Jewish Journal

From Selichot to Simchat Torah

by Lauren Bottner

Posted on Sep. 21, 2011 at 1:37 pm

More than just a series of days on a calendar, or merely an occasion for the obligatory visit to synagogue, the High Holy Days offer a month-long opportunity for self-reflection, communal prayer and ritual that together allow us each to create our own spiritual journey. This page is designed to guide you along that journey in Los Angeles and includes information on when to pray and how to celebrate rituals. You will find local listings of free religious services on Page 35 and even more information online at jewishjournal.com. L’shanah tovah!

Days of Awe: The 10 days starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur are a time for serious introspection, repentance and making amends. One of the themes is the concept of God’s “books,” in which it is decreed who shall live and who shall die. These books are said to be written on Rosh Hashanah, but it is believed that through teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity), we can change our decree. The books are sealed on Yom Kippur. 

Customs: This is a time of year when we seek reconciliation with people we may have wronged during the year, or at any time. According to the Talmud, on Yom Kippur we can atone for sins between ourselves and God, but for our sins against people, we must seek forgiveness from those people and attempt to right any wrongs we may have committed.

Greetings: During this month, and the month before it, we greet each other with “Shanah tovah u’metukah” (Have a happy and sweet New Year), or “L’shanah tovah tikatevu” (May you be inscribed for a good New Year). After Rosh Hashanah and before Yom Kippur, the notion of being sealed in the Book of Life is added: “L’shanah tovah tikatevu v’techatemu” (May you be inscribed and sealed for a good New Year), which is often abbreviated to “G’mar chatima tovah” (May you conclude with a good inscription) or further shortened to “G’mar tov” (May you conclude well).

Sept. 25 (26 Elul)

The Selichot (forgiveness) are special penitential prayers recited throughout the High Holy Days designed to alert us to the significance of the upcoming holy days. Beginning at a midnight service on the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah for Ashkenazim and for the entire month preceding Rosh Hashanah for Sephardim, Selichot are recited each morning until Yom Kippur. The prayers are formed around the “13 Attributes of Mercy,” which describe how God relates to the world:

Merciful God, merciful God, powerful God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and who cleanses (Exodus 34:6-7).

Many synagogues offer Selichot services. Visit jewishjournal.com for links to local listings.

Sept. 28 (29 Elul)
Candle Lighting: Sept. 28 at 6:23 p.m.

Hatarat nedarim/nullification of vows: The hatarat nedarim ceremony is performed to repeal any vows that one has taken upon oneself so that the New Year and Day of Judgment begin free from any sins of unfulfilled vows. The shofar isn’t sounded today, unlike all of the other days of Elul. Orthodox men often visit the mikveh, and many visit cemeteries to pray at the graves of the righteous and to visit their ancestors. 

Blessings for the evenings of Sept. 28 and 29:

1) Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Yom Hazikaron.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to light the candle of the Day of Remembrance.

2) Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu, v’kimanu, v’higianu, lazman hazeh.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.

Rosh Hashanah eve meal (and meal on the night of Rosh Hashanah day 1):

These meals are filled with symbolism, with foods representing our wishes for the upcoming year. Special round challah baked with raisins is dipped in honey to represent a sweet New Year. (Need a New Year’s Pumpkin Challah Recipe? Visit jewishjournal.com/foodaism.)

Apples and honey = good and sweet year.

Local farmers markets sell the freshest apples in the city.

Head of a fish, ram or other animal = “be at the head of the class” this year.

Pomegranate = filled with mitzvot, symbolized by the numerous seeds.

Sephardic Jews use these items and add more foods, which have Hebrew names that suggest wishes for the coming year:

Dates: “to end” = an ending of hatred and conflict with enemies.

Small light-colored beans: “many” and “heart” = that our merits may increase.

Leeks: “to cut” = to cut down the evil around us.

Beets: “to depart” = that our enemies shall depart from us.

Gourd: “to announce” = that our merits be announced before God.

A prayer for each food is recited while holding the item in the right hand immediately before eating. For the specific prayers, visit chabad.org/holidays.

Sept. 29 (1 Tishrei)
Candle Lighting: Sept. 29 at 7:26 p.m.

Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of a new year in the Hebrew calendar, and literally means “head of the year.”

Machzor: Because there are so many unique prayers on Rosh Hashanah, we use a special prayer book called a machzor.

Want to understand the machzor better? The book “Entering the High Holy Days: A Guide to the Origins, Themes, and Prayers” by Reuven Hammer is a good guide.

Torah reading: Genesis 21:1-34; Numbers 29:1-6.

Haftarah: I Samuel 1:1-2:10.

The shofar, a horn from a kosher animal ­(often a ram), is blown after the Torah reading. This fulfills a commandment and serves as a wake-up call to shake us out of our spiritual slumber, reconnect to our source and recommit to our divine mission in this world. Rosh Hashanah is also known as “The Day of the Shofar Blast,” and the mitzvah simply is to hear the 30 blasts of the shofar, made up of three distinct sounds:

Tekiah — one long, straight blast.

Shevarim — three medium, wailing sounds.

Teruah — nine short blasts in quick succession.

There are many Israeli-made kosher shofars for sale locally at Judaica stores or online.

Tashlich: Following afternoon services, we go to a body of water, preferably one that has fish. There we recite the tashlich prayers to symbolically cast our sins into the water and leave them behind in order to begin the New Year with a blank slate.

