Jewish community marks Days of Awe high holidays


POSTED: Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jews all over the world, including those on these Hawaiian Islands, are preparing to observe and commemorate the Jewish High Holidays, the Days of Awe.

Although many people know something about the long days of praying in the synagogue on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and the 25-hour day of fasting on Yom Kippur, there is more to be said for the total experience of the Days of Awe.

The core of the holidays is the period from Rosh Hashana, which occurs on the first and second day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei—sundown Sept. 18 to sundown Sept. 20—to Yom Kippur on the 10th day of Tishrei—sundown Sept. 27 to sundown Sept. 28.

For me and many others, these inspiring days really stretch from the first of the Hebrew month of Elul, which was Aug. 21, all the way to Simchat Torah Oct. 11, the beginning of the yearlong cycle of reading the Torah starting with Genesis. During the month of Elul we prepare for the awesome tasks before us. We listen to or blow the shofar—ram's horn—every day, almost as a spiritual wake-up call to repent. We add the chanting of Psalm 27 to our morning prayers.

We begin a period of deep introspection where we are more diligent about forgiving and more focused about raising our awareness to the ways that we have gone astray during the past year.

We begin to look again for ways to be more holy. The month leading up to Rosh Hashana, which means head of the year, is a time to gird up for an internal spiritual housecleaning. We prepare to stand before God to ask forgiveness for lapsing in our observances of his laws, which we can only do after we have righted the wrongs we have done to our fellow humans. We ask forgiveness from them and from ourselves for mistakes, omissions and hurtfulness. We endeavor to start the New Year with a clean slate.

At Rosh Hashana we observe a ritual tradition called tashlich. It involves symbolically “;casting off”; the sins of the previous year by tossing pieces of bread into a body of flowing water. This happens locally at places like Magic Island or Nuuanu Stream. The purpose of this ceremony is to facilitate our desire to do “;teshuva,”; to return to God. While tossing the crumbs of bread, I am aware of my transgressions and need to be keenly aware that I am still a child of mitzvah, commandment, but a possessor of transgression.

I know that I am a good person who will not become perfect in the next 10 days. As I consciously unburden my sins, I can say to God, “;I am a better person than I was last year. And if You give me the chance, I'll be a better person next year than I was this year.”; By letting go of the burden of transgressions, I am more open to the joys that the holidays have to bring. I can savor the traditional sweet foods such as apples with honey and round challah bread filled with raisins.

I can especially appreciate the sounds of the holiday service. The music of the high holidays is unique and very special. Although we may sing or chant some of the same songs and prayers during the year, the musical mode is now mostly in a minor key. These melodies which are also used for songs and prayers unique to the high holidays are a musical partner to our process of introspection. They are haunting and uplifting at the same time.

There have been some Days of Awe where I could literally feel the words and the notes drift deep into my being and almost physically lift my feet off the floor. They carry me from the time on Rosh Hashana, when the Book of Life is opened and inscribed, to Yom Kippur when the book is sealed.

Chatima Tova—may we all be sealed well for 5770.


Naomi “;Ami”; Olstein is administrative director of The School of Jewish Studies at Temple Emanu-El and a board member of Congregation Sof Ma'arav.