In Israel, we are officially in the chagim, that time from Rosh Hashanah to Simchat Torah, which, for parents, comes too soon after summer vacation, and, during which, in the business world, nothing gets done until acharai hachagim — after the holidays.
This year, Rosh Hashanah fell on a Wednesday night, leading directly into Shabbat — causing that rare thing in Israel, the three-day holiday. This generally sends observant Jews into a panic of shopping, cooking, freezing, and planning meals and gives the less observant among us a three- day vacation.
Before the calendar was set, holidays were declared by the Jerusalem court based on eyewitness testimony of the new moon, with the holiday being a week or two later based on the biblical command.
The message confirming the new month took time to reach the far ends of the realm, so the diaspora would observe two days to be sure. Since Rosh Hashanah falls on the new moon itself, the holiday was kept for two days in Israel as well, since no one could confirm the new moon until it was upon them.
Ritually observant or not, most Israelis spend the holiday with family and friends, dipping apples into honey, and eating other simanim, or symbolic foods, asking God to increase our merits and vanquish our enemies.
Yom Kippur followed Rosh Hashanah, of course, and for the first time, I heard the radio fall silent for Yom Kippur. I had known that, on Yom Kippur, Israeli radio stations cease their broadcast. Television stations, too. I knew that Israeli air-space closed and that all stores and non-essential services shut down. I knew that Tel Aviv streets and cross-country highways were devoid of traffic and full of kids on bikes. But hearing the announcer sign off in honour of Yom Kippur a few hours before it began, and then “hearing” dead silence on every station we checked was deeply moving. That radio silence was as stark as the shofar’s blasts — just as deep and resonant.
It hit me in that moment that no matter how we feel about these days — the Days of Awe — whether we feast, fast and pray or bike, hike, and chill, the Jewish People are one.
We are one in our fate and destiny as a nation, and according to Jewish tradition, we are judged, on a national level, as one for the coming year.
Our prayers are in the plural, “we” and “us” instead of “I” and “me”, perhaps out of poetry, but also because the Jewish nation does see itself as a collective whole — one nation.
Of course, one can — and some do — choose to see things differently, to claim that ritual is silly, archaic and for the simple-minded. Indeed, some expressed this idea to me in a conversation the day after Yom Kippur.
I couldn’t help but wonder if these people would have scoffed at a day of no electronics, travel or work, of denial of the physical in elevation of the spiritual, were it held to bring world peace, honour the environment, or raise awareness for a humanitarian cause.
Yet Yom Kippur is all of these things. During the Yom Kippur service, we read how God states this explicitly: “Is this the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies lying in sackcloth and ashes? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, clothe him, and do not ignore your own kin.” (Isaiah: 58: 3-7)
Yom Kippur is about being better, doing better, of ending injustice and seeing the other’s pain. It reminds us of our responsibilities, to man and nature. With no traffic on the streets, pollution levels drop dramatically, the frenetic pace of life slows, and we can take stock. Away from food and electronics, people reflect on what is important, what less so, and how to keep these in mind.
On the heels of Yom Kippur comes Succot, where we abandon our sturdy air-conditioned homes to build flimsy huts with tree-branch roofs, walls filled with child-created art and dripping with paper chains. We grab citrus fruits and palm fronds and shake them in all directions, careful not to drop them lest we render them unusable.
We eat in our huts and invite long dead ancestors to join us for our meals. Silly rituals indeed… or, perhaps they are reminders that, no matter where we go, no matter how far our exile, we are still connected to that nation that left Egypt on a hope and a dream of a better life, one of freedom to do the rituals that keep our people connected over thousands of years and thousands of miles…
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and activist