39. Holidays - Part 3.
Tishrei: The High Holidays and Sukkot.
Just six days after Tisha B'Av, the saddest date on our calendar, comes Tu B'Av, the 15th day of Av, which the Talmud1 pairs with Yom Kippur as the most "joyous" day.
Tu B'Av doesn't receive much fanfare in contemporary Jewish life. We make a small change in the prayer service (omitting Tachanun), but by and large Tu B'Av is a day of Jewish unity.
The first connection occurred when the Jewish people wandered in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. A man named Tzlafchad passed away and was survived by four daughters, who approached Moses with concern that inheritance laws would prevent them from receiving a familial estate in the Land of Israel. They in fact did inherit their father's estate, but married within their own tribe so the land would stay within it. Many years later, this restriction was cancelled by a proclamation made on Tu B'Av.2
Generations later, another marriage-related act of Jewish unity took place. The tribe of Benjamin had been decimated by a civil war (Judges ch. 21). In the aftermath of the war, the other tribes refused to allow their daughters to marry the 600 Benjaminite men who survived, and the tribe faced extinction. One year on Tu B'Av, a proclamation enabled Jewish women to once again marry Benjaminite men.3
Over the course of time, the relationship between Tu B'Av and marriage was incorporated into a custom that involved the wider Jewish population. The Talmud tells us that on Tu B'Av (as well as on Yom Kippur), the young women of Jerusalem would go to the vineyards on the outskirts of the city, dressed in white dresses that they all borrowed from each other, so as not to put the poor to shame. They would dance in the vineyards, and all the bachelors would go there to find a marriage partner.4
To this day, many regard Tu B'Av as an auspicious date where one is more likely to find his or her match. How does this work? The world was created on the 25th day of Elul (mankind was created a few days later on Rosh Hashana). The Talmud5 says that 40 days before an embryo's inception, a heavenly voice declares to whom that baby will be married. This being so, counted back 40 days from the 25th of Elul brings us to Tu B'Av! So, God created the world on 25th Elul, and each year 40 days before that date He sends out a series of "announcements" as to who will be matched up with whom! Therefore, if you're looking to get married, Tu B'Av is a good day to pray with sincerity to find the right one.
Rav Tzadok HaKohen from Lublin taught that in the future, Tisha B'Av will commemorate the coming of the Messiah. Then there will be Chol HaMoed (intermediate festival days), and on the seventh day (Tu B'Av) the Temple will be rebuilt. This is the ultimate unity. For on that day, the joy in the streets will be echoed in the vineyards surrounding Jerusalem, and will reverberate throughout the entire world.
Elul, the Hebrew month preceding Rosh Hashana, is an important prelude to the High Holidays, where we engage in introspection and coming closer to God. During Elul, many people perform a daily cheshbon – a spiritual accounting – where we clarify life's goals and devise a plan for the new year. Just as there can he no success in business without taking stock and checking the balance sheet, so too there can he no success in life without checking of spiritual "profit and loss."6
In order to arouse us to this task, it is the Ashkenazi custom to blow the shofar every morning after prayers during Elul.7
Historically, this month has great significance, because it was on the first day of Elul that Moses – following the sin of the Golden Calf – ascended Mount Sinai to receive a new, second set of stone tablets. Forty days later – on the seminal Yom Kippur – Moses returned to the people with tablets in hand, signaling a repair of the breech between the Jewish people and God.8
High Holiday preparations intensify on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana, when we recite "Slichot," a special series of prayers that includes the powerful "13 Attributes of Mercy."9
Rosh Hashana (Tishrei 1-2)
Rosh Hashana (literally "head of the year") is the Jewish New Year, commemorating the creation of Adam and Eve, the first human beings.10 Rosh Hashana is the "Day of Judgment," where each human being has their allotment of life and livelihood determined for the coming year. The Books of Life and Death are opened, and we each stand before God and offer our best case for being "created anew" – i.e. granted another year of life.11
The morning before Rosh Hashana, we perform Hatarat Nedarim – annulling all vows. This enables us to enter the new year with a clean slate.12
