Sundown on Sept. 16 marked the beginning of a 10-day period so sacred to Judaism that it is known in English as “Days of Awe” or “High Holy Days.” Since the traditional Jewish calendar is based on lunar cycles, the exact date can vary from year to year, but it always occurs around this time.
For a month previous, Jews engage in preparation for this holy time.
“Much as an athlete will do stretches and other warm-up exercises before a game, Jews engage in introspection and self-examination, remembering times in the past year when they failed to live up to their values and regretting the instances when they might have hurt others by word or action, and asking those people for forgiveness,” said Rabbi Debbie Israel of Congregation Emeth.
Our secular new year is often a time for merry-making at boisterous parties extending past midnight, followed by a day of exhausted relaxation in front of the television while watching football games. The tone of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is much different.
It begins a 10-day period of repentance, a time to make up for sins of the past and to do some soul-searching, seeking personal change and growth before being “judged” by God. Religious services for each of the “Days of Awe” are marked by blowing the “shofar,” a trumpet-like instrument made from a ram's horn that emits a loud, piercing blast of sound guaranteed to get anyone's attention to the gravity of the situation.
Just before sundown on Sept. 25 begins Yom Kippur, probably the most important holiday of the Jewish year. In English it means “Day of Atonement,” a day set aside to make up for all the sins of the previous year. At the end of this day, God's judgment on each person is sealed, so this is the last opportunity to demonstrate repentance and make amends for sins committed.
“In truth, the gates of repentance are always open,” Rabbi Israel said. “But I think all of us do better with a deadline! This intense period of time gets us moving, urging us to take action and correct our moral or ethical errors.”
The evening begins with an immensely moving service known as “Kol Nidrei,” one known for its haunting music, which may reach into the soul. (Hear an excerpt at www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvWxoYULWrw.)
The Kol Nidrei service deals with vows and obligations broken. These are not promises to other people that should have been addressed already, but it refers to all personal vows to God.
“This opportunity to clear the conscience recalls the tragic times when Jews were forced to accept other faiths, vowing their allegiance under duress (such as during the Inquisition) whereas at heart they remained loyal to their God,” Rabbi Israel said. “Kol Nidrei was the means by which they asked for annulment of such compulsory vows. In Judaism, we are encouraged to avoid using God's name when we take any vow, and it should never be done lightly.”
At the end of Yom Kippur those who have confessed their sins, made their amends and renewed their vows have received a pardon from God. Now they can “get on with the work of getting their lives back on track.”
Chuck Flagg is a retired teacher with a passion for religion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.