One way to make these holidays more meaningful that can work for people whether or not they believe in God or religion is to engage in the process of reflection and repentance that are the special hallmarks of the season. Traditional Jewish customs can constitute a sort of getting in shape to reform your life for the New Year, or at least a chance to think about how you would like to be living.
Elul: Gaining Strength for Repentance
There are many customs associated with the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, the Hebrew month of Elul. Sephardim, Jews whose ancestors lived in Spain and other Muslim countries during the Middle Ages, have the custom to get up earlier and recite selichot, prayers of repentance. Other Jews begin saying these prayers only in the week before Rosh Hashanah. Among Ashkenazim, Jews whose ancestors lived in Germany and other European Christian countries in the Middle Ages, there is a custom to blow the shofar, or ram's horn, every morning for the entire month before Rosh Hashanah. During the month before Rosh Hashanah, many Jews recite Psalm 27, a psalm with themes of trust in God, as part of their usual prayer routine.
These customs are part of gearing up for repentance, and have the effect of focusing attention on our need for change in the upcoming New Year. This is something that doesn't require any sort of religious feeling. Reforming your life is a practical matter, one that does not require divine intervention--but for people who do believe in God, the reminder of a relationship with God can buttress them in their resolve. Some play with the Hebrew letters of the month of Elul, aleph lamed vav alef, making them an acronym for Ani L'Dodi V'Dodi Li--"I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." (Song of Songs 6:3) In this verse, God and the individual are like lover and beloved. The month before Rosh Hashanah can be an opportunity to focus on the individual's relationship with God as a way of gaining strength for the process of change.
Selichot: Prayers of Repentance
On the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, many Jewish communities begin saying selichot. (In some communities, the service is pronounced and transliterated selichos.) In some congregations, there is a custom of doing this just on the Saturday night preceding, preferably so that people wind up in synagogue at midnight. The service includes repeated recitations of God's attributes, which are also a feature of the Yom Kippur prayers. The liturgy asks God's mercy in the names of our ancestors. Attending a night-time selichot service can provide an intense taste of the spiritual flavors of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and it probably won't be quite as crowded as some of the most popular services during the actual holidays.
Other Rituals During the Days of Awe
During the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, called the Days of Awe, there are many customs that can help people get into the mood for repentance. Some of these are folk customs that Jewish religious authorities initially discouraged, seeing them as a substitute for repentance. In recent times, Jews have reclaimed some of these customs in order to make the High Holidays more meaningful.
In some communities, it's the custom to perform the ritual of tashlich, a symbolic casting away of sins, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in the afternoon, but it can be done any time during the Days of Awe. A group of people goes to a body of water and throws the crumbs from their pockets into it. The preference in this ritual is to use a body of water that has fish in it, so that the fish will eat the crumbs. Many liberal Jewish congregations organize groups to go together to bodies of water to do tashlich.
A popular folk custom for which there is no set liturgy is visiting the graves of family members during the Days of Awe. There are lots of reasons this might be customary. Perhaps it is because of the focus on remembrance that characterizes Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Some people may be mustering all of their resources toward the process of repentance and change, including their memories of important people in their lives who have passed away.
Kapparot and Giving to Charity
You may have read about the strange custom of swinging a chicken over your head before Yom Kippur. A small minority of Jews still practice this folk custom, called kapparot or kappores in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reciting prayers over the chicken and then sending it to be slaughtered in a kosher fashion and donated to the poor. This was another custom that many rabbis did not like: they didn't want Jews to think that it was enough to do the symbolic action without real repentance. There are many other reasons why this custom is problematic.
Some people who continue this custom do it with a shirt or a bag of money. They swing the bag overhead, and recite the same formula. This is much less cruel to animals, and provides the person with an opportunity to give to charity. The idea that giving to charity helps a person to atone for sins is probably related to the biblical concept of sacrificing. Jewish concepts of charity go beyond sacrifice; the Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah, means justice. Jews give money to charity in order to promote justice in the world--something that one does not have to be Jewish or religious at all to do.
The Most Important Custom: Repairing Relationships With People
The most important custom of the Days of Awe is the custom of apologizing to people in our lives for things we have done to offend them in the past year. While Yom Kippur atones for sins between people and God, problems that occur between people are a human responsibility.
There does not seem to be a concept in Jewish religious literature of forgiving people before they repent, or whether or not they repent. This is different than some ideas expressed in Christianity. Jewish theology doesn't seem to expect that even God will forgive people who do not repent. The High Holiday liturgy imagines God waiting for the individual to turn to God, but ready to receive the person as soon as they repent.
It's hard for human beings to forgive people when they have apologized, but Jewish sources require this. Not to accept someone else's apologies and repentance is itself a sin. This may be the most effort that the individual expends in their spiritual workouts in training for these holidays. It may be as difficult, or even more difficult, to forgive other people than it is to ask for forgiveness.
There is a lot about Judaism that is particularistic and cultural and to some extent, exclusive. The High Holidays are full of Hebrew language, folk customs and new and strange images and symbols. What's universal is the human desire to improve ourselves, to start off fresh, repair relationships and behave better. As members of interfaith families and communities, we can share these universal goals with each other, and celebrate a sweet year together.
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