Rabbi Matthew Ponak: Five Things You Didn’t Know about the High Holidays

Rabbi Matthew Ponak

By Rabbi Matthew Ponak

Do you think you know Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur? Think again! Here are five surprising facts to inspire and invigorate you for 5783:

1. Rosh Hashanah is not mentioned in the Torah! The new year for the early Israelites was the month of Aviv [spring], when Passover happens. The first of the month of Tishrei(only later called Rosh HaShanah), was initially known as The Day of Calling Out. It had an obscure title because it was an obscure festival which had almost no details to accompany it. However, you will be happy to know that it did involve blowing shofars!

2. Tashlich, the throwing of bread crumbs into a body of water on Rosh HaShanah, started as a grassroots custom which was opposed by rabbinic authorities. Initially a magical practice, the aim was to rid ourselves of sin or — according to at least one modern scholar — to bribe “the opposer” [Satan in Hebrew] who could then convince God to forgive us (see the first chapter of Job for how Satan can sway God). Many medieval rabbis looked down upon this practice but in today’s world tashlichhas been reinterpreted and accepted as mainstream Judaism. It is a great example of how ritual innovations become “tradition” over time.

3. The scapegoat which, according to Torah law, was sent out of the Tabernacle on Yom Kippur may have also been an offering to a demon. In a similar way to the breadcrumbs of Tashlich, the sacrificial goat was said to carry the sins of Israel with it. The Kohen Gadol[High Priest] sent it out to Azazel, often translated as “wilderness,” but some contemporary scholars as well as major rabbinic authorities from the past say that Azazel was, in fact, a demonic being that was being placated. For a contemporary  take on this particular demon, check out the 1990s thriller “Fallen” starring  Denzel Washington.

4. Yom Kippur is a celebratory holiday in some communities, including for Mizrachi Jews. While Ashkenazim often see it as 25 hours dedicated to asking forgiveness, others read the prayers with a very different intention. At the very start of Yom Kippur, directly after Kol Nidrei we read, “And God said, I have pardoned as you have asked.” Some take these words literally. They believe God has accepted  our prayers and forgiven us right then and there. So, what to do with the 24 hours remaining in the holiday? For these Jewish communities the majority of Yom Kippur is a joyful appreciation of Divine Compassion (albeit, still accompanied by fasting).

5. Jewish mystics often see teshuvahas “return,” not just as “repentance.” The spiritual work of returning, according to  one 18th century mystical teaching, means connecting intimately and experientially with the Divine in order to bring new light and blessings back to our world. Like a teacher who realizes a new perspective when a student asks a good question, Jewish mystics seek to inspire newness in the Divine Mind through intimate contact with the Source of Existence. In slightly more everyday terms, the “aha-moments” any of us have during times of great joy, peace, or while experiencing natural beauty are a taste of what the mystics mean by teshuvah.

Mazel tov! You have just participated in the time-honoured tradition of preparing for a holiday through learning about it, including the many ways its meaning and practices have been renewed: a process which continues every time it rolls around. This year as we approach the High Holidays, may we be inspired with creativity, joy, and the newness that comes when we feel truly alive.

Rabbi Matthew Ponak is a spiritual counsellor, a teacher, and an author. His upcoming book Embodied Kabbalah makes essential teachings of Jewish mysticism accessible and places them side-by-side with inspirations from our era and the world’s great wisdom traditions. Learn more at matthewponak.com.


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