Jews the world over have just celebrated Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. Sukkot is coming up in just a few days. Rosh HaShannah, means the head of the year, or New Years. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. Sukkot is the Feast of Tabernacles or the Festival of Booths. I’m going to focus on Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur in this piece.
Those of you who have read me for a while will know that when I write about religion or about religious holy days, I usually write about Judaism and Christianity together. For Holy Days, I tend to write about them in groups that are connected thematically or happen to fall next to each other on the calendar that year. Judaism observes a calendar based primarily on lunar cycles, while the civil calendar is based on the solar year. Thus Jewish Holy Days move around a few days or weeks, earlier or later, within the Gregorian calendar, each successive year. For example, the eight nights of Hanukkah and Christmas usually overlap or fall close together in late December. Though sometimes Hanukkah falls several weeks earlier.
There aren’t any Christian religious holy days that fall on or near Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur, so there isn’t really anything to pair them up with besides each other. This isn’t going be exhaustive or encyclopaedic. I’m just going to hit the high points and then leave myself some room to write more about them next year. So, if I failed to mention your favorite tradition or left out something you feel is important, write about that in the comments.
Okay, here goes. Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur (part 8)
According to scripture, the fall cycle of Jewish Holy Days starts on the first of day of the seventh month, the first of Tishri. For many Jews preparation starts the prior month in Elul, which is traditionally a time for reconciliation and making amends. Spending the month of Elul making amends isn’t commanded in the Scriptures, but it’s practical. If it’s been a bad year, it may take the whole month. If it hasn’t, then we’re spending the time reconnecting with friends and relations.
The first of Tishri is celebrated as Rosh HaShanna or New Years’ in rabbinical Judaism. It’s a time for commemorating the creation of the world by the Divine and celebrating the Divine as King over mankind. Another component of the first of Tishri in many congregations is the Feast of Trumpets or Yom Teruah. It’s a day for blowing shofarim or ram’s horn trumpets and rejoicing. In some Messianic Jewish or Hebrew Roots groups, Yom Teruah is regarded as heralding the return of the King, Messiah Yeshua.
Ten days later comes Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. In ancient times, when the Jews had The Temple in Jerusalem (or before that, the Tabernacle in the wilderness) Yom Kippur was the one day of the year when the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place. All the Jews would fast, and no one would work, on Yom Kippur. Before entering the Most Holy Place the High Priest would offer a series of sacrifices covering himself, all the other priests, etc. He would also wash several times. Then they would take two goats, and onto one goat, called the Azazel goat, the High Priest would symbolically transfer the sins of all the people. The other goat, he would sacrifice and take its blood into the Most Holy Place with him. The Azazel goat would be set outside the camp, or taken to a cliff and thrown down on the rocks.
In modern times, prayer services are substituted for all sacrifices.
The prayer services on Yom Kippur are largely about confession and repentance and dedication to serving God. But its group confession and group repentance and group dedication.
Kol Nidre (part 9)
Now, what I really want to talk about in this piece is the tradition of Kol Nidre. It’s a prayer service held at sundown on the evening that Yom Kippur starts. It features the assembly of the congregation, the closing of the doors, and the Cantor singing the Kol Nidre. Kol Nidre is prayer asking for God to forgive us for and release us from vows made falsely, usually under pain of torture or death — such as conversion to another religion. Or from vows we have intended to fulfill, but didn’t. It is by no means permission to lie, cheat, or steal in business or civil matters.
It is widely regarded that Kol Nidre was written by rabbis in Europe during the Middle Ages, when Jews were frequently under various persecutions by Catholics or Muslims. Under threat of torture or death, many Jews would change their names, begin going to the other religion’s worship and prayers in public, but practice their Judaism in private. They would become crypto-Jews and hope that soon the King, Sultan, Prince, Bishop, or Caliph who decreed the persecution would be overthrown or die, or that they could move somewhere far away and practice their Judaism openly again. Jews asked themselves questions like, “How can we serve God, if we’re dead? How can my great grandchildren serve God, if they are never born because my bloodline is extinguished in this persecution?” The answer was Kol Nidre. We convert in public, but in private, before Yom Kippur, we will ask God to absolve us of the conversion.
For those of you keeping score at home, this is precisely how a guy who calls himself StThomas comes to be writing about Judaism in the first place. My real last name is a Spanish forced conversion name. So, somewhere up the family tree, one of my grandfather’s great grandfathers faced that decision about changing his name and going to Mass. Some would call that cowardly. I say it takes more courage to live in hope of freedom. And none of us have faced the Spanish Inquisition or ISIS. I’m sure you’d like to think that when Jihadi John has picked you out to star in an ISIS / Daesh video and he threatens you [redacted to be in good taste]…. well, I hope you get the point.
So, Kol Nidre has become more dear to me in recent years.
But here’s the lesson for our daily and relentless pursuit of virtue. We need to make things right with our friends and relations. We also need to make things right with God. Judaism tends to focus on the making amends to friends and relations with 39 days devoted to that and one evening to Kol Nidre. Christianity, with its Confirmation, rededication, and numerous alter calls, tends focus more on getting right with God. As men and women of faith and virtue we cannot neglect either. We must make amends to our friends and relations; we must ask forgiveness from the Divine and we must live more righteously tomorrow than we did yesterday.
Opinions expressed in these writings are my own and are not endorsed by any Rabbi, Rebbe, Priest, Minister, Pastor, Bishop, Imam or Shiekh; neither are they endorsed by my employers, the National Guard, or the Department of Defense.
If you have a favorite Rosh HaShanna or Yom Kippur tradition that you want tell the Internet about, please share in the comments. If you enjoyed this piece, why not take another moment and follow some of the links below to others? Why not click the follow button, and bring your friends back with you?