The High Holy Days

By Herschel Allerhand

Vaclav Havel (writer, dissident and statesman) was not Jewish, but his views regarding life mirror those of our Sages and make a good introduction to the coming Holy Days. “Higher responsibility grows out of conscious or subconscious certainty [that] everything is forever being recorded and evaluated … somewhere above us… [by] an integral aspect of the secret order of the cosmos, of nature and of life, which believers call God and to whose judgment everything is subject. Genuine conscience and genuine responsibility are always in the end explicable only as an expression of the silent assumption that we are observed from above… that everything is visible, nothing is forgotten.” (Summer Meditations, 1992).

The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are the holiest days in the Jewish calendar; they are known as ‘the ten days of repentance’ and are dedicated to critical self-examination. Traditionally, this stock-taking begins thirty days earlier on the first day of the previous Jewish month of Elul with prayers of penance and the blowing of the shofar-ram’s horn during the daily morning services. This forty-day period is known as ‘the days of awe’ and are reminiscent of the forty days Moses spent on Mount Sinai preparing to receive the second set of tablets. When Moses received these tablets it signified that God had forgiven Israel for the sin of the Golden Calf. The day Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the Ten Commandments was the first Yom Kippur. 

The dominant motif of the High Holy Days is repentance, but the Hebrew word, which is translated as repentance ‘teshuvah,’ literally means ‘to return.’ To do ‘teshuvah’ is to return as we believe that sin exiles us from God, our fellow man and the best versions of ourselves. Jewish tradition has much to say about repentance, emphasizing that it is doable, we can change. We are created in the image of God who is completely free-willed and therefore we are morally (if not biologically) free-willed. “Blind fate, unconscious drives, genetic determinism, cultural pressures, etc. cannot deprive us of our ability to choose.” “This day… I have set before you life and death … choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) What is required for teshuvah (repentance), according to our Sages, is a sincere desire to change evidenced by articulating (to ourselves) with as much specificity as possible, the actions we regret without rationalizations or excuses (as opposed to Adam who blamed Eve and Eve who blamed the snake). Of course, God knows our actions, but when we describe them it clarifies vague thoughts and makes evasion difficult. Before asking God for forgiveness we are required to apologize to anyone we may have wronged in the past year and to mitigate any damage we caused. They in turn are required to accept our sincere apology. We are taught that “Repentance, Prayer and Good Deeds” result in forgiveness. 

Some Prayers and Their Teachings 

“Avinu Malkeinu” – Our Father, our king. God is the king who administers justice but he is also our father from whom we can confidently expect understanding and forgiveness. Judaism does not emphasize gothic architecture, stained glass windows, etc. We can approach God as simply as a child approaches his or her father. 

“Untaneh Tokef” teaches that life is short like a “passing dream … like grass that withers.” We should not waste God’s greatest gift, life itself. Our Sages teach that each of us has been given a task or mission that only we can fulfill. It need not be grandiose, but as simple as caring for and loving a particular person. Discovering and accepting our missions gives meaning to life; a cardinal belief of Judaism is that our lives have meaning. 

The great prayer of “Aleinu” which concludes our daily services was composed for Rosh Hashanah and integrated into daily prayer in the twelfth or thirteenth century. It describes our relationship to God and our aspirations for the world. The first paragraph deals with our singular relationship with the God of revelation who has appointed us to be his witnesses to the world. The second paragraph tells of our hope that all mankind will live in a world of justice and peace. 

“Ne’ila” is the last prayer of Yom Kippur. ‘Ne’ilat Shearim’ means the closing of the gates to the temple, when it stood, and the gates of heaven. In the final silent prayer ‘Amida’ we ask God to forgive us for possessions that we are holding illegally. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik asks why this sin is singled out from the seemingly more serious sins we have been enumerating all day. He answers that all the powers we possess (to talk, think, etc.) are leased to us by God on condition. When we use our tongue to slander, our mind to cheat and deceive, we are breaking the terms of the lease and holding these abilities illegally. In the final amida we are asking God to renew our lease as we promise to adhere to its terms. 

Shofer. The commandment regarding the Shofer has both an objective and subjective requirement. The objective requirement is fulfilled by hearing the sound; the subjective requirement asks us to let “the piercing call break through our defenses and feel its call to repent and return.” 

A philosopher once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. If we properly observe the coming days we will emerge with our examined life, energized for the coming year. Our Sages taught that Yom Kippur is ultimately a happy day as we can be confident of our father’s forgiveness. The Kotzker Rebbe said, “Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of our temple and exile, is such a terrible day, who can eat? Yom Kippur is such a wonderful day, who needs to eat? May we be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year. 

All of the above commentary, and much more, can be found in the introductions of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to his Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mahzors and the writings of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik on these topics. 

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