• Home
  • Parashah
  • Ask the Rabbi
  • Festivals
  • Freemasonry
  • Articles
  • About
  • Books
  • Media

    Four thoughts for the High Holydays


    Hands aloft by APalkoJudaism regards Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur as occasions when holiness and communion come together and form the keynote of the experience – in four senses: communion with God, with fellow man, with Judaism and with oneself.

    The poems and prayers of these days illustrate Evelyn Underhill’s definition of mysticism as the act of establishing man’s conscious awareness of the presence of the Divine. It is of course possible to sense that presence wherever one is, in a forest, by a river, both in solitude and in company. King Solomon says in Mishlei, “In all your ways, recognise Him”.

    The sense of holiness in company is the best argument for High Holyday synagogue services. They make us part of a community in two ways noted by Jonathan Sacks – a kahal, a group of human beings who have congregated together; an edah, a coherent community who share the yearning for truth and inspiration. Even a rebel like Korach could sense that “all the people are holy, and God is in their midst”.

    Following the familiar Jewish rituals and well-loved words and melodies enables one to commune with Judaism. Max Kadushin calls this normal mysticism, discerning God in every hallowed act. Every mitzvah, every b’rachah, is a mystical moment.

    Each of us communes with him- or herself too on the High Holydays. The paradox of being Jewish calls for drawing close to other people – and at times, drawing apart. There are moments to close oneself off from the synagogue, the service, the prayers, the community and even from God, and to turn inward and ask, “Who am I? Where am I in life? Am I the best possible Me?”

    In Eretz Yisra’el in the 16th century, the groups of mystics – centred upon Safed – communed with the Mishnah. It spoke to them and with them, and they responded.

    On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur our privilege is to be modern mystics, and to commune with holiness on four planes. We don’t use the technical term Holy Communion – but in a sense that’s what it is.


    James Blish The Day After JudgmentThe Harry Potter books and films have fed an interest in a particular type of fantasy novel. The genre includes James Blish’s “The Day After Judgment”. It raises a modern theme, “Is God Dead?” The debate involves Satan Mekatrig, “Lord of Hell, Great Enemy, Prince of Darkness”, who says that if God is no longer there, Satan would do a better job.

    The name Satan Mekatrig is of course originally Hebrew and recalls rabbinic passages in which Satan, the devil’s advocate, is indeed mekatreg, man’s accuser. Mekatreg – with the meaning of public prosecutor – has hebraised the Greek kategorein. The word figures in the poem Salachti on Kol Nidrei night, when the accuser, the kategor, is silenced so as to let the defender, the sanegor, speak his piece.

    The notion of Satan bringing charges against human beings is found in Jastrow’s Dictionary of rabbinic words and developed in Israel Zangwill’s story, “Satan Mekatrig”, published in 1888, four years before the author’s famous “Children of the Ghetto”.

    Joshua Trachtenberg’s “Jewish Magic and Superstition” traces the folkloristic fear of Satan and the means used in order to stop Satan in his tracks – amulets, Bible verses, Torah study, etc.

    A weapon employed against Satan is the blowing of the shofar, and indeed there is a series of verses before teki’at shofar the initials of which form the words, K’ra Satan – “Destroy Satan”.

    Not that Judaism was universally fearful of Satan. The rationalists regarded him as a mere symbol; only the folklore tradition took him seriously. The Bible has no independent being with the name Satan, not even in the Book of Job (ch. 1) where “Satan” accuses man before the Divine Judge. Satan is not a real person or an evil angel but an adversarial personification, a poetical expression for the evil fate that some people bring upon themselves.

    Not everyone took the K’ra Satan idea literally, even though Rabbi Yitzchak (RH 16b) warned us l’arbev hasatan, to confuse Satan. Rashi says that Israel and its satanic enemies are engaged in a tussle. The Tosafot add that when Satan hears the shofar, he fears for his own future. Since the story of Bil’am (Num. 22:22) uses l’satan as a word for “to oppose”, it could indicate any form of opponent.

    There was a time in ancient history when enemies (the Romans?) were alarmed when the Jews blew the shofar and they misconstrued it as a call to arms (RH 32b). The shofar-blowing was moved from its original early position in the Rosh HaShanah service in order to confuse the enemy and show them that this was a spiritual call to repentance, part of religious worship and not a military call to battle.


    Avinu MalkeinuThe Avinu Malkenu (“Our Father, Our King”) prayer began, according to the Talmud (Ta’anit 25b), in a plea to God on a fast day in time of drought. It appeals to God to grant our heartfelt wishes.

    There are versions which list the verses in alphabetical order, e.g. Amram Ga’on’s text in his 9th century prayer book. This provided 22 verses, and our own familiar text has 44 verses though not in alphabetical order. The Sephardim have 29 lines. Seligmann Baer, the 19th century authority on Jewish liturgy, had 53.

    The original Avinu Malkenu had five lines, but medieval chazanim probably freely added others to reflect the times they lived in, with all their expulsions, persecutions and deprivations. The final additions are likely to have been in the 14th century, since liturgical creativity slowed down with the invention of printing in the 15th century.

    The prayer is omitted by Ashkenazim on Shabbat, because it is reminiscent of the weekday Amidah. The mood of Shabbat ought to be positive one, concentrating on our blessings more than our needs. On days when Avinu Malkenu is said, it comes after the Amidah, in the position reserved on festive occasions for Hallel.

    The theological problem of Avinu Malkenu is the combination of the two terms for God. In the Book of Isaiah, God is described in one place (63:16) as “Our Father” (Avinu) and elsewhere as “Our King” (Malkenu), but there is a major difference between the two names. “Father” suggests a warm, close, loving parent, whilst “King” indicates an impartial, distant, judgmental ruler. In technical terms, the one is immanent, the other transcendent. That God is both represents a tension or paradox.

    The rabbis explain that if God were only our Father, we might exploit his love and compassion and not be afraid to sin, because we would say He is bound to forgive: hence we need the corrective of Malkenu.

    On the other hand, if He were only our King, we would abandon all hope of pardon for our transgressions. We would say He would never be prepared to show us any pity or compassion: hence we need the corrective of Avinu.


    Charity boxOne of the basic elements of the High Holydays is tzedakah, giving charity, and one of the basic elements of charity is giving a tithe.

    Rav Moshe Feinstein rules (Ig’rot Moshe, Even HaEzer 26:4) that just as one should give a tenth of their income to charity, so one should give one tenth of their time to the welfare of others.

    Maybe this could take the form of volunteering in an organisation. There are countless tasks that cry out to be filled – organisations that need volunteers to help with odd jobs for the elderly, others that need voluntary assistance with nursing skills, others that would appreciate people helping children with their reading… the list is endless. Then there are the Shabbat and festival mitzvot – hospitality for singles or widowed people, doing challah baking or shopping, phoning lonely people to see how they are…

    Rosh HaShanah is the best time to decide on your mitzvah and to get started. Yes, you are a busy person and can’t spare the time – but you must. Yes, you are a poor person and need every minute to scratch a living for yourself – but no-one is so poor that they can’t give.

    I know people who went to their graves feeling unloved and unwanted because their family never gave them any time. The worst aspect of that problem is relatives who do nothing for you whilst you are alive, but can’t wait to get their hands on their yerushah

    There is a special mitzvah for retired people who have plenty of time and feel a bit bored and useless; for them, doing volunteer work for the community would bring a new sparkle to their lives.

    If you live by Rav Moshe’s principle and you give a tenth of your time to other people, why not also give a tenth to the Person in whose presence you live, by way of doing something to enhance your own learning and spirituality?

    Comments are closed.