Between the Fast and the Feast

The time between Yom Kippur and Sukkot is a bit odd. Virtually the entire Hebrew month of Tishrei is filled with holidays, fasts, observances, and special days which include added prayers or unusual Torah readings. But for the five days from the end of the Day of Atonement until the beginning of the Festival of Booths, the Jewish calendar gives us … regular days. From a liturgical standpoint we continue to recite Psalm 27 and don’t say the Tachanun prayers of supplication, but otherwise our services are fairly normal.

These five days give a blessed reprieve from the deep introspection of the Ten Days of Repentance which open the month, and the upcoming eight days of celebration during Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret/Simhat Torah. For rabbis and cantors, it is a chance to breathe after the non-stop preparation we have been doing since at least the previous month, Elul, began.

The main Jewish activity during these post-Kippur, pre-Sukkot days is preparing for the coming festival. Sukkot requires a lot of work, from acquiring a lulav and etrog to building and decorating a sukkah, to cooking the holiday meals. There are, however, specific traditions that do happen right after Yom Kippur. It is customary to begin building the sukkah immediately after the fast ends. Even if it’s just bringing down some sukkah supplies from the attic or putting together one corner of the structure, the goal is to do something tangible. My teacher Rabbi Miles Cohen writes in his Luah Hashanah: A Guide to Prayers, Readings, Laws, and Customs for the Synagogue and for the Home, “this concrete act symbolizes our firm commitment, expressed throughout Yom Kippur, to build mitsvot into our everyday lives.”

Another tradition that comes right after Yom Kippur is Kiddush Levana, the blessing of the moon. Each month we go outside and offer a blessing for seeing the recurrence of our close celestial neighbor. The blessing is made when the moon is waxing, from the 4th to the 14th day of the Hebrew month, but during Tishrei, it is recited only after Yom Kippur (the 10th day of the month) because the Ten Days of Repentance are not considered appropriate for the blessing. This means that there is a very short window to say Kiddush Levana, especially this year when there is a Shabbat (when the blessing is not said) in between the two holidays.

Kiddush Levana is a simple and lovely service, when we connect ourselves to the cosmos and the community. Just as we look up to the heavens at the beginning of the ritual, at the end we greet each other with the words shalom aleichem and sing siman tov umazal tov (“may [the moon] be a good and lucky omen for us and all of Israel, amen”).

One interesting aspect of the service is the custom of hopping three times while saying, “Just as I dance opposite you [the moon] and cannot touch you, so may my enemies be unable to touch me for harm.” This line raises the question of whether we should say it now that human beings have reached the moon. In a discussion of the problem, one person cheekily wrote, “If a Jewish astronaut went to the Moon and happened to be there at the right time for kiddush levana, it’d probably be a good idea for him to alter the words. And also to take half-hearted jumps, so he won’t end up too far away.”

This week, Louis Keene in the Forward, wrote about the problem with Kiddush Levana in Tishrei – it keeps you from getting to your break-fast. In traditional synagogues, the ritual is performed right after the evening service, and so it delays people from eating. Keene describes the groans from the congregation when someone shouts “Kiddush Levana!”, reminding everyone that there is one more ritual keeping them from their bagel and lox. But there was some relief for the hungry this year, at least here in New Jersey. You can’t say the blessing without actually seeing the moon in the sky, so a cloudy and rainy night here meant a delay in the ceremony and a quicker access to the buffet.

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