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News > Commentary - The Jewish ‘High Holidays’ are nearly here
The Jewish ‘High Holidays’ are nearly here

Posted 9/12/2012   Updated 9/12/2012 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Chris McCann
JBER Public Affairs

9/12/2012 - JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- Monday marks Rosh haShanah, the Jewish new year celebration and the beginning of the Days of Awe - Yomim Noraim, the 10 days before Yom Kippur.

During the Hebrew month of Elul - the month leading up to Rosh haShanah - we take stock of our lives and ask forgiveness from God and people for things we have done wrong.

Rosh haShanah, literally the "head of the year" is considered the birthday of Adam and Eve (and the rest of creation) and just as it marks the creation of humanity, every year it offers an opportunity for a new era in one's personal life.

The central observance of Rosh haShanah is the sounding of the shofar, a trumpet made of the horn of a ram or kudu antelope. It's a haunting sound; in ancient times it was used to rally the people to war, to initiate a move between campsites, or to alert the tribes of Israel to a threat.

Now it calls us to repentance, alerting us to the need for God's forgiveness. It tells us to get up and move toward self improvement and to fight our evil inclination and serve God.
During Rosh haShanah services in the synagogue, the shofar is blown more than 100 times.

No work is permitted on the holiday. Most of the day is spent in synagogue, and the daily liturgy is expanded. There is a special prayer book called a machzor used on Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur because of the extensive changes. Rosh haShanah is also an annual "coronation" of God as king.

Unlike the American New Year, Rosh haShanah isn't celebrated with parties, drinking and football. But there are traditional activities and often gatherings.

We eat apples dipped in honey - a symbol of our wish for a sweet year. Apples also symbolize the Garden of Eden; the exegete Rashi said it smelled like an apple orchard.We dip bread in honey - the rest of the year, we sprinkle it with salt - for the same reason.

Also, many Jews go to a body of flowing water, preferably with fish in it, and empty bread crumbs from our pockets into the water. This is called Tashlich, or "casting off." It symbolizes how, in the book of Micah, the prophet said "God will hurl all our sins into the depths of the sea."

During the 10 days between Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, God sits in judgement over the world. Our verdict is said to be written in the heavenly books, and on Yom Kippur, the books are sealed for another year.

Jews greet each other this time of year by saying "May you be inscribed in the book of life" or "May you be written and sealed for a good year."

No one likes to be judged; it's uncomfortable. But there is also a wonderful dimension to it; judgment means that someone cares.

Parents judge things about their children - who they associate with, what books they read, and their grades in school - because they love and care for their children. To not judge is to not provide guidance, to not care whether the child does the right thing.
When God judges us, it means he cares about who we are and how we live, and whether we are fulfilling our potential.

Being judged at the beginning of the year - while a little discomfiting - gives us assurance, empowerment, and a sense of freedom to utilize the new year to do all we can to improve ourselves.

As we begin a new year, we remember God's faithfulness and care for all of his creations, and strive to fulfill our potential.

Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement - is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
Most of the day is spent in synagogue, and the day is a 25-hour period of complete fasting and intensive prayer.

Generally, three prayer services are held each day in the synagogue. On Yom Kippur, there are five.

There are public and private petitions to God, and public and private confessions of sin.
Everyone in the synagogue confesses to a long list of sins. The reason for this is threefold. One, mentioning the sin may remind us of incidents we have forgotten. Secondly, we can confess aloud - without fear that the person next to us is listening to us. The confession, while public, is between us and God.

Thirdly, much like in the military, we are responsible for our "battle buddy." If your friend does something wrong and you had the chance to stop him, but didn't - you bear some blame for not intervening.

One of the most famous parts of Yom Kippur is the Kol Nidrei prayer, which means "all vows." During times of persecution, Jews were often forced to convert to another religion on pain of death. Kol Nidrei is a preemptive nullification of such vows.

There is a misconception among some people that the Kol Nidrei gives people the right to break their word, according to the Artscroll Machzor, but this is not the case; it refers only to vows assumed for oneself, when no other persons or interests are involved.
No oath that concerns another person, a court, or a community is implied.

A recitation of the sacrifices offered in the Temple in Jerusalem is also a prominent part of the liturgy. Since we can no longer bring sacrifices, we study the ceremonies and offerings.

When the Temple was standing, prior to 70 C.E., Yom Kippur was the one time of year the high priest would enter the chamber containing the Ark of the Covenant.

After sunset, the final prayer service takes place, the doors to the cabinet where the Torah scrolls are kept are closed, and the congregants usually celebrate a festive meal together, symbolizing the joy of faith that God forgives sin.

In this season especially, we should strive to surround ourselves with people who embrace the values, ideals and choices that will fill our days with life, meaning, goodness and spirituality.

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