THE HIGH HOLIDAYS AT THE SYNAGOGUE
Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman
High Holiday services differ radically from place to place. Congregations in metropolitan centers can be quite formal, with large choirs, elaborate production values, and a strong performative esthetic. B’nai Emunah is at the opposite end of the spectrum. The tone of the Synagogue is intimate, informal, and fully participatory. We have worked hard to create an atmosphere of ease and inclusiveness.
The Organization of the High Holidays
The period of celebration begins on the Eve of Rosh Ha-Shanah and continues on the following two days. The shorter service that initiates the festival is designed so that our members can begin at the Synagogue before nightfall, and then come home to a family dinner. Services on the first and second days of Rosh Ha-Shanah begin at 9:00 a.m. and end at 12:30 p.m. There are also short services in the early evening on both days of Rosh Ha-Shanah.
This pattern is elaborated on Yom Kippur with an important service on the eve of the holiday, commonly called Kol Nidray. Most of the next day is taken up with services beginning at 9:00 a.m. and culminating at sunset with the Ne’ilah (“Closing”) Service.
Services for the High Holidays are built on a framework that closely resembles the liturgy for Sabbaths and Festivals. The morning services on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur begin with a meditative introduction, followed by the statutory Morning Service. Two essential prayers make up this component of the liturgy: the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”) and the Amidah, whose contents may include praise, thanksgiving or petition, depending on the theme of the service. In keeping with longstanding practice, the Amidah is first read quietly by each worshipper and then chanted aloud. This is followed by the singing of the Torah portion assigned for the day, a lection that differs on each morning of the holiday. The reading is broken up into several parts, allowing many people to come forward as assigned to bless each in turn. The Torah service is the most “theatrical” element in the liturgy in the sense that there is a processional, recessional, and the opening and closing of the Ark, the niche on the eastern wall of the Synagogue where our scrolls are kept. On Rosh Ha-Shanah, this service also includes the sounding of the shofar, a simple, unadorned ram’s horn that is the great symbol of the festival season.
At the close of the Torah service, there is a second version of the Amidah, called Musaf, or Additional Service. This element is an elaboration of the normal Sabbath Musaf and includes many components which refer to the special themes of the High Holidays: the rule of God, the memory of the People Israel, and the sounding of the shofar as a call to self-conscious reflection. Musaf is a beautiful service, with music designed to engage the heart of each worshipper. On Rosh Ha-Shanah, Musaf includes a second round of shofar blowings which crescendo at the end of the service.
The evening services of the holidays also match their Sabbath and Festival counterparts, elaborated with liturgical poems and insertions which lift the High Holidays out of the normal routines of worship. These poems (piyyutim) are an important feature of the liturgy throughout, and bear witness to the evolving nature of Jewish worship. Many of them are acrostic prayers which encode the names of their composers and invite us to leave our own mark on the service.
Evening Services are also built around the recitation of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God; Adonai alone”), with prayers and blessings flanking it on either side. In this case, there is only one recitation of the Amidah; it is traditionally recited silently by each worshipper, without a public repetition. On Yom Kippur, both Evening Services at the beginning and end of the holiday are expanded to accommodate supplementary material that addresses the great themes of repentance, forgiveness, God’s love, self-judgment, and moral clarity.
The special prayerbook for the High Holidays is called the Machzor. Our edition was edited by Rabbi Jules Harlow in 1972, and is the most recent High Holiday prayerbook published by the Rabbinical Assembly, the association of Conservative Rabbis worldwide. Like every traditional Jewish prayerbook, the Machzor reads from right to left, opening at what would normally be the back cover of an English book. Hebrew text appears on the right side of the page, with an English translation on the left.
Our machzor is all-inclusive, but we use a supplementary binder which many of our congregants also find helpful. These binders include transliterations of every Hebrew text chanted by the Cantor or congregation, so that people who are not familiar with the Hebrew alphabet can participate fully in the service. The binders also include supplementary prayers and meditations which may enrich the experience of worship (davvening) for many.
Choreography of the Service
As in many worship traditions, the liturgy of the Synagogue calls upon us to respond physically to the words of the Machzor. Prayers of special importance are recited while standing. Prayers of crucial importance require that the Ark be opened as a symbolic gesture, acknowledging the extreme sanctity of the moment.
The Language of High Holiday Prayer
Many people struggle with the symbolic language of Jewish prayer on the High Holidays, particularly the motifs of reward and punishment and a God who treasures human praise. It may help to see the first as a metaphor urging self-knowledge, self-evaluation, and consciousness of our thoughts and deeds. The second is part of Judaism’s aversion to seeing ourselves and our fellow human beings as the center and crown of creation. Humility is a moral bridge to the gentle, respectful treatment of other human beings who have the same claims on God’s love that we do.
Access to the Service
Services at the Synagogue are open to everyone, including our neighbors in the general community who may wish to sample Jewish traditions in a setting of warmth and authenticity. Our members reach out to newcomers with great affection and sincerity, and it is our hope that no one will arrive or depart without a sense of having been greeted as a friend. Unlike most congregations in the country, there are no admission tickets to services or charges of any kind. Visitors should be aware that we are mindful of security in order to keep every participant safe. Simple precautions are always in effect to protect us all. Please introduce yourself to our Front Desk staff if you are visiting the Synagogue for the very first time.
We always say that people should come as they are, but most members of the congregation dress up for the High Holidays. It’s much like the clothing people wear to the symphony or a play. Men typically wear a shirt and tie, along with a jacket or (less often) a sweater or vest. Women wear dresses, skirts and tops, or pants with a jacket. No one dresses to impress and the prevailing style is quiet modesty. Regardless of what you wear, do not hesitate to come because you fear that you may not have the right clothing. There is plenty of room at the Synagogue for non-conformists.
Regarding ritual wear, no head coverings are expected of women, except for those who have been asked in advance to accept an official honor during the Torah Service. Male worshippers, both members and guests, are earnestly invited to wear kippot (skull caps or yarmulkes). Tallitot (prayer shawls) are typically worn only by members of the Jewish community. This includes all men thirteen and older, and those women, younger and older, who have accepted upon themselves the mitzvah of wearing a tallit.
Seating in our Sanctuary is open, with no reserved seats for members or guests. People occasionally save seats for others, so please be alert to normal social cues. There are always available seats at the front of the Sanctuary, where people rarely sit for the reasons that people always avoid the front rows of auditoriums. This is the bane of Rabbis and clergypeople of every community, but what can you do?
Food is Love
Vitually, every service at the Synagogue concludes with a gathering where members eat and socialize. An evening service will end with an Oneg Shabbat and a morning service with a Kiddush. Thanks to the generosity of two of our member families, there is a light lunch after services on the first day of Rosh Ha-Shanah. A chocolate chip cookie blowout follows the second day of Rosh Ha-Shanah, along with a full meal for singles and young couples. Those who’d like to make reservations for this meal should call the Synagogue Office at 583-7121. Refreshments at the close of the fast on Yom Kippur day are sponsored by the B’nai Emunah Sisterhood.