by Rabbi Yosef Levy
As we approach the Jewish New Year of 5772 I would like to outline the laws and customs of the High Holidays.
The two-day festival of Rosh Hashanah is observed on the first and second days of Tishrei – this year September 28 (at sundown) – 30.
In Hebrew, Rosh Hashanah means, literally, “Head of the Year,” and as its name indicates, it is the beginning of the Jewish year. The anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, it is the birthday of mankind, highlighting the special relationship between G-d and humanity.
The primary theme of the day is our acceptance of G-d as our King. The Kabbalists teach that the renewal of G-d’s desire for the world, and thus the continued existence of the universe, is dependent upon this. We accept G-d as our King, and G-d is aroused, once again, with the desire to continue creating the world for one more year.
Much of the day is spent in synagogue. G-d not only desires to have a world with people, G-d wants an intimate relationship with each one of us. In addition to the collective aspects of Rosh Hashanah worship, each man and woman personally asks G-d to accept the coronation, thus creating the bond of “We are Your people and You are our King.”
The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn. The shofar is sounded on both days of Rosh Hashanah (unless the first day of the holiday falls on Shabbat, in which case we only sound the shofar on the second day). The sounding of the shofar represents, among other things, the trumpet blast of a people’s coronation of their king. The cry of the shofar is also a call to repentance; for Rosh Hashanah is also the anniversary of man’s first sin and his repentance thereof, and serves as the first of the “10 Days of Repentance” which will culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Altogether, we listen to 100 shofar blasts over the course of the Rosh Hashanah service.
Additional Rosh Hashanah observances include:
- We eat a piece of apple dipped in honey to symbolize our desire for a sweet year, as well as many other special foods. All have special significance and symbolize sweetness, blessings, and abundance.
- We bless one another with the words Leshanah tovah tikateiv veteichateim, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”
- We go to a lake, river or to the sea and recite the Tashlich prayers, symbolically casting our sins into the water, in evocation of the verse, “And You shall cast their sins into the depths of the sea.” We leave our old shortcomings behind us, thus starting the New Year with a clean slate.
- Women and girls light holiday candles, (if there isn’t a woman in the house, the head of the household) at least 18 minutes before sunset and recite the following blessings on each evening of Rosh Hashanah:
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu me-lech ha-olam asher ki-deshanu be-mitzvo-tav ve-tzvi-vanu le-hadlik ner shel Yom Hazikaron.
Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to light the candle of the Day of Remembrance. [Note: When reciting the following blessing on the second night of the holiday, one should have in mind the new fruit which one will subsequently be eating after Kiddush.
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu me-lech ha-olam she-heche-ya-nu ve-ki-yi-ma-nu ve-higi-a-nu liz-man ha-zeh. Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.
Since this year’s holiday is followed immediately by the Shabbat, make this blessing before sunset on the evening of September 30, 2011:
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu me-lech ha-olam asher ki-deshanu be-mitzvo-tav ve-tzvi-vanu le-hadlik ner shel Shabbat kodesh. Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to light the candle of the holy Shabbat.
After the prayers each night and morning, we recite Kiddush on wine, make a blessing over the challah, and enjoy a festive repast.
Yom Kippur this year is from sunset October 7 until nightfall October 8. We commemorate the day that G-d forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf. Forty days after hearing G-d say at Mount Sinai: “You shall not have the gods of others in My presence; you shall not make for yourself a graven image,” the Jews committed the cardinal sin of idolatry. Moses spent nearly three months on top of the mountain pleading with G-d for forgiveness, and on the 10th of Tishrei it was finally granted: “I have pardoned, as you have requested.”
From that moment on, we observe this date as the Day of Atonement as a commemoration of our special relationship with G-d, a relationship that is strong enough to survive any rocky bumps it might encounter. This is a day when we connect with the very essence of our being, which remains faithful to G-d regardless of our outward behavior.
While it is the most solemn day of the year, we are also joyful, confident that G-d will forgive our sins and seal our verdict for a year of life, health and happiness.
For the nearly 26 hours of Yom Kippur, we “afflict our souls”: we abstain from food and drink, do not wash or anoint our bodies, do not wear leather footwear, and abstain from spousal intimacy. We are likened to the angels, who have no physical needs. Instead of focusing on the physical, we spend much of our day in the synagogue, engaged in repentance and prayer.
On the day before Yom Kippur, the primary mitzvah is to eat and drink in abundance. Two festive meals are eaten, one earlier in the day, and one just prior to the onset of Yom Kippur. Some of the day’s other observances include requesting and receiving honey cake, in acknowledgement that we are all recipients in G-d’s world and in prayerful hope for a sweet year; begging forgiveness from anyone whom we may have wronged during the past year; giving extra charity; and the ceremonial blessing of the children.
Before sunset, women and girls light holiday candles, (if there isn’t a woman in the house, the head of the household) at least 18 minutes before sunset and recite the following blessings:
Ba-ruch A-tah A-do-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech ha-olam a-sher ki-deshanu be-mitz-vo-tav ve-tzvi-va-nu le-had-lik ner shel [if Yom Kippur is on Shabbat add: Sha-bat vi-shel] Yom Ha-Ki-pu-rim. Blessed are You, L‑rd, our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to kindle the light of [if Yom Kippur is on Shabbat add: Shabbat and] Yom Kippur.
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech ha-o-lam she-he-che-ya-nu ve-ki-yi-ma-nu ve-hi-gi-ya-nu liz-man ha-zeh. Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.
If the one lighting the candles intends to drive to synagogue for the Kol Nidrei prayers, she should have in mind while lighting the candles that she is not just yet accepting upon herself the sanctity of the holiday. She should then immediately proceed to the synagogue, without undue delay for the Kol Nidrei services.
In the course of Yom Kippur we will hold five prayer services: 1) Maariv, with its solemn Kol Nidrei service, on the eve of Yom Kippur; 2) Shacharit—the morning prayer; 3) Musaf, which includes a detailed account of the Yom Kippur Temple service; 4) Minchah, which includes the reading of the Book of Jonah.
Finally, in the waning hours of the day, we reach the climax of the day: the fifth prayer, the Neilah (“locking”) prayer. The gates of Heaven, which were open all day, will now be closed – with us on the inside. During this prayer, we access the most essential level of our soul. The Holy Ark remains open throughout. The Neilah service climaxes in the resounding cries of “Hear O Israel… G-d is one.” Then joy erupts in song and dance (a Chabad custom is to sing the lively “Napoleon’s March”), followed by a single blast of the shofar, and the proclamation, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
After the fast we partake of a festive after-fast meal, making the evening after Yom Kippur a Yom Tov (festival) in its own right. We immediately begin to look forward to the next holiday and its special mitzvah: the construction of the sukkah.
May we all be inscribed for a happy and healthy sweet New Year.
Please remember to light the Shabbat and Yom Tov candles on on September 23 at 7:21 p.m., on September 28 at 7:13 p.m., on September 29 after 8:09 p.m., on September 30 at 7:10 p.m., on October 7 at 7:00 p.m., on October 12 at 6:52 p.m., on October 13 after 7:48 p.m., on October 14 at 6:49 p.m., on October 19 at 6:42 p.m., on October 20 after 7:39 p.m., on October 21at 6:40 p.m. and on October 28 at 6:31 p.m.
Editor’s note: Rabbi Yosef Levy, a Chabad rabbi, has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.