Some Awesome Days
By RABBI SETH FARBER
Days of Awe
A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on
the High Holy Days
Edited by S.Y. Agnon
336 pages. Schocken. $15.
Are the high holidays “holy days”? Jewish tradition has
coined different terms for the celebratory moments of the calendar year. In
contrast to the holy-holidays like Passover and Tabernacles called in the bible
Moadim (times or phases), Rosh Hashanah
and Yom Kippur are known as Yamim Noraim
(Days of Awe). While the Passover-like days are anniversaries of historical
events (the Israelite exodus from Egypt), Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have no
such historical calibration. The traditional holy days are in sync with the
agricultural cycle of the ancient Near East; the Yamim Noraim are not.
Holiness is one theme, awe another. Holiness, and thus
holidays, consecrate that which makes us human. The Moadim take history, technology, and memory and give them divine
significance. By contrast, the Yamim Noraim sanctify the transcendent. Rather
than elevating the elements of this world, they shoot for the stars.
Traditionally, feasting and thanksgiving characterize the Moadim. In contrast fasting (according to many ancient traditions
on Rosh Hashanah as well as on Yom Kippur!) and supplication mark the Yamim Noraim.
S.Y. Agnon’s Days of
Awe is the classic anthology on the Yamim
Noraim. Agnon, the only Israeli winner of the Nobel Prize for literature,
uses his vast reservoir of rabbinic sources to weave together the most
comprehensive selection of traditions, legends, and commentaries on Rosh Hashanah,
Yom Kippur, and the days between. From biblical selections to the code of
Maimonides, from Hasidic stories to mystical traditions, you’ll find just about
Indeed the Yamim Noraim,
as Agnon shows, are not only distinct from the Moadim, but also one from the other. While the first ten days of
the Hebrew month of Tishrei (generally corresponding to mid-September) are
often characterized as days of teshuva
(or repentance), the two central moments of this period, Rosh Hashanah and Yom
Kippur, are markedly different. In the rabbinic metaphor, captured by the
solemn medieval prayer known as U’netana
Tokef, the book of life is opened before God on Rosh Hashanah and it is
sealed on Yom Kippur.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. Its traditions, like
those in many other cultures, contain themes of renewal and rededication. New
year’s resolutions are part and parcel of the repentance process and the rites
(ritualized by the eating of honey and other foods) find their parallels in
other traditions. The Shofar blasts—whose meaning was codified by the tenth
century rabbinic authority Saadia Gaon and recorded dutifully by Agnon—ultimately
represent a universal declaration of the Divine. On this day Jews recommit
themselves to being one nation (albeit unique) among others in God’s world.
Yom Kippur is the judgment day for the Jews. The bible
records how the scapegoat was sent out to the desert (and in rabbinic
tradition, thrust over a mountain) “carrying” the sins of the children of
Israel into oblivion. The day is referred to as Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, highlighting that just
as the Shabbat is a distinctly Jewish moment, so this day is unique for the
Jews. The traditional prohibitions (eating/drinking, washing, sexual relations,
wearing leather shoes, anointing ones body) demand that Jews move beyond the
rudimentary physical pleasures of this world.
There is a further differentiation between Rosh Hashanah and
Yom Kippur that emerges from Agnon’s collection. Rosh Hashanah is characterized
by listening. The Torah selection read in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah is the
story of the binding of Isaac that ends with the divine approbation of Abraham
“for you have listened to Me.” The charge on this day is to “hear” the call of
the shofar. Reflection is punctuated by the diverse voices and sounds that
reverberate through this day.
Yom Kippur is also a day of sounds, but their direction is
different. Standing in judgment before God, the Jew is called upon to plead his
or her own case. We are entreated to speak, to articulate, to confess, to pray.
If the voices of Rosh Hashanah failed to move humanity to real change, perhaps
our own voices will.
The essence of Agnon’s collection of texts is that the
multifaceted expressions and explanations of the Days of Awe throughout the
generations ultimately represent humanity’s attempt to understand ourselves. By
appreciating how Jews reflect on the hours of renewal and the hours of
judgment, one learns how to value the moments between. The Days of Awe are more
than just holy days. They are days that encourage us to change every day of our
Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where
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