[Sermon] Customs & Meanings Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein
High Holy Days 2019/5780

In a perfect world, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are meant to be a time of busy activity: actual, intellectual and spiritual. We should heed the words added to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy and make efforts to begin correcting our ways and thoughts as we approach Yom Kippur. Ideally, not just a mental promise to ourselves to improve our ways, but actually to go to those we know we have wronged and ask their forgiveness. Try to mend damaged relationships; sometimes not an easy task to consider or to succeed in.

If we do not have the courage to take this dramatic action then there are ways of heightening the effectiveness of the ten days. Yom Kippur services are certainly more effective if you take a few moments each day to take out your Machzor Ruach Chadashah, read through and highlight in your mind a prayer or poem that looks interesting, look up its origin in the notes at the back of the prayerbook. Hopefully when you come to the piece on Yom Kippur it will take on added meaning. And I can obviously recommend “High & Holy Days” – an anthology of readings for just these days of Elul edited by a certain Rabbi Andrew Goldstein together with Rabbi Charles Middleburgh!

The Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called “Shabbat Shuvah”, the “Sabbath of Return”. It takes its name from the opening words of the Haftarah from Hosea 14: “Return, O Israel to the Eternal One your God, for you have fallen because of your sin.“ Shuvah – Return” being the root of the Hebrew concept of repentance, returning to God and to a better life. As a rabbi I always feel a little let down as so few actually return to shul on this Shabbat, saving their strength for Yom Kippur falling a few days later!

As for folk rituals, I assume no Liberal Jew would engage in the bizarre ritual of Kapparah, whirling a chicken round the head in remembrance of the scapegoat of Biblical times. Nor flagellation. Though I’m never surprised nowadays about what ancient ritual, long abandoned, is being revived! But I do like the reference in a 19th century book on the customs for the penitential season called Mateh Moshe by one Moses ben Abraham of Prmsla who said “In places where etrog sellers are to be found, the pious accustomed themselves to buy etrogs, palm leaves and myrtle branches during the Days of Awe for use during Sukkot.” A nice picture of the itinerant etrog sellers from the Mediterranean lands making their way up to Eastern Europe for their one time in the year to do business. And a nice thought that, after the seriousness of the Days of Awe, the happy and beautiful festival of Sukkot soon follows. Hopefully, having repented a little (or a lot) one is then free to celebrate fully and know that life is good.

Shanah Tovah… may you repent well, celebrate well and have a good and sweet New Year.

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