The High Holy Days are the spiritual apex of the Jewish calendar. They include the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Yamim Noraim or Days of Awe) and the entire 40-day period from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur, representing the time Moses spent on Mount Sinai before coming down with the second set of Tablets. Making the passage of time holy, the month of Elul is a time to prepare for the holidays, and the 10 days beginning with Rosh Hashanah are a time to reflect on the previous year, making amends and celebrating hope for the future.
“A delicate blend of joy and solemnity, feasting and fasting, prayer and inspiration make up the spiritually charged head of the Jewish year,” Chabad.org explains.
“During the month of Elul, the shofar is sounded every weekday morning, a clarion call to return to G‑d in advance of the sacred days that lay ahead. The two-day holiday of Rosh Hashanah is the head of the Jewish year, the time when G‑d reinvests Himself in creation as we crown Him king of the universe through prayer, shofar blasts and celebration.
A week later, the High Holy Days reach their crescendo with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Dressed in white, we pray in the synagogue—united as one people, children of One Father. The otherworldliness of the High Holy Days is then channeled into the festive holidays of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, which bring the annual fall holiday season to a most joyous conclusion.”
According to Aish.com, “A key component of Rosh Hashanah preparation is to ask for forgiveness from anyone we may have wronged during the previous year. To the greatest extent possible, we want to begin the year with a clean slate – and without anyone harboring a grudge against us. Similarly, we should be quick to forgive those who have wronged us. Every Yom Kippur carries with it a special power to cleanse our mistakes (both individually and collectively) and to wipe the slate clean.”
Jlife asked Orange County rabbis for their perspective on the High Holy Days. They provided their thoughts on important lessons of the High Holy Days, traditions that are especially meaningful and, special things that their congregations were doing for the High Holy Days this year.
Rabbi Yisroel Ciner of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine, an Orthodox congregation, said, “We are living in an ever-more confusing and complicated world. As represented throughout the Rosh Hashanah liturgy—with Avinu Malkainu serving as the centerpiece—the overarching theme of Rosh Hashanah is Malchut, G-d’s Kingdom, G-d’s World, G-d overseeing and orchestrating world events.”
He added, “This year we will be focusing on seeing, understanding and appreciating that Malchut and the role that we can and must play in it. That role is best exemplified by the traditional Rosh Hashanah fruit—the pomegranate. The Talmud teaches that it is bursting with seeds, just as every Jew is bursting with mitzvot. Though there are many fruits with an abundance of seeds, the pomegranate is somewhat unique in that each of its many seeds is almost a self-contained unit. This represents the idea that each mitzvah has its scintillating power and that the absence of one, in no way sullies the glow of another. Each and every Jew, with all that each of us do and don’t do, has their essential role to play in the world and in this Malchut.”
Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Tustin, said, “The High Holy Days are a marker of the passing of time, a reminder that another year has passed and that we are privileged to share our lives with fellow Jews amidst the richness of our tradition. Our prayers are a prompt to consider how we might improve the quality of our lives and relationships, a reflection aided by the quiet space of synagogue and the familiar chants of prayers.”
As for meaningful traditions, Rabbi Spitz said, “The sounding of the shofar evokes a primal call of belonging and a piercing awakening to our potential for connection and growth. The challah dipped in honey is a sweet reminder of so much goodness in our lives as we begin a new year.”
In terms of new things for the High Holy Days this year, CBI will engage as a community in five small group conversations with materials and discussion questions that Rabbi Spitz has prepared on “Character Counts: Cultivating Menschleichkeit.”
Rabbi David Young of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, which is a Reform Temple, finds fasting especially meaningful. As he explained, “For me, the fast is a way to focus on the important things about Yom Kippur. It is a day of self-improvement, not self-indulgence, like most other holidays. If a fast is successful, it has nothing to do with not eating, and everything to do with making positive changes in our life.”
He said he looks most forward to the congregation’s Second Day Rosh Hashanah celebration at the Huntington Beach Pier with Rabbi Nancy Meyers and Cantorial Soloist Nancy Linder from Temple Beth David of Westminster and Rabbi Heidi Cohen and Cantor David Reinwald from Temple Beth Sholom of Santa Ana. As he said, “It is always such a treat to work with colleagues who serve other congregations, because I rarely get to see rabbis and cantors that I love in action because we all work at exactly the same times. Collaborating on Rosh Hashanah allows us to pray together, gives me the opportunity to experience my talented colleagues doing what they do best as well as providing a moving and meaningful service under the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean, which is itself a testament to G-d’s glory.”
Of the most important lessons of the High Holy Days, Rabbi Young said, “The single most important thing is: SHOW UP. Not just on the HHDs, but all year. The High Holy Days serve no purpose if we do not engage with the rest of the Jewish year.”
Rosh Hashanah begins on Sunday, September 29, at sundown, and lasts until nightfall on Tuesday, October 1. Yom Kippur begins several minutes before sunset on Tuesday, October 8, until after nightfall on Wednesday, October 9. Please see Jlife Extra online for an extensive list of High Holy Day services at Orange County congregations. Chag sameach and gmar chatima tovah!
ILENE SCHNEIDER IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.