High Holy Day Talmud tidbits and Midrash miscellany

A layperson may write about minor Jewish festivals. It's hard to get into deep trouble discussing Purim, Chanukah or Passover, even if that person hasn't attended yeshiva.

The High Holy Days, on the other hand, should be approached with caution. We amateurs who write about sin, repentance, judgment and forgiveness, run the risk of committing very grievous theological or philosophical gaffes. So, I'll stick to the relative safety of customs and folklore. Who wants to start the New Year off with the sin of pomposity, anyway?

Rosh Hashanah requires mention of the shofar, said to echo the conscious-stricken human voice. Tekiah is a deep moan. Teruah, a wavering sob. And Shevarim, a broken groan. According to folklore, the sounds are tenderly carried to God by special angels.

By the way, the shofar is curved, according to the sages, to symbolize the bent back of the humble penitent. Very poetic, those sages.

And now, let's talk tashlich, the Rosh Hashanah ritual that involves a hike to a river with fish in it. Once there, we say some verses about casting sins into the sea, toss bread crumbs into the water and zap! All the crummy things we did last year are washed away in the tide. Or carried off by the fish.

Don't eat nuts on Rosh Hashanah. Why? Because the Hebrew word for nuts — based on biblical code interpretation — has the same numerical value as the Hebrew word for sin.

And why apples and honey? Because God's presence, according to the Zohar, is like an apple orchard.

When making tsimmis, cut the carrots in rounds so they look like coins. That will bring both a sweet year and a prosperous year.

The challah should be round, too, so your year will roll by smoothly with no unhappy bumps.

To give tzedakah before a holiday is important. To give tzedakah before Yom Kippur is imperative. Charity, along with prayer and repentance, is central to Yom Kippur. So pick your favorite cause and send it a check.

Remember, if a person comes to you before Yom Kippur and apologizes for a wrong he committed against you, you must forgive him or her. If you don't forgive, your prayers will not be heard on Yom Kippur.

Unfamiliar with kapparot? On the day before Yom Kippur, swing a live hen or rooster around your head three times while saying, "This is my substitute, my atonement. This bird will die but I will live a long, pleasant and peaceful life." After transferring your sins to the fowl, you slaughter it and give its meat to the poor.

This ritual appealed greatly to the masses, but many rabbis, not surprisingly, were appalled, calling the ritual as bad as idol worship or just plain stupid.

Today, charity money wrapped in cloth is used instead of the rooster, but without the flying feathers the whole ceremony looses most of its charm, if you ask me.

Al Chet (For the Sins) is one of the most important prayers of Yom Kippur. Interestingly, the word "chet" doesn't mean sin, but "to miss the mark." So, we're not wicked. We're just a bit off target.

Near the end of the ne'ilah (closing) service of Yom Kippur, the words, "Adonai Hu HaElohim" (The Lord, He is God) are repeated seven times. Tradition says this corresponds to the seven heavens above which God dwells.

One last thing! It's customary to start building your sukkah immediately after you get home from Yom Kippur services. Just hammer in one nail. It shows that our devotion to God never stops and that our observance of His mitzvot is continuous.

L'Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu. May you be inscribed for a good year! Next year in Jerusalem, or — lacking that — may you find yourself in a warm place surrounded by family and friends.

Peace, peace, everyone. To the far and the near.