Teshuvah – Repentance
Teshuvah – repentance is the central theme of this Yomim Noraim period that begins with Rosh Hashana and concludes ten days later on Yom Kippur. It is a period of introspection and self-improvement with the goal of living a more diligent life in our relationship with God and in our relationship with other people. According to Maimonides, teshuvah is a three step process. It is first necessary to recognize that certain past actions or behaviors are inappropriate. This is known as hakarat hacheit — recognition of a sinful act. Following this step is vidui, a verbal declaration of our wrongdoings, and finally, kabbala l’atid – a resolution not to repeat this act in the future. Only through such a process are we able to effect a change in behavior. Although teshuvah is a process that can be invoked throughout the year, it is particularly effective during these ten days that were the historical climax of Moses’ receiving the second set of tablets from God, thereby securing His divine forgiveness. All of the external actions and ritual that occur during this time of year are intended to motivate us to evaluate ourselves and to change for the better.
The beginning of our year is marked by many customs that symbolically reflect the meaning of these special days. Although there is a great emphasis on the synagogue service, there are many beautiful customs to be practiced at home as well.
On Erev Rosh HaShana, after davenning that morning, we gather together for hatarat nedarim, the nullification of vows or commitments we might have inadvertently made during the year. If this cannot be done Erev Rosh HaShana, it should be done as soon as possible, and may be done even after Yom Kippur. Many men also have the custom of going to the Mikvah on erev Rosh Hashana as part of their spiritual preparation.
Particular attention should be paid to the changes in the davenning that are customary during this time of the year. In addition to the beautiful and meaningful tefilot of Rosh Hashana itself, the changes during the week (hamelech hakadosh, hamelech hamishpat and the various additions) require great attention because of our nature as creatures of habit.
The sounding of the shofar is a mitzvah that begins when the first blasts are sounded, approximately 10:30 am, and concludes with the last sounds at the end of davenning. Every effort should be made to be in synagogue for the beginning of the sounding of the shofar, in order to properly fulfill this important mitzvah. If you know someone who is home-bound or otherwise unable to be in shul for shofar, please let the synagogue office know and we will try to accommodate them.
Although the Torah allows us to cook and bake on Yom Tov, that food preparation is only allowed for the food being used that day. One is not permitted to prepare foods on Yom Tov for Shabbat (or for any other day). Therefore, if the holiday falls on Friday (or on Thursday and Friday, as is often the case in the Diaspora), one may not prepare on Yom Tov for Shabbat unless an Eruv Tavshilin has been made.
The preparation of this Eruv Tavshilin indicates that the preparation for Shabbat actually began before Yom Tov commenced, and it is only continuing on Yom Tov. This maintains both the sanctity of Yom Tov as well as meeting the needs of the sanctity of Shabbat. The eiruv food is set aside before the holiday begins and then eaten on Shabbat (preferably for Seudah Shlishit).
This ritual of Eruv Tavshilin is performed on Erev Yom Tov, before Yom Tov begins. Take a roll or piece of matzah (or any baked food) together with a cooked food (such as an egg, a piece of chicken, or fish) and set it aside to be eaten on Shabbat. While setting it aside, recite the bracha which is found in any siddur as well as the paragraph that follows the bracha. If one forgets to set aside an Eiruv Tavshilin, one of the rabbis should be consulted. An Eiruv Tavshilin should be prepared before Rosh Hashana begins, as well as before the first and last days of Sukkot.
Candles are lit to usher in the festival and the blessing for Yom Tov is followed by shehechiyanu. Kiddush for Yom Tov is recited, and after the washing of the hands, motzi is made over two round challahs. The tradition of using round, sweet challahs instead of the usual ones reminds us of the cycle and fragility of human life. The honey that we spread on the challah tells us that our lives can be sweetened by the affirmation of Jewish values and beliefs.
In addition to the round challahs, a number of other special foods are eaten on Rosh Hashana. The most traditional among these is the eating of an apple dipped in honey. Following the motzi and eating from the challah it is customary to recite a blessing over a piece of apple dipped in honey (borei pri ha’eitz), and after taking a bite, to say these words about the new year: “May it be Your Will, O God, that the upcoming year be renewed with goodness and sweetness.” In addition to the apple and honey, many have the custom of eating various foods whose names in Hebrew correspond to expressions of hope for the coming year. A list of these foods and their respective sayings can be found in most sidurim or mach¬zorim. Some have the custom of eating particularly sweet foods and avoiding bitter foods on these days. There are also those who have the custom of not sleeping Rosh Hashana day, cognizant of our being judged by God that day. This applies in shul during the drasha as well (in all the years that this line has appeared in Scope, no one has ever commented on it. Strange?).
On the second night it is customary to wear a new garment and to have it in mind when reciting the shehechiyanu. Some also try to eat a new fruit that evening as well.
On the first day of Rosh Hashana, it is customary to gather together in the afternoon on the banks of a river or some other natural body of water to symbolically cast off our sins and to say the special prayers found in the Machzor. Even though this mystical custom has found great acceptance, the potential for harm is great as well, especially if this gathering would lead to new transgressions of lashon hara and gossip. The custom of throwing bread into the water to “throw our sins away,” has no basis in Halacha, and might actually violate the prohibition of feeding animals that don’t belong to you. Despite its popularity it should be avoided.
Fast of Gedalyah
We observe this fast in memory of Gedalyah ben Achikam, the governor of Jerusalem following the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. Gedalyah’s assassination was the final blow to the self governance of the Jewish people in this post-Temple time, and, as such, a reminder of the impact of that destruction.