to express the momentousness of the day.

Liturgical elements that distinguish the Yom Kippur services include a recounting of the Temple service on Yom Kippur, a description of the suffering of rabbis martyred by the Romans, and the reading of the Book of Jonah. The day closes with the Neilah service, during which penitents pray before the open ark, with one last chance to repent before the book of life is sealed. The very name of the service, Neilah (locking), refers to the imagery that the gates of repentance, open during the High Holidays, are now shutting. A lengthy sounding of the shofar, called a tekiah gedolah, releases the Jew back into the realm of the everyday bolstered by a final echo of the call to repentance.

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