High Holy Days ends with Yom Kippur
Jennifer Lee Preyss
Oct. 7, 2011 at 5:07 a.m.
During a sunset service at B'nai Temple Israel in Victoria 10 days ago, a Jewish congregation of about 40 gathered to celebrate the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah.
Donning a white rabbinical robe, prayer shawl and yarmulke, Rabbi Shira Lander greeted congregation members with warm, "Happy New Year" wishes.
As members filed in the pews for worship, she led the group in prayer.
"I ask forgiveness, oh God, from you and all the members of our congregation, those who are here and those who are not," Lander prayed. "I apologize to those I might have harmed, whose sorrow I did not respond to, whose quest I did not share, whose need I did not notice. I will try my best to avoid these pit falls in the year to come, and only then will I come to you, oh God, for forgiveness."
The observance of Rosh Hashanah kicks off High Holy Days in the Jewish faith, a 10-day period of self-reflection and repentance before The Day of Judgment, or Yom Kippur.
Rosh Hashanah celebrations are observed the first two days of the Tishrei, or the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. The 10-day-long observance that follows is considered the holiest time of year in Judaism.
"Our prayers reflect both celebration and joy at the nature of the holiday and the nature of getting back in touch with God, returning back to God and getting back on the path that God has intended for us. So that's a joyful side of the holiday," Lander said, discussing High Holy Days' mix of solemnity and celebration during the week. "And then reflecting on the ways we've fallen short is one of the more challenging aspects of the holiday."
Discussing some of the traditional Rosh Hashanah customs, Lander said, "We celebrate new things. So, we eat apples with honey, which is a sweet thing, and pomegranates, which usually people don't eat on a regular basis, so it's a new fruit. And we say a blessing about celebrating the newness of the New Year."
Another Rosh Hashanah tradition is blowing the shofar, or ram's horn, in a sequence of short blasts.
Dr. Gary Branfman, a member of Temple B'nai, is the congregation's official shofar blower, he said.
"I have a particular shofar that I like to use," he said. "I'll practice a few days before the service."
Rosh Hashanah is an important holiday for Jewish followers because they believe God hands downs a judgment for their life on the Jewish New Year, which is solidified on Yom Kippur. The Ten Days of Repentance from the New Year until Yom Kippur are an opportunity to alter the judgment before God signs their fate into the book of life for the coming year.
Jewish followers spend High Holy days atoning for the sins of the previous year, and the sins they may commit in the coming year, and reaching out to others they may have wronged throughout the year to make amends.
"It's like preemptive atonement," Branfman said. "I'm not sure that exists in any other religion."
Even though much of the time leading up to Yom Kippur is spent in quiet reflection with God, Lander said many Jewish followers participate in special services throughout the week, such as Tashlikh.
"We take bread down to a river and toss crumbs into the water," Lander said. "It's symbolic of a casting off of sins."
The Thursday following Rosh Hashanah, Branfman opened his home to the community and led six members of the congregation down to the river behind his home.
Lander read from the Torah and led the group in song.
"Cast away from yourselves all your transgressions, and create within yourselves a new heart and a new spirit," she read.
After taking a moment for quiet reflection, members of the group tore pieces of wheat hot dog buns in their hands, and hurled the crumbs in the river.
"It's certainly something I look forward to every year," Branfman said. "It helps me regroup."
Another common practice during High Holy Days is to lay rocks on the tombstones of deceased friends and family.
Lander suggested the tradition of laying stones during High Holy Days may be attached to an ancient Jewish belief that spirits of the deceased could assist Jewish followers with atoning for their sins.
At the Jewish cemetery in Victoria on Monday, Branfman joined his 14-year-old daughter, Hannah Branfman, to lay rocks on his mother, Dorrise Branfman's, gravesite.
Gently setting two hand-sized stones at the peak of his mother's headstone, Branfman uttered a gentle, "Hi Mom."
In Jewish culture, it's customary to leave rocks at gravesites rather than flowers, because they do not die, Branfman said.
"It lets others know that someone has been here to honor their family," Branfman said. "You'll notice that Jewish cemeteries never have flowers."
Branfman said visiting his mother's gravesite isn't mournful, and often he'll bring a book and spend time at the gravesite reading on a stone bench behind the tombstone.
"She spent her last three months in our home as she was becoming terminal. And sometimes, I don't realize that she's dead. Like I'll walk to the kitchen and expect her to be there," he said, smiling. "And definitely, this time of year (I think of her) ... because when we were kids, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah was a major ordeal. If we ate during the fast, we'd get punished for the rest of our lives. We'd never be able to eat again."
Becky Fogle, a member of Temple B'nai and longtime friend of Branfman, also attended the cemetery to lay stones on the headstones.
"I don't lay stones on any one (tombstone) in particular. Sometimes it's just comforting to visit the gravesites and see that people go out there and visit their loved ones," Fogle, 24, said. "It's nice to see you're not the only one."
Concluding the Ten Days of Repentance is Yom Kippur, which began Friday night at sundown. Jews customarily fast from food, liquids, marital relations, alcohol and other unholy practices. Temple services - worship, prayer and memorial - are also held throughout the day on Yom Kippur.
"You're pretty much in temple service Friday night and all of Saturday," Fogle said.
Just before sundown, a Break-the-Fast meal is held at the temple, concluding High Holy Days until the following year.
"The worst part is you're sitting in services and you start smelling all the foods in the kitchen. It's excruciating because you've been fasting all day," Fogle said laughing. "I eat a lot of kugel, which is my favorite. We have bagels and cream cheese, tuna fish and lox and couple of different dishes."
Fogle said High Holy Days have taken on a new meaning for her this year because she's been consciously trying to live the principles of the holiday throughout the year.
"Some things in my own life have happened this year that have made me want to feel closer to God year round, not just during this time," she said. "But this is just a different celebration period. It's not just about reflection, it's the true New Year, so it's a happy time. It's just you and God. And I feel pretty good about that."