It's probably OK for a layman to write about minor Jewish festivals and fast days. Explaining Tisha B'Av or 17 Tammuz, for instance, takes no special chochmes.
And a person can't get into too much trouble discussing Purim, Hanukkah, etc., even if that person has no Ph.D. in Judaic Studies.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, on the other hand, spell danger and should be approached with caution, especially by amateurs who -- if we choose to write about Sin/Repentance/Judgment/Forgiveness -- run the risk of committing very grievous theological or philosophical gaffes.
And so, when dealing with these Awesome Days, I'll stick to the relative safety of Talmudic trivia, Midrashic miscellany, customs and folklore. I know my limitations. And who wants to start the New Year off with the sin of pomposity, anyway?
Is Rosh Hashanah really the birthday of the world? Well, the Hebrew letters in the word Bereshit -- In the Beginning -- can be rearranged to make the words 1 Tishri -- the date of Rosh Hashanah -- so who needs more proof?!
Then again, another Midrash says the world was created on 25 Elul, making Rosh Hashanah/1 Tishri fall on the sixth day of Creation -- the day God made man. The logic being that the beginning of humanity marked the real beginning of Creation. Nice thought!
Did you know the zodiac sign for Tishri is the scales? Makes sense, since Tishri is the month when all our deed are weighed up there in The Big Court.
Now, we can't discuss the New Year without discussing the shofar -- that prayer without words -- said to echo the conscious-stricken human voice. Think about it. Tekiah is a deep moan. Teruah, a wavering sob. And Shevarim, a broken groan. These different sounds, according to folklore, are tenderly carried to God by special angels.
Getting even a few squeaks out of the shofar (let alone the regulation one hundred) isn't easy, and an accomplished Ba'al Tekiah (the ones who do the tooting) is a treasure. The less-skilled sometimes put a trumpet mouthpiece into the shofar, but such brazen chutzpah deserves no further discussion.
By the way, the shofar is curved, according to the sages, to symbolize the bent back of the humble penitent. Very poetic, those sages.
And now, let's talk Tashlich, the Rosh Hashanah ritual that involves a hike to a stream or a river with fish in it. Once there, we say some verses about casting sins into the sea, shake out our pockets or toss bread crumbs into the water and ZAP! All the crummy things we did last year are washed away in the tide. Or carried off by the fish. (Tashlich, apparently, goes back to 14th-century Germany, though some maintain its roots are positively pagan.)
And why Tashlich, altogether? Pick your Midrash.
We, like fish, are helplessly caught in the net of life. The fish, whose eyes never close, symbolize God who never sleeps. The stream is the one that Satan put in Abraham's path on the way to sacrifice Isaac. We visit water to give gifts to the spirits who live there, to insure they won't harm us in the coming year.
At the main Rosh Hashanah meal, serve the head of a fish to the head of the household as a symbol of his/her leadership and wisdom. In some communities they go for broke and serve up the head of a sheep! (I dare you...)
Don't eat nuts on Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because the Hebrew word for nuts -- through some Gematric trickery -- has the same numerical value as the Hebrew word for sin.
And why apples and honey and not mangoes and honey? Because God's presence, according to the Zohar, is like an apple orchard.
More New Year culinary customs:
When making tzimmis, cut the carrots in rounds so they look like coins. That will bring a sweet year and a prosperous year, as well.
The challah should be round, too, so your year will roll 'round smoothly with no unhappy bumps. Some of the challah can be shaped like birds to symbolize God's sheltering protection. Top others with winged figures to symbolize our hopes to be more like angels. Or decorate your challah with ladders to help your prayers reach heaven. And as a reminder that this year God will raise some men up and lower others. A sobering thought, surely...
The day after Rosh Hashanah is the minor Fast of Gedaliah, held in memory of a popular governor of Judea, killed by jealous Ammorites in 586 BCE. The date of Gedaliah's assassination was made a fast day because his death also meant death of any hope of rebuilding the Jewish nation.
In the shtetl, the highlight of the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was Shabbat Shuvah -- the Sabbath of return. That's when the rabbi gave THE SERMON. A scathing harangue during which he mercilessly berated the congregation for their sins. The rabbi wept. The people wept. The sermon took HOURS, and why not? Back then, the Rabbi spoke (get this!) only twice a year (at Passover and on Shabbat Shuvah) so he had to make up for lost time, after all.
Legend has it that the sun and moon are to be witnesses for -- or against -- man on Judgment Day. Well, one Rosh Hashanah, Satan came before God to accuse mankind of wrongdoing, but he brought only the sun as a witness, since the New Moon on 1 Tishri is almost invisible. When Satan returned ten days later on Yom Kippur with the moon, God said, "Sorry! In these ten days, Israel has repented and been forgiven." And Satan was foiled yet again!
To give tzedakah before a holiday is important.
To give tzedakah before Yom Kippur is imperative. Charity, along with prayer and repentance, is central to Yom Kippur. So pick your favorite cause and send them a check.
In the olden days, people were flogged on the day before Yom Kippur. That custom, happily, has been abolished.
In the olden days, people paid their synagogue dues IN FULL on the day before Yom Kippur. That custom we should bring back!
