Why are services on the High Holidays different from the rest of the year?
Mark Swick / God and Prayer / September 24, 2006
September 24, 2006
1 Tishrei 5767
Why are services on the High Holidays different from the rest of the year? By Mark Swick
I recently started a new chapter in my life as a freshman at Indiana University (Go Hoosiers!) and have consequently been meeting people left and right. I suggested to a group of new friends one Friday evening that we go to Hillel for Kabbalat Shabbat and dinner: get to know more people, enjoy a free dinner (something all college students should appreciate) and celebrate Shabbat in a new home. What could be better!?
No thanks. Were only two-day-a-year-Jews , they replied.
Youre what? I thought. Which days? Oh. Those two days .
As a third grade Sunday School student I remember a class discussion regarding the importance of the Jewish Holidays. Shabbat, we decided, is supposed to be spent with family and friends, and if you went to synagogue on Friday night, then that was cool, too. Pesach has the traditional seder, Chanukah has presents and gelt, Sukkot even has the sukkah. But what about Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur? Those were the holidays that everyone I knew showed up to services for!
So whats the big deal? Why be Jewish these two days? Why the tickets? Rabbis and cantors prepare months in advance, fine tuning their sermons and musical pieces because this is when the people come. Rosh HaShanah the Head of the Year and Yom Kippur Day of Atonement. Cool, but dont we celebrate a New Year and make a resolution on December 31 st? Why do it twice? Bring sparkling cider to synagogue and it will be the exact same, right!? Wrong.
The holiest day of our week, the day that occurs 52 times a year, is Shabbat. Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, is called Shabbat HaShabbatot the Sabbath of Sabbaths. I will be the first to tell you that Shabbat is a beautiful thing! It is a chance for us to slow down once a week, pray in synagogue (or at home, in a Hillel or anywhere) and rest. For some Jews, however, a Friday night is too valuable a sacrifice to make every week. No one can deny that the number of congregants at a weekday minyan or Kabbalat Shabbat service is exponentially lower than the amount of people attending on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. This is a reality that we have come to live with.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do not happen 52 times a year, but just once. They need to be the days when you dont do the ordinary things you might do on a daily basis. Rather, I urge you to spend them thinking about the past year and the upcoming year. If there was a friend you had a falling out with or a family member you havent spoken to in ages, this is the time to call that person and tell them you are still here, thinking about and caring for them. We apologize for our mistakes every day, but on Yom Kippur we are specifically told to atone. This time its different now youre talking directly to God .
Lshanah tovah tikatevu v'tikhatemu May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year. I look forward to seeing you in shul.
Related Questions Can I have a positive High Holiday experience without going to Synagogue? There are two aspects to the services throughout Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: a community aspect and a more personal one. The benefit of going to synagogue is that you are celebrating and atoning with the entire community. Like you, everyone is there to atone. On the other hand what you are atoning for is very personal. So while its possible to pray from home, I still suggest you go to synagogue. Experiencing the united Jewish community in that way is remarkable.
The Book of Life! Cool! How do I get written into THAT? We say of the Book of Life that on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Being written into the Book of Life is a very personal thing, revolving around your repentance. I view being written in is based on how comfortable one feels at the end of The Days of Repentance.
The Book of Lif e is a thought provoking concept, and its not for everyone. Many people struggle with the abstract ideas that Judaism presents or are disturbed by the implications offered by this concept. To those people I offer this alternative: reflect on this past year, the decisions and events that have gone along with it. Decide what you liked, what you want to change and how youre going to do that. Finally, make a contract with yourself and on Yom Kippur affirm it in synagogue as thousands of other Jews do the same.
Taking Action Make a personal contract with God Literally--dont laugh this one off. Making a list of things that you are proud of, or want to work on throughout the upcoming year is an amazing way to stay on track. Typically when we make a resolution on Yom Kippur (or New Years) we stick with it for a week or two, and then it fades away. A physical contract can be wherever you are--hang it up next to your bed or tape it to your computer screen. Re-evaluate it once a week: are you doing the things you planned on doing?
Go to services! Im not sure I could think of how to make these two days more special, than to spend them with your congregational family, in services. If you decide to go to synagogue, listen to the Rabbis sermon: the points that he or she makes will be some of the most important messages he/she imparts all year. Take in your surroundings: not for another year will you see masses this large flock to shul. Make these High Holy Days personal, and make them count they wont be back until next year.
Resources Inspired by this weeks iTorah? Want to learn more? Check this out
MyJewishLearning.com is a trans-denominational website of Jewish information and education geared towards learners of all religious and educational backgrounds. See what they have to say on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur!
Mark Swick currently serves as North American Religious and Cultural Vice President for the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY). A native of Silver Spring, MD, Mark was an active member of The Sinaites (Temple Sinai, Washington, DC). Before serving on NFTY Board, Mark served as NFTY-Mid-Atlantic Region (MAR) RCVP. A Jewish and Religious Studies double major at Indiana University in Bloomington, Mark enjoys playing frisbee, wearing sandals, listening to good music and rooting for his schools team, the Hoosiers (dont ask him what a Hoosier is. He doesnt know either). Though currently in Bloomington, Indiana, you will be able to find Mark in Philadelphia, PA on February 16-20 for NFTY Convention!