The Holidays, Again
There is both something boring yet something comforting about the Holidays. Thanks to yearly repetition, we know more or less what to expect. There are particular things about the Holidays that each of us likes, and there are probably more that we can do without, but we put up with it, out of respect for our parents, family, friends, community and tradition.
This predictability is both a great strength and a fatal weakness. There is a tremendous value in repetition. Studies have shown that repetition of any act is not a cumulative effect but an exponential force at reinforcing that act as part of our psyche. However, that same, sometimes mind-numbing repetition of anything, is what often causes us to miss out entirely the deeper meaning, potential and force that each Holiday has contained within it.
I will divide each of the Holidays of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, the first month in the Jewish calendar, namely, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, into three different aspects:
- Symbolic commandments, acts and traditions of the day.
- Spiritual essence of the day.
Perhaps by taking a closer look and analysis, someone will uncover a personal connection point to find greater meaning in what it is we’re doing, or supposed to be doing on that day.
A. Rosh Hashana (September 25, 26) [The numbers in parenthesis are the Gregorian dates of the holidays for 2014. The holiday begins from sunset of the day before and ends at nightfall of that day. Every year it falls on different dates]
- Commandments: Rosh Hashana, the two-day holiday celebrating the New Jewish Year has two biblical commands: Not to work on those days and to hear the blasts of the Shofar. During the evening meals of Rosh Hashana, many have the tradition to eat from a variety of foods that symbolize either blessings for us or curses upon our enemies.
- Liturgy: The day-time prayers of Rosh Hashana are longer than usual with the highlight being the Shofar blasts and the Musaf service where we refer to God’s Kingship, His Memory of our Ancestors, and the Shofar.
- Essence: Rosh Hashana is an ideal time for introspection, for review of our acts, accomplishments and misdeeds during the past year and to chart a new, better course for the following year. The liturgy and the Shofar is meant to awaken in us feelings of repentance while acknowledging and crowning God as King over us, His loyal subjects.
B. Yom Kippur (October 4)
- Commandments: Yom Kippur likewise has two commandments: Not to do any work and to fast (which includes no eating, drinking, bathing, using ointments, wearing leather shoes, or having intimate relations). The restrictions of Yom Kippur are considered to be extremely serious and Jewish tradition frowns strongly upon those who violate Yom Kippur.
- Liturgy: The prayers of Yom Kippur are the longest of the year (can’t do anything else anyway, so might as well stay in the synagogue) and provide the congregant with long lists of possible sins that we may have committed and gives us the opportunity to ask forgiveness of God for those sins. This is an essential aspect of repentance. We must acknowledge our sins, whether they are sins we’ve committed against our friends and fellow man, or if they are ritual matters, that according to Rabbinic understanding, God is disappointed if we take his commandments lightly. After we acknowledge the sins, and that they are indeed sins, we need to regret having done them and then resolve ourselves to avoiding them in the future. Repetition, as mentioned above, helps a lot with this process.
- Essence: According to Jewish tradition, the process of fasting and praying on Yom Kippur has the effect of bringing us closer to the level of angels that day. There is a power in the day of Yom Kippur itself to cleanse us of our sins, of our mistakes, of our regrets. But we need to want it. The Jewish way, for more than 3,000 years has been to fast, pray, become spiritual beings for a day, reach to God and connect with him in a fashion that is not possible all the other days of the year. Perhaps for this reason Yom Kippur retains a special place in Jewish consciousness above all other Holidays.
C. Sukkot (October 9 – 15)
- Commandments: There are several:
- To use booths (Sukkot) primarily for eating, for one week.
- To take the Four Species (Lulav, Etrog, Hadas, Arava) and shake them during the appointed times each day of Sukkot.
- Not to work the first two days (October 9, 10) of Sukkot.
- To be happy.
- Liturgy: The prayers of Sukkot are much more joyous. We sing the Hallel. We shake and march with the Four Species. It is a special sight to see a congregation with their green Lulavs all held straight, circling within the synagogue.
- Essence: We have finished with the more serious and somber holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and now it’s time to celebrate! God apparently wants us to celebrate with many commandments and to be actively happy. We do this by gathering in the unique Sukkot which takes us out of the routine of our homes, allows us to bond with friends and neighbors that we wouldn’t have otherwise and gets us off to the start of the new year on the right foot.
D. Simchat Torah (October 16, 17)
- Commandments: Two: Not to work and to be happy. Note: There is absolutely no commandment to drink or get drunk on Simchat Torah (see my article about drinking on Purim) – whoever gets drunk on Simchat Torah (or any other day of the year) is making a grave mistake and has little to no support or basis for this from Jewish sources.
- Liturgy: Very similar to the liturgy of Sukkot, plus there is the added traditions of the completion of the cycle of reading the Torah and the celebration of that event.
- Essence: The essence of the day of Simchat Torah is the incredible love God has for the Jewish people. He doesn’t want to be separated from the closeness that has been engendered by these weeks of holidays and being close to Him. In addition we have both the completion and the immediate restart of the cycle of reading the Torah – God’s instruction guide for living and succeeding in His world. We should cherish this last day of His close embrace, until the next encounter.
“Not to work”. You may have noticed that this is a recurring theme/commandment. It is something that many people take lightly in our day and age. I will address two aspects of this prohibition. One is the restriction on what we’ll call creative actions, which include the direct manipulation of electricity. I won’t get into further details of this aspect of the prohibition of what we call “work”.
The other aspect of “work” is what is more commonly understood as work for gain, whether it is as an employee or a company or a store owner. This type of work is likewise prohibited on the Sabbath and Holidays. Furthermore, traditional belief is that whoever works on these days will see no blessing in that work.
Whoever believes that whatever financial gains he receives is completely due to his direct efforts is a person of limited faith in God. We need to make reasonable efforts to make a living. However, if we believe that ultimately God is the one who is providing us with our sustenance and success, then it makes no sense to go against the rules and wishes of the ultimate Boss. This may be difficult for many people to either believe or understand, especially if they, and their parents before them, spent a lifetime ignoring such directives – and saw material success.
I promise you this, however. Those people who find ways to abstain from working on the Sabbath and the Holidays, will find blessings in their lives, their families and their work. Those who ignore our ancient directives on so important a matter will reap what they sow.
For anyone wanting advice, strategies, solutions on how to reduce and cut out work on the Sabbath and Holidays, please feel free to contact me.
In closing, I hope that each of you individually, your families, our entire community and the entire Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora will be inscribed in the Book of Life, in the Book of Good Health, in the Book of Good Livelihood, in the Book of Great Success and in the Book of Great Joy. Amen!