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Asking the clergy: Why are the High Holy Days a special time for Jews?

Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the Jewish New Year, 5776, begins at sundown Sept 13, followed on Sept. 22 by Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year for Jews. This week's clergy discuss why the High Holy Days are a time of prayer, introspection, fasting and feasting.

Rabbi Daniel Bar-Nahum, Temple Emanu-El, East Meadow:

The High Holy Days are a period of introspection and joy. We are asked to take stock of who we have been in the year that was and who we hope to be in the year ahead. Standing at the precipice of heaven, we pray that God inscribe us in the Book of Good Life for the coming year. Judaism calls this cheshbon hanefesh, "an accounting of the soul." This is intended to remind us of what is truly important in life: our relationships, our families, our community, how we treat one another. Given how our attention is typically pulled in myriad directions, a couple of days of introspection, reflection and resolution to be better than we have been allow us a chance to reset and refocus our priorities before God. It may seem like these days are entirely filled with heavy theological undertakings. However, it's not only the metaphysical that makes this time so special. It is equally, if not more so, the communal and the familial. We come together as a community. We seek to make amends. We pass down traditions from our families of origin to our children and grandchildren. We create new traditions. We share meals filled with the flavors of generations past. We pray using the same words and melodies our parents and grandparents prayed. The High Holy Days are special because they offer us the opportunity to connect to our past, be focused on the present and hope for the future.

Rabbi Mendy Brownstein, co-director, Chabad of Oyster Bay and Jericho, East Norwich:

Food and family play a very important role in every Jewish holiday. Even Yom Kippur, which is a day of fasting and introspection, is preceded and followed by a festive meal to be enjoyed with family and friends. These two ingredients create a sense of belonging and comfort in a sometimes unsettling world. This concept is expressed on a deeper level during the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) marks the anniversary of the creation of man. We therefore prepare for this day by taking time to examine our character and reflect on the purpose of our being. One of the central prayers that we recite during this time begins, "Our Father, Our King." This teaches us that our relationship with God is comparable to a king and his subject indicating our responsibility to God and the world around us. More importantly, however, it tells us that God is our Father and we are his children. Throughout the year life leads us to many strange and (sometimes) exciting places. Sometimes we feel lost or disconnected: "Where are we and how did we get here?" On Rosh Hashanah God gives us the opportunity to reconnect. He invites us into the palace and gives us a chance to start anew. The call of the shofar, the ram's horn traditionally blown on the New Year, announces that we have returned home. No matter how far we have strayed or how much we have forgotten, we have a home and a loving father in heaven. In a word, we "belong." May we all be inscribed and sealed for a sweet New Year.

Rabbi Gadi Capela, Congregation Tifereth Israel, Greenport, president, East End Jewish Community Council:

Contrary to common perception, the Jewish calendar does not begin exclusively on Rosh Hashanah, even though the holiday is translated as "Head of the Year." In fact, the Talmud tells us that there are four different beginnings of the year -- each for a different purpose. For instance, in the month of Nisan (typically in March or April), the Book of Exodus (12:1) tells us, "This month is to you the head (first) of the months." So, how do we reconcile these two beginnings? Nisan ushers in the cycle of the three yearly Jewish pilgrimage holidays: Passover, Shavuot (the holiday of Weeks) and Sukkot (the holiday of Booths). Sukkot, which finishes the High Holy Days, comes exactly six months after Passover, creating a circle of observance. In fact, the holidays are called Hagim in Hebrew, referring to their cyclical movement around the yearly calendar. Therefore, imagine a circle that begins with Passover and, 180 degrees (also about 180 days) later, the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot arrive. So, why are the High Holy Days a special time for Jews? Just as the High Holy Days represent a new beginning, they also represent a completion. The Israelites began their journey at a low point, running away from slavery in Egypt; and every year at Passover, we re-enact that event. But six months later, we turn ourselves around, and this time, instead of running from an event, we can choose to run toward an event. Passover signifies our physical liberation, and the High Holy Days signify our spiritual freedom. The ultimate freedom, of course, is to reexamine ourselves before God, and to trust his judgment and providence as ultimately we dwell in the simple booths of Sukkot.

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