Since there are so many unique prayers on Rosh Hashana, we use a special prayer book called a Machzor. And during the High Holidays, the curtain on the ark is changed into a white one, to symbolize that our "mistakes will be whitened like snow."13
The shofar (ram's horn) is sounded on Rosh Hashana, a total of 100 blasts. The shofar is compared to a "spiritual alarm clock" that beckons us to change and become better human beings.14 The shofar is also mindful of the biblical story of Abraham binding his son Isaac, when a ram was caught in the thicket and sacrificed in Isaac's stead.15 Tradition records that this event occurred on the day of Rosh Hashana.16
The shofar is not blown when Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat.17
Sounds of a Shofar
At festive meals during the High Holidays, a round challah is used – symbolizing fullness and completion.18 We dip the bread, and also an apple, into honey, symbolizing our prayer for a sweet new year.19 On Rosh Hashana, we also eat a series of foods that symbolize good tidings for the coming year. 20
It is customary to greet others with the words: L'shana tova – ketivah vi-chatima tova – "For a good year, you should be written and sealed in the good [Book of Life]."21 Many people send Rosh Hashana greeting cards to their friends and family.
The "Tashlich" prayer is said on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashana, near a pool of water that preferably has fish in it. These prayers are symbolic of the casting away of our mistakes.22
Ten Days of Repentance (Tishrei 1-10)
While the decision for "another year of life" is handed down on Rosh Hashana, the verdict is not "sealed" unto Yom Kippur. Therefore, the 10 days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur – the Ten Days of Repentance – are a crucial period when judgment "hangs in the balance" to tip our scales to the side of goodness we engage in intense introspection, and are extra-careful with our speech, actions and mitzvah observance.23
The day after Rosh Hashana marks the Fast of Gedalia (Tishrei 3), one of the "minor fast days." This fast commemorates the tragic murder, 2,500 years ago, of a Jewish leader named Gedalia; it led to the end of Jewish settlement in Israel for many years. The fast begins in the early morning at dawn, and ends in the evening at dusk. 24
Yom Kippur (Tishrei 10)
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Historically, this is the day that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the second set of Tablets, indicating that God had forgiven the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf.25 From that day forward, every Yom Kippur has carried with it a special power to cleanse the mistakes of Jews, both individually and collectively.
The afternoon before Yom Kippur, it is a special mitzvah to eat a festive meal.26
Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov, in the sense that we cease from all creative activity (melacha).27 The day is spent in prayer and reflection, and we radically disconnect from the distractions of physical routine. There are five specific areas from which we remove ourselves:
- eating and drinking
- wearing leather shoes
- applying oils or lotions to the skin
- marital relations28
The Yom Kippur fast begins at sundown, and extends 25 hours until the following nightfall. If someone is ill, and a doctor is of the opinion that fasting might pose a life-danger, then the patient should eat or drink small amounts. (A rabbi should be consulted.29)
The main task of Yom Kippur is to admit our mistakes, regret having done them, and commit to not repeating them again.30
Though Yom Kippur atones for transgressions against God, this does not include wrongs committed against our fellow human beings. It is therefore the universal Jewish custom – sometime before Yom Kippur – to apologize and seek forgiveness from those whom we may have harmed over the past year.31
On Yom Kippur, Yizkor is recited in the synagogue.32
As Yom Kippur ends, we break the fast with a joyous sense that our soul has been cleansed of transgressions. And in order to move from one mitzvah to another, we traditionally begin building the Sukkah right after Yom Kippur, in preparation for the coming Sukkot holiday.33
Sukkot (begins Tishrei 15)
The days immediately preceding Sukkot are filled with activity – building and decorating the Sukkah, and purchasing the Four Species that will be waved in the synagogue throughout the holiday.
Sukkot is a holiday of immense joy, where we express our complete trust in God, and celebrate our confidence in having received a "good judgment" for the coming year.
