High Holidays Feature (3): Days of Awe Observances Vary As Jews Prepare for Atonement

The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a special time.

The Days of Awe, as they are known, have a rhythm unique among the cycles of the Jewish year as a period of reflection and self-evaluation as Jews the world over prepare for the Day of Judgment.

On Rosh Hashanah, according to Jewish tradition, God pencils each of our names into the books of life and death, deciding who will prosper and who will suffer in the coming year.

If we work hard to redeem ourselves during the next 10 days, we have a chance to change the course of events before God determines our fate on the Day of Judgment, Yom Kippur, when our future is inscribed in indelible ink.

It can be an intense time.

“It is inherently spiritually charged,” said writer Francine Klagsbrun, author of “Jewish Days,” a forthcoming book examining important times during the year, to be published this fall by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

“The feel of the air is different, the feel of life is different and you are more attuned to spiritual parts of life, more attuned to relationships,” she said.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky described the period as a time to consider “all that Judaism has to offer to take a good hard look at ourselves and do what needs to be done.”

The 10 days are a time “to seek out people to ask for forgiveness and to make decisions about how we’re going to change our lives, to ready ourselves to stand as naked souls before God,” Olitzky said.

Olitzky, a Reform rabbi, with Rabbi Rachel Sabath wrote “Preparing Your Heart For The High Holy Days: A Guided Journal,” published recently by the Jewish Publication Society.

The rabbis of the Talmud advised that there are three ways to change our entry from being in the book of death to the book of life: prayer, charity and repentance.

A central part of repentance is taking responsibility for harmful words and deeds, and it is traditional during these first 10 days of the new year to ask forgiveness from those one has possibly hurt, in a practice known as “mechila.”

Some people welcome the period, and the process of asking for forgiveness, as an opportunity for reflection and self-evaluation.

It can be a time of reconciliation, an opportunity to address the pain inflicted on each other within the last year and a chance to move forward.

Asking forgiveness is “the most moving and important part of the holiday because you take responsibility, finally,” said writer Esther Broner.

“Otherwise, we’re just students waiting for the report card and waiting to pass on to the next grade. This way we grade ourselves.”

Rabbi David Wolpe, who teaches Jewish thought at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, said he uses the 10 days for reflection.

“In a sort of idiosyncratic way I do a personal inventory of my year,” he said. “I call people who I believe I’ve offended and ask them to forgive me for specific things I’ve done.”

Many people set aside time to study something special during the 10 days.

Veteran activist Leonard Fein, the newly installed director of social action at the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, plans to use the 10 days this year to read books on theodicy, the exploration of how divine justice coexists with evil in the world.

Marc Stern, an attorney who runs the legal affairs department of the American Jewish Congress, is an Orthodox Jew who uses the period to study ethical works, focusing on the classical Jewish texts dating from medieval times and on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s writing on repentance.

He and his wife also sit down and evaluate the charity they have given in the last year, and write checks to Jewish and anti-hunger charities.

Another tradition of the period is “tashlich,” the symbolic casting away of sins by taking crumbs out of pockets and tossing them into a natural body of water.

Broner and a group of creative feminist Jewish friends adapted that tradition for several years by building paper boats, talking about the sins that each vessel represented and sending them floating down the waters flowing around Manhattan.

“We made flotillas of sin out of paper and sent them along the Harlem River, which hardly noticed because it was so full of sin by much larger polluters,” Broner said in an interview.

She wrote “The Telling,” the story of one of the first — and most enduring – - feminist seders created by the same friends with whom she created this ritual.

But for tashlich they were not casting out just the sins traditionally associated with the 10 days. These women reinvented the ritual from their own perspectives.

“We had to get rid of what people thought of things we had done which they considered sins, like having ambition, pride, high energy, pain, lifestyles they criticized,” Broner said. “In our creative lives these things were no sin at all, but were our drive.”

Participants would bake challah and then they would sing songs and dine on a festive meal eaten on a borscht- and schmaltz-stained tablecloth that had been handed down to filmmaker Lilly Rivlin from her grandmother.

“At the end we did ‘tekia’ (long shofar blows) and celebrated the birth of the world,” Broner said.

Some Chasidic Jews take the casting out of sin one step further, in the ritual known as “kapporas,” or atonement.

In the days leading up to the Day of Atonement, enormous flatbed trucks stacked with cages full of live chickens begin to park in neighborhoods inhabited by the devoutly Orthodox.

In the darkness of the night before Yom Kippur eve, the faithful crowds around the trucks to select the chicken that will serve as their personal sacrifice.

Each person takes a live chicken — men take a male bird while women take a hen — holds it by its ankles and swings it around their heads while incanting a blessing transferring their sins to the chicken.

Then the chickens are ritually slaughtered and defeathered in a building nearby whose floor runs red with entrails and blood.

The chickens are taken home to become the dinner eaten before the Yom Kippur fast, and the money that paid for them is donated to charity.

Once the 10 days are over, though, what happens to all the work that people have done on themselves and their relationships, and all the good intentions to do things differently in the coming year?

“The Kotzker rebbe once said that the hardest part of the binding of Isaac [for Abraham] was coming down the mountain” after Abraham had decided to heed God’s command to kill his son, said Wolpe.

“That’s true of the high holidays, too. People think the Yom Kippur fasting is hard but it’s carrying the message past the day that is really hard.

“The 10 days are a time to build up so that when you come down the mountain, as it were, you come down with some momentum.”

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