Today we talked about the cycle of holidays we celebrate in the fall, the High Holy Day Cycle.
First and foremost, this cycle of holidays is about bringing our lives into alignment with our best and highest selves. To get there, we engage in the process of teshuvah [repentance]. To learn more about teshuvah, check out my article Teshuvah for Beginners.
The cycle begins with a month of quiet preparation. Elul is the last month in the Jewish year. During that month we think about the parts of our life that are out of whack: relationships, behaviors, and attitudes. What needs adjustment? We apologize when appropriate, and implement changes. The readings in synagogue can help us with this. Also, if we attend daily services, we will hear the shofar, the ram’s horn, which will “wake up our hearts.”
Rosh Hashanah [literally, "the head of the year"] is the Jewish New Year. It falls on the first of Tishrei, on the new moon. It is both a joyful and a solemn day: joyful to celebrate the New Year with sweet foods like apples and honey, and solemn because it reminds us that we do not have unlimited years.
Rosh Hashanah begins the ten Days of Awe, the Yamim Noraim, which is an intense time of teshuvah and reflection. If we have apologies to make, now’s the time. If we need to do something about change, it’s the time. It’s also a time to listen to apologies from others, and to “check in” with loved ones to see if there’s anything we need to hear.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls on the 10th of Tishrei. It’s a day of fasting and prayer, often spent all day in the synagogue. We remember the ancient temple practice, but we also work on our very modern issues. It’s the most solemn day of the Jewish Year. For more information, here’s an article about fasting on Yom Kippur.
After Yom Kippur, the mood lifts. We spend the time between then and the full moon to build a sukkah (or to assist friends in building a community sukkah.) What’s a sukkah? It’s a small temporary dwelling set up so that we can eat and perhaps sleep — mostly so that we can spend time with friends, enjoying our mended relationships and cementing friendships with new acquaintences. It started as a harvest holiday, but it is also a reward for the hard work of the preceding weeks.
We also “wave the lulav” a bouquet of branches and fruit, waving it to all corners of the compass as well as heaven and earth, locating ourselves in the natural world. We are part of creation. Think of the Feast of Sukkot as a Jewish Earth Week — because yes, it goes on for a week!
Finally, we close the season with Simchat Torah, “The Joy of the Torah.” It’s a grand celebration of the Torah Scroll itself. We finish reading the scroll (which contains the books from Genesis to Deuteronomy) and begin it again, without taking a breath if possible. We don’t want ever to pause in our study of Torah! Then, when the readings are done, it turns into a Torah Dance Party: Jews dance with the beloved scrolls, all over the world.
So that’s the Fall Holiday Cycle! Next week: Springtime!