From an engraving of throwing cakes to children on Simchat Torah by Johann Leusden in "Philologus Hebræo-Mixtus," Utrecht, 1657
From an engraving of throwing cakes to children on Simchat Torah by Johann Leusden in "Philologus Hebræo-Mixtus," Utrecht, 1657

Two more holidays, and then we start our annual cycle anew

What is Shemini Atzeret anyway? And how many Jewish holidays are there in a row? Not to worry, the Hebrew month of Cheshvan is right around the corner.

Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan starts Sunday, Oct. 15, this year. And guess what Cheshvan is famous for? No holidays whatsoever. But for now, we’re still in Tishrei, the Hebrew month of holidays.

In fact, our Jewish calendar had been preparing us for this month for a while now. Think back to mid-August. On Aug. 17, we flipped the calendar page to Elul, the month preceding our big holiday month. During Elul, we did the hard work of preparing ourselves for the High Holidays.

We took an accounting of our souls, figuring out what we needed to correct. We heard the blasts of the shofar to wake us up and bring us to focus on the important work at hand. We gathered for Selichot on Saturday night, Sept. 9 to hear the beautiful melodies of the High Holidays and to change our Torah mantles to white.

Physically and spiritually, we prepared ourselves for the holidays which were to arrive shortly. We cleaned and polished in our synagogues and our homes. We thought deeply about the year that was coming to an end. And we set our intentions for the New Year.

Then, we celebrated the arrival of 5784 with Rosh Hashanah. We heard the blasts of the shofar and were reminded that new possibilities opened for us as we headed into a new year. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated each year on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. And so began our busy holiday season.

The next 10 days of repentance, known as the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, were a time of deep introspection. Judaism gives us yet another chance to finish the unfinished work of the past year. On Rosh Hashanah, our liturgy teaches that the Gates of Repentance open. For the next 10 days, leading up to Yom Kippur, we live in a serious in-between time, with the previous year still lingering a bit and the New Year beckoning us in.

There is no lag, no time without the study of Torah and no time for us to get complacent.

Those days give us a chance to apologize to those whom we’ve hurt and take care of unfinished business. They are a religious grace period, of sorts. By the time we arrive at Yom Kippur, on the 10th day of Tishrei, the previous year is coming to a final close. In fact, the liturgy tells us that at Neilah, the end of Yom Kippur, those Gates do close.

On Yom Kippur, we are reminded of the significance of life, even as we model our own deaths. For 25 hours, we wear white, as if we are wrapped in our own burial shrouds. Yom Kippur is a powerful time because it requires us to truly investigate our own behavior. And that we set intentions for a new year. Yom Kippur ends with a return to life: a final shofar blast and a breaking of the fast. We eat and celebrate life again.

Five days after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, my favorite holiday! It is the harvest holiday when we remember the fragility of life. Wait, didn’t we just do that on Yom Kippur? We are reminded of miracles and the gratitude we must have for them. We recall our dependence on one another and the environment. Sukkot is a beautiful eight-day holiday, paralleling Pesach on the opposite side of the calendar. We remember the miracle of our freedom and the responsibility to choose how we live in the New Year.

At the end of Sukkot is Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot. It is traditionally filled with a service of hoshanot, or circles made while holding the lulav and etrog. We dance, expressing our gratitude and continuing our celebration of the New Year ahead.

So now we get to Shemini Atzeret. At the end of Sukkot, the eighth day is celebrated as its own holiday. Shemini Atzeret is the end of a wonderful time of dining and entertaining in the sukkah. Shemini Atzeret leads us into the final holiday of Tishrei, which is Simchat Torah. At the end of a busy month of celebrations, Simchat Torah is a time to read the very end of the story of the Israelites’ wandering and then immediately begin again with the story of Creation.

We don’t even get time to celebrate the completion of our long journey. Instead, we read the last verses of the Torah and then start at the beginning of our sacred text with Bereishit. There is no lag, no time without the study of Torah and no time for us to get complacent. We start our peoples’ journey again, as we start our own journeys into a new year.

Sometimes, it feels a bit disappointing that as soon as we arrive at the Land of Israel, we go back to tohu v’vohu, the darkness and void of the unformed space before the universe was created. But it also feels miraculous to have a new opportunity to truly start over again at the beginning, each of us with a new opportunity to create whatever we want for the New Year.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.