Class 8: Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur

In this class, we'll learn about the Days of Awe and their role in annual purification.

Introduction: Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur

osh haShanah, which Jews now celebrate as the New Year, is in the Bible called only Yom Teruah, Day of Blowing the Shofar. Originally, Rosh haShanah was probably a day of announcement, to remind everyone that Sukkot, the harvest festival and the most important time of the year, was coming. It may also have been a day to re-crown the Divine as ruler of the people, a ritual that would have been accompanied by blowing the ram's horn. Eventually, Rosh haShanah became the beginning of the year, Yom haZikaron, Day of Remembering, calling to mind all the events of the last year. Now it is celebrated with liturgy of repentance and renewal.

In the traditional liturgy, osh haShanah is called the birthday of the world: symbolically, it’s the day of creation. The calls of the shofar could be seen as labor pains of the Shekhinah as She rebirths the universe and us. So it is the day when we are re-woven into the web of life, undergoing a rebirthing as the year begins. Some celebrate Rosh haShanah by attending synagogue, hearing the shofar and hearing stories about birth and rebirth: Sarah's birthing of Isaac and Hannah's birthing of Samuel, Isaac being saved from death. Others conduct a meal called a Rosh haShanah seder, in which foods that symbolize success and joy are eaten as signs of blessing and renewal for the new year. Apples and honey are also eaten as a wish that the year be sweet.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in biblical times was accompanied by elaborate ritual to cleanse the land of the people's sins. This too was a way of preparing for Sukkot, as the people could not pray for the new harvest until they were purified. Long ago, on Yom Kippur the Hebrews purified the sacred shrine through two rituals. In one, the high priest sprinkled the blood of a sacrificed animal in the most sacred center of the shrine, purifying the land of the people’s sins. In the second, the high priest, placed upon the head of a live goat the sins of the people, and then, through a designated person, released it into the wilderness. The day of national atonement acknowledged the necessity of confronting both the sacred center, and the wilderness, as places where transformation could happen. 

oday, Yom Kippur is a day to consider, reflect, and think about what needs to change, for us and for society. We fast and wear white, as if we are angels who do not need to eat. We remember through Torah readings and prayer the ceremony of cleansing in the Tabernacle. We explore places of human suffering: the deaths of loved ones, the injustices we and others have caused, and the inevitable sorrows the cycle of life brings us. We remember the prophet Isaiah exhorting us to do right by others. We remember Jonah in the belly of the whale, and we contemplate what is trapping us or preventing us from moving forward. Like the high priest, we enter the spaces of Yom Kippur ready to be changed by the Divine names we speak, and by the image of ourselves we imagine.

At the very beginning of Yom Kippur, we recite a formula releasing us from foolish vows we may have made to the Divine. This puts us in a position of radical freedom to travel anywhere in our hearts and minds, anywhere we need to go in order to free ourselves. Whatever place we get to that allows us to free ourselves from former constrictions, that place is the Holy of Holies, and that place is the wilderness.

At the very end of the holiday, we recite a magical formula; we say ‘”Shema yisrael adonai eloheinu adonai echad” (Hear o Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one) once, “baruch shem kevod malchuto le’olam va’ed” (blessed is the name of the Shekhinah-glory forever) three times, and “adonai hu ha’elohim” (Adonai is God) seven times. This is also the formula one says before death. The very end of Yom Kippur is a symbolic death that allows us to be reborn in a new, pure existence. The theme of rebirth ties together Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur.

On Rosh haShanah, we contemplate all that has happened to us in the year past. On Yom Kippur, we seek to enter the deepest sacred spaces of our lives, to do the work of change, and also to remind ourselves that our lives have meaning. We make a special effort to recall the dead, and we consider the knowledge that we too are finite. In other words, we face the mysteries of human existence. We also acknowledge that comfort is possible, even if we cannot see it in the moment: that prayer, good deeds, and the possibility of change can bring a new serenity to our lives. It is contemplation of the mysteries that draws us to do the work of the High Holidays. 


