In Days of Awe, Rituals Sweet and Somber
Steven Katz walks us through High Holy Days
This video depicts the ritual blowing of the shofar, or ram’s horn, on the Jewish High Holy Days. Photo below by Kalman Zabarsky
In Judaism they’re known as the “Days of Awe”—10 days of repentance and renewal that begin at sunset today with Rosh Hashanah and close with Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement, on September 18. Many people, whether or not they’re Jewish, are familiar with the Rosh Hashanah feast to welcome the New Year (5771 on the Jewish calendar) and the traditional fast on Yom Kippur. But the High Holy Days are brimming with lesser known rituals, from the poignant casting off of sins by the river to historically puzzling customs such as setting out a fish head at the table.
To learn more about these rituals and their origins, BU Today consulted Steven T. Katz (right), director of BU’s Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies. A College of Arts & Sciences professor of religion, Katz is the Alvin J. and Shirley Slater Professor of Jewish and Holocaust Studies.
BU Today: How is Rosh Hashanah more than the Jewish equivalent of New Year’s Day?
Katz: It’s the first of the 10 “Days of Awe,” which culminate in Yom Kippur. By tradition we say Rosh Hashanah is the day on which the world was created. So it’s the birthday of creation. On Rosh Hashanah, people are inscribed in the Book of Life, we make atonement, and we right relationships that have gone awry. For orthodox Jews, the holiday season began Saturday night with a special prayer service seeking forgiveness. We say it at midnight, when the gates of heaven are especially open, and we pray that our sins be forgiven and we can begin with a new slate. At the start of Rosh Hashanah we greet each other with the words: “May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.”
Tell us about the mood of the Days of Awe.
The mood of the whole 10 days is one of repentance. It’s the time of year where Jews and non-Jews are judged in the scales of good and evil, but the theme is, as we say in the second prayer of the day, that we can avert the evil decree by various acts. So it’s very much in keeping with the Jewish notion that it’s not just a matter of God’s grace, but a matter of human energy. Men and women hurt each other, we do bad things, but men and women can repair the damage they’ve caused.
What makes the Rosh Hashanah service unique?
The most notable thing about the service is the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn. The Book of Numbers says that we will consecrate this first day of the seventh month with the blowing of the ram’s horn. We blow the shofar 100 times. Why? The number of times is a question discussed and debated by the Talmudic sages, but it’s become customary to blow 100 blasts.
What’s the significance of blowing the shofar and who blows it?
The significance of the shofar, which is not a holy object like a Torah scroll, is much discussed. It awakens the dormant soul to repentance. You’re thinking about the Red Sox or going out to dinner, you’re not paying attention, and the shofar is a means to force self-awareness. If you look at biblical stories, they all mention the ram’s horn. It’s a sign of God’s sovereignty, a signal that God is coming down with the law. The horn also recalls how when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac, as God had commanded, an angel guided Abraham’s hand to kill a goat instead. On Rosh Hashanah we remind God of how faithful we’ve been.
Anyone can blow the shofar; it doesn’t have to be the rabbi—it’s anyone who has the strength. It’s not easy; it takes a lot of wind. All the blasts are usually done by just one person and he—traditionally it’s always a he, though I’m sure women are doing it in a few egalitarian temples—should be a pretty strong tuba player
What are some rituals observed at the Rosh Hashanah table?
The bread is interesting. The challah is usually long but now it’s round, signifying the cycle of life. Everyone has the custom of dipping something in honey; some of the Sephardim (Jews with roots in Spain and Portugal) dip bread, Ashkenazi (Jews of eastern European descent) dip apples. With the dipping we say: “May it be a sweet year, L’shanah tovah.” A good year. I’ve heard of people dipping vegetables. And some people set out the head of a fish and say, “May we be a head and not a tail.” No one has any idea where this comes from. These are all from folk culture.
Explain tashlich, the casting away of sins.