Throughout the week of Sukkot, we eat, sleep and socialize in a Sukkah34 – a 3- or 4-walled structure35 whose roof is made of branches.36 The Sukkah reminds us that the Israelites lived in huts during the 40 years of wandering in the desert.37 Further, the Sukkah's flimsy construction reminds us that:
- material possessions are transient
- God is our ultimate protection – just as He protected the Israelites in the desert with the Clouds of Glory.38
The Four Species – lulav, etrog, myrtle and willow – are waved each day (except for Shabbat) in the synagogue, during the recitation of the Hallel prayers of praise.39 Hallel is followed by Hoshanot, where everyone circles a Torah scroll held on the Bima.40
To be valid for the mitzvah, the four species must meet certain requirements. Since the details are many and technical, it is recommended to purchase a complete set from a reliable distributor.
The intermediate days of Sukkot are marked by celebrations called Simchat Beit HaSho'eva, commemorating the water libations that were offered during Sukkot in the Holy Temple.41
The seventh day of Sukkot is called Hoshana Rabba, which features seven circuits around the Bima,42 with the Four Species in hand. The procession culminates with the beating of the willow branch.43 Hoshana Rabba is known as the day of the final sealing of judgment which began on Rosh Hashana.44
Immediately following Sukkot is a one-day holiday called Shmini Atzeret. "Shmini" means eighth, and "Atzeret" means "holding back," teaching that even after the conclusion of Sukkot, God desires for the Jewish people to celebrate an additional day.45 Yizkor is recited in the synagogue.46
The next day is Simchat Torah, which celebrates the completion and beginning of the annual Torah reading cycle. In the synagogue, all the Torah scrolls are taken out of the Ark, and the congregation dances "seven circuits" with great joy and song. Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are both Yom Tov holidays where we cease from melacha. (In Israel, Simchat Torah is held the same day as Shmini Atzeret.)47
Click here for the text and audio recordings of 32 of the most popular Simchat Torah melodies.
- Mishnah – Ta’anit 4:8
- Talmud – Ta’anit 30b
- Talmud – Ta’anit 26b
- Talmud – Sotah 2a
- Mishnah Berurah (Introduction to 581)
- Orach Chaim 581:1
- Mishnah Berurah (Introduction to 581)
- Rema – Orach Chaim 581, with Mishnah Berurah 4
- Talmud – Rosh Hashana 8a, b
- Talmud – Rosh Hashana 16a, b
- Sha’arei Teshuva 551:7
- Aruch HaShulchan 610:7
- Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 128:2
- Talmud – Rosh Hashana 16a
- Shibulei Leket – Rosh Hashana 288
- Talmud – Rosh Hashana 29b
- Ta’amei Minhagim (Likutim 183)
- Orach Chaim 583:1
- Orach Chaim 582:9
- Orach Chaim 583:2
- Talmud – Rosh Hashana 16b; Orach Chaim 603:1
- 2-Kings 25:25; Mishnah Berurah 549:2; 550:2
- Rashi (Exodus 33:11)
- Based on a verse (Leviticus 23:32), the Talmud says that he who eats and drinks on Yom Kippur eve, is considered as if he fasted an extra day (Talmud – Rosh Hashana 9a)..
- Leviticus 23:31
- Talmud – Yoma 73b
- Orach Chaim 611:1; 618
- Talmud – Yoma 85-8; Rambam (Teshuva 2:2)
- Orach Chaim 606:1
- Orach Chaim 621:6
- Orach Chaim 624:5
- Orach Chaim 639:1
- Orach Chaim 630
- Orach Chaim 629:1
- Leviticus 23:43
- Orach Chaim 651:8
- Orach Chaim 660:1
- Talmud – Sukkah 51a
- Orach Chaim 660:1, 2
- Orach Chaim 664:7
- Mishnah Berurah 664:2
- Rashi (Leviticus 23:36)
- Mishnah Berurah 668:15
- Orach Chaim 669:1