Some Awesome Days


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 everything here.

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 lives.


Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.