On the day of Rosh Hashanah, at about 5 or 6, between the afternoon and evening prayers, worshippers emerge from the synagogue together to stand beside a flowing body of water to do tashlich, a casting away of sins, as described by the prophet Micah. As a symbol, some people toss bread into the water, probably a custom from medieval Germany, where the pious were very mystically oriented and may have borrowed the ritual from Christians. The water can be a river, a lake, or an ocean. Sometimes it’s very funny, you see people standing by the tiniest stream. In New York you see people doing the ritual along the Hudson River. The idea of water purification is very old. When you enter a synagogue, you wash hands, when you go to pray at a mosque, you wash hands and feet.
What rituals are observed only at the meal on the second night of Rosh Hashana?
On the evening meal on the second day, after Kiddush—the blessing of the wine—we add a new fruit, to celebrate this occasion, this rebirth. It should be a fruit we haven’t eaten all year, so it’s usually an exotic fruit, like an ugli fruit. Fruit stores know about the ritual and stock exotic offerings for the occasion. Some families have their own customary fruit, but we travel a lot, so we’ve gotten all kinds of fruits, from whatever the local fare is.
What are some of the traditional ways to repent during the Days of Awe?
The 10 days are all about repentance. It’s a time when you ask forgiveness of your friends you’ve wronged. Of course you can go to the temple and say, “God forgive me,” but if I hurt you in some way, why should God be the one to forgive? You must ask the people you’ve hurt for their forgiveness. The days of awe are an effort of self-examination. You apologize: “I gossiped about you. I let my dog poo on your lawn.” And you—the one I’ve apologized to—are supposed to think about this; now the responsibility falls on you. If you and I don’t get along, there’s an effect on the community. All of these themes are meant to be both individual and collective.
What are some of the rituals of Yom Kippur?
Yom Kippur is the holiest day in Judaism, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. The Bible says, “You will afflict your soul.” The rabbis interpreted this as fasting. In the morning on Yom Kippur there’s a tradition with a live chicken. If you go to Jerusalem on this day you’ll see people with live chickens everywhere. Before prayer people twist the chickens over their heads three times to move their troubles to the chicken. Today in the United States many people use money instead of a chicken and donate the money to charity afterwards. A meal before sundown on Yom Kippur is obligatory, to prepare for the fast.
What is special about the Yom Kippur prayer Kol Nidre?
It’s the most famous prayer in Judaism. Before we go to the synagogue to say Kol Nidre (“all vows”) we put on white clothes to symbolize purity. The prayer asks us to annul our personal vows to God in the last year, and there’s a lot of debate about it and how it became central to this holy day. The prayer is the high point of the ritual season, and the cantor sings it three times. It became popular among the Marrano Jews of Spain, who converted during the Inquisition, but continued to practice Judaism secretly. Maybe it’s about annulling one’s vows to another religion.
What happens when the Sabbath of Sabbaths actually falls on a Saturday?
On Yom Kippur all the laws of the Sabbath apply. But if either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur fall on the Sabbath you can’t blow the shofar, because to carry it to the synagogue violates the Sabbath.
Are there other fasting holidays in Judaism?
Yom Kippur is one of several fasting holidays. There are other, less observed holidays, which commemorate the destructions of the first and second temples or destruction of the walls of Jerusalem. On fasting holidays such as Yom Kippur, you don’t eat, you don’t drink, you don’t bathe, you don’t have sex, you don’t use perfume. Boys 13 and older and girls 12 and older will fast. But someone who’s ill can eat, in the same way the rules permit Jews to violate the Sabbath to save a life. There was a mid-19th-century rabbi whose town was in the throes of a plague and to fast would have made them more susceptible. So he said people could eat on Yom Kippur. At the synagogue he made a blessing on a plate of food and ate first, so people could see it was really okay.
Why the Yom Kippur edict against leather shoes?
You see people in the synagogue all dressed up with sneakers. That’s because leather shoes are too comfortable, and this is a day about self-mortification. What gets you into trouble all year? Your ego! So, all these activities are a way of controlling your ego.
Are there special rituals for the meal to break the fast?
There are no special customs for breaking the fast. Rituals for this meal are a new thing. You can eat whatever you want, and usually it’s only the nonreligious people who make a big deal about it. The religious Jews finish their meal, go back out, and start building the sukkah, the temporary hut used during the weeklong autumn festival of Sukkoth.
Susan Seligson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.