Remember, if a person comes to you before Yom Kippur and apologizes for a wrong he committed against you, you must forgive him. Don't keep grudges. And don't seek vengeance. If you don't forgive those who did you wrong, your prayers will not be heard on Yom Kippur. According to tradition, only one who forgives will have his own sins forgiven.
And you can ask forgiveness even of the dead.
Just go with ten men to the grave of the injured party and ask forgiveness while you walk around the grave three times -- barefooted, preferably. If the grave is too far away for you to visit, you may send others to offer your apology. All of which proves it's never to late to make peace with neighbors and family. Try it.
OK. Now, for any of you unfamiliar with schlogging kappores, here's the simple formula. On the day before Yom Kippur, swing a live hen or rooster around your head three times while saying, "This is my substitute, my atonement. This bird will die but I will live a long, pleasant and peaceful life." Having thus transferred your sins to the fowl, you slaughter the traumatized bird and give its meat to the poor. The Hebrew word, gever, means both rooster and man, so the fowl does seem a logical scapegoat, though it is rumored the rich performed kappores using a ram or a lamb or a goat, which is truly mind boggling.
The kaporres ceremony appealed greatly to the masses, but many rabbis, not surprisingly, were appalled by it, calling the ritual as bad as idol worship or, more succinctly, stupid.
Today, charity money wrapped in a handkerchief is commonly used instead of the rooster, but without the feathers lying the whole ceremony looses most of its charm, if you ask me.
The Talmud says, "Just as it is a mitzvah to fast on Yom Kippur, so it is a mitzvah to eat well on the day before." Especially kreplach! Another why? Because the meat signifies stern judgment, but the dough is which the meat is wrapped represents the softness of God's mercy and justice. (Some Midrashim are a bit of a stretch, aren't they?)
Important! Make sure this meal is easy to digest and not salty -- so you don't get too thirsty during the fast. And eat early enough so you have time to get to Kol Nidre which, according to tradition, is repeated three times to make sure it's heard even by late-comers.
The prayer that stirs our souls and psyches is really just a legal statement releasing us -- as you know -- from all vows and obligations made from this Yom Kippur to the next.
What you may not know is that rabbis long debated the merits of Kol Nidre, feeling its intent can be misunderstood by Jew and non-Jew alike.
Does Kol Nidre allow us to blithely make promises we don't intend to keep? Do the words mean Jews can't be trusted? How can we vow "unwittingly" and how can Kol Nidre cancel vows made to this One but not to that one? There are rabbinic explanations for all of this, of course, but maybe we should just follow the advice of the Talmud and not vow at all.
Meanwhile, some Reform congregations start their Yom Kippur services not with Kol Nidre but with Psalm 130, as did the Jews of ancient Palestine. It's chanted to the traditional Kol Nidre melody, though, so old customs, apparently, die hard.
Al Chet -- For the Sins -- is one of the most important prayers of Yom Kippur. Interestingly enough, the word chet doesn't mean sin, but "to miss the mark." In other words, we're not wicked. We're just a bit off target.
Michael Strassfield, in his Guide to the Jewish Holidays, suggests we use a do-it-yourself Al Chet for a change, instead of the standard "sin-list" found in the Machzor. Have family members and friends take file cards and write down how they missed the mark this past year. Anonymously. One "miss " to a card. Then shuffle the cards, pass them around and take turns reading the cards aloud -- maybe after you get back from Kol Nidre services. Hearing these real short-comings (I still smoke...I don't spend enough time with my kids...I was jealous of my friend's success...) can make the Al Chet a very personal and powerful experience.
Bathing for pleasure on Yom Kippur is traditionally forbidden, but the Code of Jewish Law says it's OK for a new bride to wash her face "so that she becomes not repulsive to her husband." And how about the face of the husband, one wonders...
Near the end of the Ne'ilah (Closing) Service of Yom Kippur, the words, Adonai Hu HaElohim (The Lord, He is God) are repeated seven times. Curious as to why? Tradition says the seven times corresponds to the seven heavens above which God dwells. Or could it possibly correspond the the "seventh heaven" we feel we've reached, having just make it through another fast? And another year?
The Talmud says that at the end of Ne'ilah a heavenly voice declares, "Depart and eat your meal in joy." But, since we can't hear the heavenly voice, one last, long Tekiah Gedolah is blown at the end of Yom Kippur (according to one rabbinic wag) to remind the women it's time to set the table for the break-the-fast-feast meal.
One last thing! It's customary to start building your Sukkah immediately after you get home from Yom Kippur services. Just hammer in one nail. It shows that our devotion to God never stops and that our observance of His mitzvot is continuous.
How continuous? The day after Yom Kippur it's customary to get up earlier than usual to go to services so Satan can't say to God, "Look! Yom Kippur is barely over and already Your people are too lazy to get up for morning minyan." (Those Talmudists thought of everything.)
LeShanah Tovah Tikatev. May you be inscribed for a good year! And Gemar Hatimah Tovah. May the final verdict be a favorable one! And -- next year in Jerusalem, or -- lacking that -- may you find yourself in warm, dry place with family and friends around you.
Peace, peace, everyone. To the far and the near.