There is no central authority in the Jewish religion - just a set of central texts, which may be interpreted in dozens of ways (as they indeed have been!) As a result, contemporary American Judaism is practiced in a number of different ways by different people. The scale is one of "observance": How closely does one adhere to the ancient ritual laws?
A very observant Jew, one who is Orthodox or of the mystic sect known as Chasidic, will not even turn on a light or use the telephone on the Sabbath (a weekly observance that begins at sundown Friday night with candle-lighting, and ends Saturday at sundown). In the middle, Conservative Jews will focus on their set of Jewish practices and devotions, often keeping the kosher dietary customs and observing the major holidays, but not in the exact manner of the Orthodox or Chasidic Jews. Reform Jews will observe a more modernist perhaps secular form of Judaism; and Reconstructionists will take a proactive stance towards tradition, molding Judaism to meet the their spiritual needs and the demands of contemporary life.
This diversity amonst Jews thus leads to a wide range of observance when it comes to the High Holidays. Sound & Spirit seeks to share some of the depth and richness of these traditions in hopes to increase understanding and appreciation of these Days of Awe.
The High Holidays--A Sound & Spirit Overview
The Jewish New Year is called Rosh Hashanah. It is observed both with religious ceremony in the temple or synagogue, and by feasting with friends and family at home. Eight days later comes Yom Kippur, a 24-hour period of fasting and communal prayer. The days between Rosh Hashanah, the "birthday of the world," and Yom Kippur, the "day of atonement" are also important. This entire period is known as the "High Holy Days," the "Days of Awe," or simply "the High Holidays." All together they are meant to be a time of reflection and repentance, for speaking with family and friends about the events of the past year, and contemplating how to make the new one better.
The High Holidays are the holiest days of the Jewish year. As with Christmas and Easter for many Christians, Jews who never set foot in a synagogue or temple at any other time will tend to make the effort to worship in a congregation on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Sound & Spirit offers a program for the Days of Awe - The Door is Opened: A Jewish High Holiday Meditation.
Rosh Hashanah--and New Beginnings
Hebrew for "the head of the year," Rosh Hashanah is the two-day Jewish New Year Festival on the first and second day of the lunar month that falls between mid-September and late October.
The Story: Rosh Hashanah is the "Birthday of the World"; tradition has it that this is the day on which God began creation. In ancient Jerusalem there was a festive celebrational "enthronement" of God as Melek ha Olam, i.e. "King of the Universe." It's a joyous holiday, one of celebration - though it kicks off a more solemn period.
The Customs: While the nexus of many Jewish holiday rituals is the home, for Rosh Hashanah the community must gather in the synagogue for special services. Torah readings include the story of the birth of Isaac (to Abraham?s 80-year-old wife, Sarah!) and Abraham's attempt to sacrifice his son to God. The ram's horn shofar is blown in the synagogue to "waken slumbering souls" - it can be a profound aesthetic and spiritual experience.
On the two days of Rosh Hashanah many Jews will be in houses of worship in the morning, and visiting family and friends in the afternoon and evening. (Not everyone observes the second day of Rosh Hashanah, but most are serious about the first day.)
At home, people invite relatives and friends over to eat sweet things for a sweet year--slices of apple dipped in honey (messy but yummy!) and honeycake?and to drink sweet wine. People greet each other with: Shanah Tovah!. - "[Have] a good year" - If you want to try it, the Hebrew pronounciation is "sha-NAH toe-VAH" (in Yiddish, though, it's "SHAW-nuh TOE-vuh"...!).
Sound & Spirit offers a program for Rosh Hashanah on the story of Abraham and Isaac, called Fathers and Sons.Yom Kippur - and Repentance
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish religious year; it is also known as the Day of Atonement. It falls on the 10th day of the Jewish new year (anywhere from late September to mid-October) and brings to a close the Days of Repentance that began with Rosh Hashanah.
The Story: Yom Kippur is a 24-hour fast: No food, no water. Ideally, the time is spent in prayer, in the synagogue with the congregation, publicly praying and communally confessing any and all "transgressions" (an untranslatable word, usually rendered as "sins") against God and each other.
According to tradition, the Gates of Repentance are open from the beginning of Rosh Hashanah to the last ray of sunlight at the end of Yom Kippur. When the sun sets at the end of the holiday, the Gates close and one?s fate is sealed for the year. Another way to put it is that at the end of the day, one hopes to have completed one's personal, spiritual and ritual purification, in order to begin the New Year clean and fresh.
The Customs: On the eve of Yom Kippur (before sunset) one eats a final meal, and then begins the 24-hour fast by going to the synagogue for the service of Kol nidrei, a liturgy to remove the guilt of unfulfilled, forgotten promises made to God.
The next day is spent in prayer from dawn to dusk (though many people take a break to go home and lie down!). Important parts of the day?s liturgy include: the Memorial Service for the dead and the Jewish martyrs; the reading of the Book of Jonah; and the concluding service, with its final blowing of the Shofar (ram?s horn).
Sound & Spirit offers a program for Yom Kippur, based on the day's Bible reading called Jonah.For Further Reading:
The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, by Michael Strassfeld (Harper & Row, 1985) From the co-editor of The Jewish Catalogue - a lucid guide to practical and spiritual ways of celebrating all the holidays that is both traditional and innovative.
"I use this one a lot!" - Ellen KushnerSeasons of Our Joy - A Celebration of Modern Jewish Renewal, by Arthur Waskow (Beacon Press, 1982) A creative guide to the Jewish holidays that blends appreciative understandings of the Biblical and traditional roots of each holiday with innovative approaches for investing them with new meaning, with an emphasis on feminist and ecological concerns.
Dictionary of Jewish Lore & Legend, by Alan Unterman (Thames & Hudson, 1991) Concise entries give a basic understanding of their subjects and cross references to related articles, in this small but invaluable book. The 222 pictures, diagrams and photos are a nice bonus.
To Life! - A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking, by Harold S. Kushner (Warner Books, 1993) The best-selling author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People and esteemed Conservative rabbi explores the opportunities, relevance and rewards of living Judaism. Chapter 4, "Sanctuaries in Time: The Calendar," focuses on the ways Judaism celebrates holidays.