Sept. 30 (2 Tishrei)

What’s the difference between the first and second days of Rosh Hashanah?

The Torah reading changes:

Genesis 22:1-24; Numbers 29:1-6.

Haftarah: Jeremiah 31:1-20.

What’s the same:

The prayers and festive meals.

The shofar is blown again to fulfill the­ mitzvah of hearing it.

The 10 Days of Repentance: The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time for cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul, when amends are made with others and internal work becomes intensely focused. Small changes in the daily prayer pay homage to God’s kingship and remind atoners of the work to be done.

YOM KIPPUR, or the Day of Atonement, is considered one of the holiest days of the year. We abstain from food or drink for 25 hours, wear white, and immerse ourselves in prayer and repentance.

Kol Nidrei
Oct. 7 (9 Tishrei)
Candle Lighting at 6:11 p.m.

This somber evening service begins with the chanting of the Kol Nidrei, which is meant to absolve us, as a community, of any vows we may make in the upcoming year. Many people have the custom of wearing white to synagogue symbolizing purity.

Yom Kippur
Oct. 8 (10 Tishrei)

Services begin in the morning and often last all day, with a brief break midafternoon.

NOTE: Fasting is only required for healthy adults. In fact, it is forbidden to fast if it will adversely affect your health. All children and the elderly as well as anyone who takes medication with food or has a medical condition should not fast. There are other ways to have a spiritual “fast,” aside from food.

Dress: Many avoid wearing leather on Yom Kippur, following the commandment to “afflict” themselves or avoid luxuries. So, feel free to wear canvas tennis shoes to services.

Vidui: “Confession.” This is recited during each main prayer throughout Yom Kippur, which lists all the sins we may have committed during the previous year, and asks for God’s forgiveness.

Neilah: This is the “locking” prayer. During this prayer, we each have the ability to access the most essential level of our soul. It is the only service where the ark remains open throughout, signifying that the gates of heaven are wide open to us. The closing Neilah service peaks with the cries of the Shema: “Hear, O Israel ... God is one.” This is immediately followed by a joyful single blast of the shofar.

Break-the-fast: A festive meal to end the 25-hour fast and rejoice.

Oct. 12 (14 Tishrei)
Candle Lighting at 6:05 p.m.

Begins at sundown. 

Sukkot, the Season of our Rejoicing, is a seven-day joyous festival that commemorates the protection the Jews found during their 40 years wandering in the desert. The Torah commands: “In sukkahs (booths) you shall dwell, seven days” (Leviticus 23:42). Observant Jews not only eat but also sleep and socialize in a sukkah. Sukkahs must have at least three walls and a roof made out of material that grows from the ground. 

Pre-fab sukkah kits can be purchased from online sites and can be assembled without tools. 

Ask neighborhood gardeners if you can cut palm tree branches for the roof.

Sukkot, first day: Oct. 13 (15 Tishrei)

Four Species: The Torah describes four species of branches to be bound together during Sukkot. We wave the branches and the etrog in all directions, representing God’s presence everywhere.

Etrog: a fragrant citron resembling a lemon with a thick, white rind.

Lulav: a palm branch with tightly bound leaves and a straight shape.

Hadas: a myrtle branch with a plaited pattern of three leaves.

Arava: a willow branch with smooth-edged oblong leaves.

Four species are available at various Judaica stores and kosher markets.

Four Species prayers:

Hold the four species in your right hand and the etrog in your left hand (reversed if you’re a lefty) with the spines of the branches facing you.  Face east and say:

“Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat lulav.”

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to raise up the lulav.

Bring the lulav and etrog together and wave them to complete the mitzvah.

Oct. 19 (21 Tishrei)
Candle Lighting at 5:56 p.m.

Shemini Atzeret, “The Eighth Day of Assembly”: A holiday of unbridled joy marking the close of Sukkot and paired with Simchat Torah, celebrating the ending and the restarting of the annual Torah-reading cycle.

Oct. 20 (22 Tishrei)

Simchat Torah begins at 6:58.

Prayers for rain are featured.

Yizkor (a memorial prayer) is recited, to remember the souls of the deceased.

A festive meal is eaten, although no longer in the sukkah.

Simchat Torah

In the State of Israel and in some U.S. synagogues, Simchat Torah is combined with Shemini Atzeret observances. Simchat Torah is an exuberant celebration of the completion of the annual cycle of reading the Torah and beginning it anew. In the synagogue, all the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark, and the congregation dances with the Torah scrolls in “seven circuits” (hakafot) amid great joy and singing.

In the words of one Chasidic master, “On Simchat Torah, the Torah scrolls wish to dance, so we become their feet.”

The hakafot are celebrated on the eve of Simchat Torah and then again the following morning.

This is an event for the whole family. Don’t forget your comfortable clothes and shoes for dancing!

For more information, visit chabad.org/holidays.

Oct. 21 (23 Tishrei)
Candle Lighting at 6:58 p.m.

As the annual cycle of Torah reading is concluded, it is customary for everyone to receive an aliyah. There are various creative ways to stretch the eight aliyot to include all attendees. Some synagogues repeat the first five until everyone has had a chance to come up to the Torah. Others divide the congregation into groups for mass aliyot.

After the last word has been read in the Torah, everyone rises and proclaims, Chazak chazak v’nitchazek!: “Be strong! Be strong! And let us strengthen one another!” Then a second Torah is used to read the beginning parashah of Genesis.

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