Approaching the High Holy Days as Jews…or as People

September 2, 2012 12:26 pm 0 comments

Shofar at demonstration for Israel in Prague, 2009. Photo: Martin Kozák.

The start of the Jewish New Year, the month of Tishrei, is filled with holy days, among them four foundational celebrations: Rosh haShanah, Yom haKippurim, Sukkot and Simchat Torah-Shemini Atzeret. They are as different from one another as possible. Yet, we may also think of all four holidays as two pairs of two. The first two– the day of memory and accounting and the day of atonement – are awe-inspiring and grave compared with the last two festivals, which are days of joy.

At the same time, the first three holidays do have a common denominator:  as much as these are Jewish holidays, they carry a universal message.  Here, embedded within them, are three of humanity’s cardinal touchstones:  accounting and judgment; mercy and atonement; and the joy of life.

These attributes and qualities are essential to the lives of every human being. We mark the New Year by commemorating creation on the one hand, and celebrating the Kingship of the Lord on the other. Both creation and God’s sovereignty pertain to all humankind and are not specifically Jewish.

The Day of Atonement, too, is relevant to every human being. Life is full of mistakes and transgressions. Without atonement it would be unbearable to go on living with the unresolved and painful pieces of our past.

Sukkot, at first glance, seems to be far more connected with Jewish history. Yet, at its essence, this holiday is actually a festival of thanksgiving for what we have. We acknowledge the tranquility in our lives and express our gratitude for Divine gifts.  Moreover, our sages teach us that during Sukkot — in the days of the Holy Temple – 70 bulls were offered to God in the name of the 70 nations of the world. As the prophet Zachariah foretells, in the days to come it is on Sukkot that all the peoples of the world will come as pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem (14:16-21).

This combination of the particular and the universal is not just one more interesting point: it is the key for understanding the meaning of these three holidays.  In all our other celebrations, and perhaps in Jewish religious life in general, we stress the specificity of Jewish existence. Most of our holidays and memorial days are deeply connected with our own history.

In Tishrei, however, we focus on our fundamental humanity, on the fact that we are human beings with great problems. In this context, humanity is not defined as a group of human beings; here we speak of our basic humanity — humanity as a quality. The very touchstones that we mark in Tishrei are what make us human. The essence of the universality of these holidays, then, is not in the point of sharing with others: it is in delving into ourselves in order to reveal and find some of the fundamentals of our existence. We explore and acknowledge what is universal to all humankind within our own selves.

The fourth and last of the holidays of the month of Tishrei, Shemini Atzeret (and with it Simchat Torah), stands in clear contrast to the first three. As beautifully depicted by our sages, the King made great banquet, to which he invited all the citizens of his realm. At the end of these feasts, he called his most beloved friend and said: now that all these big events are over, let us have a small banquet just for the two of us (tractate Sukkah 55b).

Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is a world-renowned distinguished scholar, teacher, mystic and social critic. He has written over 60 books and hundreds of articles on the Talmud, Kabbalah and Chasidut. His works have been translated into English, Russian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese. Rabbi Steinsaltz has been on a life-long mission to make the Talmud accessible to all. His translations of the Talmud into Hebrew, French and Russian have sold more than a million copies. The first volume of the new Koren Talmud Bavli with Rabbi Steinsaltz’s English translation and commentary is available through the publisher and Amazon. The Koren Talmud iPad Appwill be available soon. November 18th is the Third Annual Global Day of Jewish Learning, a program spearheaded by Rabbi Steinsaltz to bring the study of Jewish texts to communities around the world.

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot is in negotiations to take on the female lead role in the remake of the 1959 classic Ben-Hur, according to The Hollywood Reporter. If the deal is finalized Gadot will play Esther, a slave and Ben-Hur’s love interest. Actor Jack Huston will star as the Jewish prince who is betrayed into slavery by his childhood friend Messala, played by Toby Kebbell. Ben-Hur fights for his freedom and vengeance with the help of Morgan Freeman’s character, who trains Ben-Hur how to win at chariot-racing. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    JNS.org – Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie are the American dream. So why do two young men who have built their lives in Israel have a GoFundMe crowd-funding webpage with the urgent message that they need $3,000 to travel to the U.S. to watch the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles square off for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League championship? Brothers Naftali and Yoni Schwartz, 27 and 25, respectively, are Kansas City natives. Even though they made aliyah with their [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Some 3,000 years ago, King David probably never imagined cars racing at 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) through the ancient capital of the Jewish people. But on Monday and Tuesday, October 6-7, thousands of Israelis lined the streets to watch Porsche, Audi, and Ferrari race cars fly through the capital against the backdrop of the Tower of David, the Old City Walls, and other city landmarks. The second annual non-competitive Jerusalem Formula One Road Show had been [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James expressed interest in visiting Israel someday, local news site Cleveland.com reported on Sunday. Speaking to Israeli reporters before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason debut against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the NBA star said he had never visited the Jewish state but “I want to look forward to going there if I get an opportunity to.” When asked by an Israeli reporter if there was “any chance that LeBron James and Cleveland comes to Tel Aviv,” the athlete said [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    A Florida-based Chabad rabbi put former basketball star, U.S. Congressman Curt Clawson to shame on the court when the two faced off one-on-one recently. A YouTube video, posted online on Tuesday, shows Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples shooting hoops with the Florida politician, who played basketball in high school and at Purdue University in Indiana. The game took place in the parking lot of the Chabad Jewish center run by Zaklos. During the 1-minute clip, Zaklos scores two impressive [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    JNS.org – Less than five months after leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to its sixth European basketball title, David Blatt, now the head coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, routed his former team in an exhibition game on Sunday, with the Cavaliers dominating Maccabi 107-80 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The 20,562 fans in attendance witnessed Lebron James’s first appearance in a Cavaliers uniform since he left the club in free agency for the Miami Heat four years ago. [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Jewish New York Giants Guard Plans to Fast on Yom Kippur

    Jewish New York Giants Guard Plans to Fast on Yom Kippur

    New York Giants offensive guard Geoff Schwartz said on Wednesday that he will not eat anything between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday in observation of Yom Kippur, ESPN reported. “If I was playing, I wouldn’t fast, because I’ve got to be able to fuel myself to play,” said the Jewish athlete, who is on short-term leave due to a toe injury. “But it’s not that tough, really. I’ll eat dinner at 5:00 Friday, then I’ll go to services and I’ll just [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Personalities How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    How a Jewish Leader With 3 Months to Live Created a ‘Seminar’ on Life

    JNS.org – What would you do if you found out that you had only three more months to live? Gordon Zacks was a successful businessman, a leader of Jewish life, and a confidante and adviser to President George H.W. Bush. He knew that he had prostate cancer, but doctors advised him that it was very slow-growing and nothing to worry about. Then came the day when the doctors told him his cancer metastasized to his liver, and that he had [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.