Two Adult Formation studies began this week. Called, “Conversations”, one study discusses selected Jewish practices and their theological underpinnings and the other explores aspects of our Catholic faith which distinguish us from other Christian traditions. Interestingly, the “conversation” on Judaism attracted more participants than the study on Catholicism. Perhaps interest was heightened due to an awareness that Wednesday of this week ushers in the High Holy Days for Judaism.
The High Holy Days commence with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and climax ten days later with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; they are the most widely observed of all Jewish holy days. Even those Jews who normally do not attend synagogue services are inclined to observe these holy days.
The preceding Hebrew month of Elul is set aside as a time for reflection and soul searching in order that Jews might enter the “Days of Awe,” as the High Holy Days are called, in proper spirit. The dominant theme during this forty day period from the beginning of Elul through Yom Kippur is teshuvah, or “repentance.” The spirit of teshuvah grows and intensifies over the course of the 40 days. The shofar, or “ram’s horn,” is sounded at morning prayer services and special prayers of penitence are added to the liturgies of the High Holy Days. By the time Rosh Hashanah arrives, Jews have already been deeply immersed in reflection, reconciliation and acts of charity.
Rosh Hashanah, means, “head of the year” and is celebrated for two days. As mentioned above, this marks the beginning of what is alternately called “the ten days of repentance,” “the Days of Awe,” or “the High Holy Days.” According to tradition, it is during this period that God determines “who shall live and who shall die” in the coming year. Axiomatic to all of Judaism is the belief that man possesses the freedom and capability to atone for his sins and to transform his life. He has the power to attain reconciliation with both God and his fellow man. Just as God sought out Adam, Cain, and Jonah when they tried to flee from him, so God seeks out all humankind, confronting them with the inner contradictions of their lives and offering forgiveness. God, in the words of the midrash (commentaries or stories on scripture passages) declares, “My children, give me an opening of repentance no bigger than the eye of a needle, and I will widen it into openings through which even wagons and carriages will pass through,”
The Jewish New Year is not a time of hilarity or frivolous rejoicing, but of solemnity and intense moral and spiritual introspection akin to a plaintiff coming before the Supreme Judge and Ruler of the world, appealing for his life. The mood pervading the day is one not only of “fear and trembling” before judgment, but also of trust in a merciful and beneficent father who desires our repentance and is eager to grant forgiveness.
During the Days of Awe, Jews greet one another with the words, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year” (le-shanah tovah tikatevu v’taychataymu). This practice stems from the traditional imagery in which God sits in judgment during the Days of Awe, deciding the fate of every living thing. On Rosh Hashanah he opens up three books—one for those who were righteous during the year, one for those who were sinful, and one for those whose good and bad deeds balance.
Everyone’s fate is inscribed in one of these three books. During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur however, Jews can alter the course of their destiny by repenting, praying, and doing acts of charity. On Yom Kippur, the final day of judgment, God closes all three books and seals humankind’s verdict for the coming year. It is customary to dip a piece of challah (bread) or apple, into honey at meal time and recite the prayer, “May it be thy will that we be blessed with a good, sweet year.”
Another custom of Rosh Hashanah is the Tashlikh ceremony in which Jews fill their pockets with small stones or breadcrumbs, then gather at a running body of water such as a river or spring. They throw the stones or breadcrumbs into the water, symbolically casting off their sins and beginning life anew. The words of the prophet Micah (7:19) give meaning to this ritual, “Thou wilt cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” Unlike our penitential seasons, white is the predominant color during the Days of Awe. The kippahs (skull caps), ark curtain, and Torah mantles, are all white, signifying purity, holiness, and atonement for sin; “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Isa. 1:18)
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the culmination of the entire High Holy Day drama—the final opportunity for Jews to repent of their sins. It is the holiest day in the Jewish year or, in the Torah’s words, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths,” although Shabbat, the Sabbath, is truly the most significant day. During the twenty-four hours of Yom Kippur, Jews fulfill their obligation to “afflict” their souls by fasting (both food and water are prohibited), soul-searching, and praying. Many observant Jews also abstain from bathing, sex and the wearing of leather shoes. Since leather shoes were considered a luxury in earlier times, it has become a custom for some to wear tennis shoes to the synagogue.
From the eve of the holiday until sundown the following day, Jews are in the synagogue beseeching God for forgiveness and reflecting upon the course of their lives. Evening services commence with the recitation of the Kol Nidrei (meaning, “all vows”), one of the most powerful and emotionally evocative prayers in all of Jewish liturgy. The Kol Nidrei (meaning, all vows) prayer is a plea for the absolution from vows that were made to God but not fulfilled during the course of the year. The moving, heightened emotions associated with the service are due more to the history and melody of the Kol Nidrei prayer than to the meaning of the words themselves. The prayer originated some time between the sixth and tenth centuries when Jews were faced with the choice of either converting to Christianity or suffering martyrdom. Many of those forced to convert however, secretly recited this Kol Nidrei prayer on Yom Kippur, declaring before God that the vows they had made denying their Jewish faith and accepting Christianity were done under duress and were, therefore, null and void.
The document of Vatican II, Nostra Aetate, (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) tells us that the Catholic Church cannot “forget that she draws nourishment from that good olive tree onto which the wild olive branches of the Gentiles have been grafted…. Likewise, the Church keeps ever before her mind the words of the apostle Paul about his kinsmen: ‘they are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship and the promises: to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, the son of the virgin Mary.’ She (mother Church) is mindful, moreover, that the apostles, the pillars on which the Church stands, are of Jewish descent, as are many of those early disciples who proclaimed the Gospel of Christ to the world.” The “Guidelines on Religious Relations With the Jews,” goes on to state that we “must therefore strive to acquire a better knowledge of the basic components of the religious traditions of Judaism.”
Those joining the “Conversation” on Judaism must have read this document. L’chaim! (to life).