Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

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...

  • Blogs Book Reviews Can ‘Islamic Reformation’ Work? (REVIEW)

    Can ‘Islamic Reformation’ Work? (REVIEW)

    It is cocktail hour on an April afternoon in 2004. The sun is hot on Amsterdam’s canals, and I am sitting at Café den Leeuw on the Herengracht with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Hirsi Ali is still a member of the Dutch Parliament, and we talk about Islam. Specifically, we talk about the concept of “moderate Islam,” or what she calls “liberal Islam.” And she has one word for it. “It’s absurd,” she says. “It’s complete nonsense. There is no ‘liberal […]

    Read more →
  • Food Jewish Identity A Look at the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (REVIEW)

    A Look at the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook (REVIEW)

    Everybody knows that cooking varies from country to country. There are Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants, etc. We associate different styles of cuisine with different languages. Do we also think of the association of different cuisines with different dialects? We should, because cooking also varies from region to region. Litvaks and Galitsyaners have their own traditions of preparing gefilte fish. Marvin I. Herzog, in his book The Yiddish Language in Northern Poland: Its Geography and History (Indiana University, Bloomington, and Mouton & Co., The […]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Analysis: Jewish Women Less Likely Than Catholics to Take Husband’s Name

    Analysis: Jewish Women Less Likely Than Catholics to Take Husband’s Name

    An analysis of New York Times wedding announcements showed that women married in Jewish ceremonies were less likely to take their husband’s last names than those married in Roman Catholic ceremonies, the Times reported on Saturday. The largest gap between the two groups was in 1995 when 66 percent of Catholic women took their husband’s names and 33 percent of Jewish women did the same. Nearly half of the women featured in the publication’s wedding pages since 1985 took their husband’s name after marriage, while about […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Jerry Lewis, Legendary Jewish Comic and Humanitarian, Stays Relevant at 89

    Jerry Lewis, Legendary Jewish Comic and Humanitarian, Stays Relevant at 89

    JNS.org – Through appreciation of both his comedy and humanitarian work, legendary Jewish entertainer Jerry Lewis is staying relevant at age 89. The only comic to ever be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Lewis added another award to his trophy case in April, when he received the 2015 Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). Gordon Smith, NAB’s president and CEO, said the organization was “honored to recognize not only [Lewis’s] comedic innovation, but also his remarkable […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Sports Israeli Gymnasts Win Bronze, Silver Medals at 2015 European Games in Baku

    Israeli Gymnasts Win Bronze, Silver Medals at 2015 European Games in Baku

    Israeli athletes marked a successful day on Sunday, as gymnasts won multiple bronze and silver medals in the 2015 European Games in Baku. The Gymnastics team won two silver medals and one bronze in group events, while Neta Rivkin, an Israeli Olympic gymnast, won bronze for the Solo Hoops event. Sunday’s gymnastics wins follow Sergey Richter’s bronze on June 16 for the Men’s 10 meter air-rifle, and Ilana Kratysh’s silver for women’s freestyle wrestling. The 2015 European Games in Baku are […]

    Read more →
  • Theater Report Highlights Success of Russian-Jewish-American Ballroom Dancers

    Report Highlights Success of Russian-Jewish-American Ballroom Dancers

    Russian-American Jews are some of the most successful ballroom dancing competitors in the U.S., South Dakota Public Broadcasting (SDPB) Radio reported on Thursday. Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University, said their success can be traced back to Jewish discrimination in the former Soviet Union. Because of the prejudice they faced, Russian Jews had to perform better than their peers in every field, including dancing, in order to have a chance of getting ahead. “They knew that if they […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Dancer With Shofar, Prayer Shawl Wows ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Judges (VIDEO)

    Israeli Dancer With Shofar, Prayer Shawl Wows ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Judges (VIDEO)

    An Israeli dancer made use of Jewish props in an extraordinary routine that left judges amazed when he auditioned for season 12 of TV dance competition So You Think You Can Dance on Monday. At first, the panel of judges appeared confused when Asaf Goren, 23, began his audition in Los Angeles with a tallit (prayer shawl) over his head and the blowing of a shofar, which he explained “opens the sky” for people’s prayers. However, as soon as he started his “Hebrew breaking” performance, […]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Jewish Hoops Fairytale Falls Short as David Blatt’s Cavaliers Drop Game 6

    Jewish Hoops Fairytale Falls Short as David Blatt’s Cavaliers Drop Game 6

    JNS.org – A fairytale ending to Jewish basketball coach David Blatt’s first season in the National Basketball Association (NBA) was not meant to be, as the Blatt-led Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night dropped Game 6 of the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors, 105-97, to lose the best-of-seven series 4-2. Blatt, who just last year coached Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv franchise to a European basketball championship, failed to finish a second straight hoops season on top. But after the Cavaliers began the NBA […]

    Read more →