** Warning: If you take religion or yourself seriously, you probably won’t want to read this blog post.**
The Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur are this week. Caring friends wanted to acknowledge the holiday and offer heartfelt wishes, but I could tell they were a bit uncomfortable and self-conscious. They weren’t sure what to say.
During one phone call last week my friend said, “Happy (long pause)… which holiday is this?”
I replied, “It’s Rosh Hoshanah – the Jewish New Year.”
“Is that one of the happy holidays?” my friend asked, still unsure of how she should acknowledge the holiday.
“Yes, it’s a happy holiday,” I said.
“Is this the holiday where you eat or don’t eat?” she asked tentatively.
“We eat for this one, but not the one next week – Yom Kippur.” I was appreciative that she was interested.
“What are you supposed to say to someone for this holiday?” she asked trying to do the right thing.
“Saying Happy New Year is totally appropriate.” I replied. “If you really want to impress someone, you can say L’Shana Tovah.”
My friends may have been confused about the holiday, but they offered their wishes with love and I am happy to accept any kind sentiments given to me. After the phone conversation, I realized that many people who aren’t Jewish, and most aren’t, don’t know what to say to their Jewish friends. I feel it is important to take this opportunity to give my non-Jewish friends and readers a concise guide to the Jewish High Holidays. Keep in mind I am not a rabbi or a religious scholar. Heck, I didn’t even have a bat mitzvah. This knowledge just comes from a lifetime of being Jewish and interpreting the rules on my own.
All Jewish holidays begin at sundown on the day before it is marked on our calendars. Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur always occur in the fall; some years in early September, other years it could be as late as mid October, or it could be any time in between. Jewish holidays are based on the dates and months in a Jewish calendar which does not exactly coordinate with the calendar the rest of the world uses. This is why all Jewish holidays seem to pop up unexpectedly – even to the Jews.
If you are writing to a Jewish friend to wish them a happy holiday, never worry about spelling the name of the holiday. Names of the holidays are Hebrew words and when Hebrew sounds are converted to English letters, it is a phonetic free for all. No one can agree on spellings of the Jewish holidays. One website listed 2 different spellings for Rosh Hoshanah and 13 for Hanukkah. In my family, we all spell the holidays differently. So, if you spell it incorrectly in a card or an e-mail, have no fear; we’ll just assume it’s a variation we haven’t seen before. You can’t go wrong with a rule like that.
Supermarkets don’t understand the Jewish holidays either. You would think they have someone on staff who is Jewish and knows what to do, but judging from the displays, they don’t. Every time a Jewish holiday approaches, a small, pitiful display appears at the end of an aisle. It has every Jewish related food item in the store. If the label says Israel, Manischewitz, Streit’s or Hebrew National, it winds up on this one, lonely shelf. There are Hanukkah candles out during Rosh Hoshannah. Matzoh and gefilte fish, which are eaten at Passover, make an appearance on the shelf for every holiday. Nothing says Jewish holiday like shelf-stable, ground fish meatballs suspended in gelatinous goo. Please, supermarket managers of the world, that stuff is bad enough at Passover, don’t haul it out for every other holiday. After seeing this Kosher faux pas in every supermarket we have ever shopped in, my husband and I have come to the conclusion that there is a grocery manager in each store who says, “There’s a Jewish holiday coming up. I don’t know which one it is. Put out all the Jewish food and other items we have. The Jews will know what to do.”
Rosh Hoshanah is the Jewish new year and the beginning of the High Holidays – the holiest days of the year. This is a happy holiday and we celebrate by eating sweet foods like apples and honey, not gefilte fish. By eating these sweet foods we hope to have a sweet year ahead of us. Challah, the traditional, braided, egg bread, is made into a round shape this time of year to signify the circle of life. (Feel free to sing the Elton John song in your head now.)
Unlike me, observant Jews go to temple to pray and celebrate. In theory, on the evening of Rosh Hoshanah, God opens the Book of Life. Some scholars suggest it is one book. Some say it is 3 separate books: one for the righteous, one for the intermediates and one for the wicked. I prefer to think of it as a very large 3 subject, spiral notebook. After the initial partying of Rosh Hoshanah is over, it is time to get serious. During the 10 days between Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur, God considers each person and decides whose name will be inscribed in the Book to live for another year. The righteous get a free pass and are automatically inscribed in the Book. The vast majority of us are intermediates which means we must spend this 10 day period reflecting on the past year, making amends to anyone we have wronged and asking forgiveness for our sins. God makes the final cut for intermediates at sundown on Yom Kippur. People who fall into the wicked category are permanently omitted from the Book. These folks are shit out of luck and can expect to die in the coming year. To put it in terms that Christians are more familiar with… the Book of Life is similar to Santa’s Naughty and Nice List. Only with the Jews, if you wind up on the Naughty List, the consequences are more dire than getting a lump of coal in your stocking.
Confessing, atoning and repenting is a once a year event for Jews. We don’t attend weekly confessions with a priest like Catholics do. Protestant friends tell me that they can confess on an as needed basis whenever or wherever they may be. My people save up all our sins for a year and seek forgiveness directly from the head of our organization. I’m sure there could be much theological debate over which religion has the most effective sin management system. Are you more or less willing to commit a sin if you atone weekly? If you are only atoning once a year, how do you keep track of the sins you committed 11 months ago? Should you keep a sin journal to help you remember? There’s probably an app for that.
The last day of the High Holidays is Yom Kippur; the final 24 hours that the Book of Life will be open. Procrastinators who’ve saved all their atoning for the last minute are working against a strict deadline. On this solemn and serious holiday Jews are so busy atoning and praying in synagogue to ensure their names are inscribed in the Book, they don’t have time to do anything else.
There are rules for Yom Kippur:
- No eating or drinking
- No anointing or washing of the body
- No working
- You may not partake of anything pleasurable – you know what that means, but if you haven’t anointed or washed you’d be gross anyway
- You may not wear leather shoes. Leather was considered a luxury. Some medieval scholars also suggested that it’s difficult to seek forgiveness when you have the skin of another creature on your feet, even if that skin has been made into some very nice designer shoes.
Being casual Jews, my husband and I loosely interpret these Yom Kippur rules. We firmly adhere to the no anointing or washing of the body rule by not showering and staying in our pajamas all day. No leather shoes, no problem; we spend the day in our slippers which go very nicely with our pajamas. We don’t go to work on Yom Kippur which is good since we haven’t showered and are wearing pajamas and slippers. As for the fasting, we consider ourselves to be good people, not religious, definitely not righteous, but kind people who try to do the right thing. Since we haven’t committed any grievous sins against humanity, we figure we can be done atoning in time for a late lunch – just before the headache sets in from dehydration and hunger.
Once the Book of Life closes at sundown on Yom Kippur, we aren’t notified if we’ve been inscribed. There is a wait and see policy. In the meantime, we go out, live our lives and have a good time. Afterall, we’ve got a whole year until we have to confess our sins again.