A crisis often exposes what is important in life. In normal times our actions are guided by inertia as often as intention. We do things because that is always the way we have done them. But when we face a challenge we have to decide what is critical and must be preserved at all costs, and what can be done away with. The High Holy Days, transformed by crisis this year, have given us an opportunity to remember and embrace the things that are most precious about this time of year.
Normally we file into synagogues in great numbers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and listen to the themes of the days delivered in song or speech. This year will require a bit more initiative and innovation on everyone’s part. So what are the essential elements of the Days of Awe, and how can we preserve them in authentic, but new and meaningful ways?
The mitzvot, or obligations, of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are actually quite simple. On both holidays we are required to light candles in the evening and say the proscribed prayers, but of course we are obliged to pray three times every day of the year. The liturgy of these days has built up over the years, but many of the piyyutim, the poetry, are included as custom and not required. On Rosh Hashanah there is a special Kiddush over wine or grape juice and we are obligated to hear the shofar blown. On Yom Kippur we don’t eat, drink, wear leather shoes, bathe, apply lotions, or engage in sexual relations.
When you think about it, the mitzvot of the High Holy Days are pretty modest and are summarized in the above paragraph. If you simply do those things, you have fulfilled your obligations. The various customs, tickets, ushers, security, flowers, etc. have been added over the years for all kinds of reasons, but aren’t necessary to the holidays.
Of course there is more to the Days of Awe than their mitzvot. We also must seriously consider our actions this past year and try to do better. This process of teshuvah requires us to reconnect with God and the people around us, which is a major challenge in a year like this where so many of us feel cut off and isolated.
We are used to doing most of the mitzvot of the High Holy Days in synagogue, but there is no reason they must take place there. One can pray anywhere; the shofar can be blown at home. If you are not able to go to synagogue, you can still tune in to services at home, but it’s important to think about creating an inviting space for prayer in your house. How will you enhance your intention through the clothes you wear, the scents you smell, the objects you see around you?
Rather than extremes of wearing workout clothes or the suit and tie you are used to wearing on the High Holy Days, consider finding a special, but comfortable outfit that reflects the mood of reflection. Set up the space where you are streaming with Judaica and pictures of family and friends. Try to reduce distractions by removing or covering your keyboard or mouse to prevent you from surfing the web during the service. The Rabbinical Assembly also has a helpful guide in making your Zoom experience Shabbat and Yom Tov friendly.
The High Holy Days are usually thought of as synagogue holidays, but this was not always the case. In the Talmud, the sage Abaye mentions important symbolic foods on Rosh Hashanah, and these became a seder, in the mode of Passover, in the Sefardic and Mizrachi traditions. The Rabbinical Assembly has a beautiful new haggadah to help bring some of the important themes and customs into our homes. May these new (to some) rituals bring us closer to the essence of our most power of days.