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    Truly awesome – a thought for the High Holydays

    There was a time when Anglo-Jewish communities went away from Hebrew terms in favour of stilted English translations.

    Chazanim became precentors, shammashim became beadles, “Shavu’ot” was Pentecost and the Yamim Nora’im were the High Holydays.

    Most of these old usages have vanished, but not the name “High Holydays”.

    Nonetheless the mood of this time of the year is captured much better by the term Yamim Nora’im, “the awesome days”. (I must admit that I once heard someone who should have known better speak about Yomim Narronim, perhaps not realising that “narronim” in Yiddish are idiots.)

    Awesomeness is an uncanny description of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, days with an eerie quality that confront us with a dimension of life that is above and beyond the superficial, material level on which we normally exist.

    Rudolf Otto had another word for it in his book, “The Idea of the Holy”: numinous.

    English is very rich in synonyms, but whether we say awesome or numinous or anything else we need to convey the experience of being transported, however briefly, into another world of reality.

    Of God’s encounter with Moses the Torah says, “And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mount” (Ex. 19:20).

    That is our experience on the Yamim Nora’im – God coming into the human dimension and human beings reaching the spiritual mountain top.

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