Please read the following readings in preparation for our class:

  • Arthur Waskow, Seasons of Our Joy, 1-46 (Chapters 1 and 2)
  • Jill Hammer, Jewish Book of Days, p. 26-38

Lecture: Rosh HaShanah & Yom Kippur

Avinu Malkeinu/Imeinu Malkateinu

Avinu malkeinu, chaneinu va’aneinu
ki ein banu maasim
Asei imanu tzedakah vachesed vehoshi’einu
Imeinu malkateinu,
chaninu va’aninu ki ein banu ma’asim
Asi imanu tzedakah vachesed vehoshi’inu

Our parent and guide, be gracious to us and answer us, for our deeds are small in the face of your universe. Be loving and charitable with us, and help us grow.

Our parent and guide, be gracious to us and answer us, for our deeds do not stop with us: rather, what we do affects your world. Be loving and charitable with us, and help us understand. Show us justice and love, and save us.

Creative Avinu Malkeinu/Imeinu Malkateinu 

by Kohenet Ketzirah Lesser

Source of Life, teach us how to make this year a new beginning.
Heart of the Universe, show us how to grow when harshness enters our life. Breathing Spirit of the Worlds, help us to accept what we must accept.
Fire of our Souls, guide us to change what must be changed.
Source of Life hear our prayer
Source of Life, teach us how to face disease and death.
Heart of the Universe, show us how to enjoy the gift of life.
Breathing Spirit of the Worlds, help us to nurture those who are ill.
Fire of our Souls, guide us on a path towards peace with our enemies.
Source of Life hear our prayer
Source of Life, teach us how to make the world a better place for all creation.
Heart of the Universe, show us how to make amends for our wrongdoings.
Breathing Spirit of the Worlds, help us to learn from the past.
Fire of our Souls, guide us down the path of freedom and peace for all.
Source of Life hear our prayer
Source of Life, teach us how to be good neighbors.
Heart of the Universe, show us how to be good friends.
Breathing Spirit of the Worlds, help us to be good lovers.
Fire of our Souls, guide our actions to be good partners.
Source of Life hear our prayer
Source of Life, teach us how to be good children.
Heart of the Universe, show us how to be good parents.
Breathing Spirit of the Worlds, help us to be good people.
Fire of our Souls, guide our hearts to treat all people as your people.
Source of Life hear our prayer Source of Life, receive our prayers.
Heart of the Universe, write our names in the Book of Life
Breathing Spirit of the Worlds, help us to be worthy of the lives we are given. Fire of our Souls, guide us towards unity with universe.

Masc: Avinu malkeinu chaneinu va'aneinu ki ein banu ma'asim Asai imanu tzedakah va'chesed ve'hoshi'einu. Our father, our king, be gracious to us and hear us, for our deeds are small in the face of your universe. Be loving and charitable with us, and help us grow.

Fem: Imeinu malkateinu chaneenu va’aneenu ki ein banu ma’asim Asee imanu tzedakah vachesed vehoshee’eenu Our mother, our queen, be gracious to us and hear us, for our deeds do not stop with us: rather, what we do affects your world. Be loving and charitable with us, and help us understand.

Rituals for the Rosh haShanah Meal(s)

There is a Sephardic tradition, based on a ritual described in the Talmud, of eating a special meal on Rosh haShanah with foods that symbolize prosperity, success, and fertility. Apples and honey are an Ashkenazic tradition in the same vein: we eat sweet fruit to embody our wish that the year be sweet and nourishing. Ashkenazic Jews eat a fruit they haven’t eaten in at least a year, so that they can recite the prayer over new things.

I like to put out foods on Rosh haShanah that represent the abundance of the earth: apples (round and symbolic of the Tree of Life), sweet root vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, beets) that grow in the earth), a pomegranate (for the world bursting with life), a round challah (for the life-spiral and the wheel of the year), honeycomb (reminding us of the bees), chestnuts (grown by my father) or something local to represent the land I live on, and a rare fruit to symbolize the variety of the world:

The kavvanah (ritual statement of intention) over sweet Rosh haShanah food is: Yehi ratzon milifanecha (milifanayich) shetechadesh aleinu shanah tovah u’metukah. May it be Your will that the year be renewed for us in good and sweet ways.

The prayer over food’s you haven’t eaten in a year (or in a whole growing season): Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam shehecheyanu vekiymanu vehigianu lazman hazeh. (masculine)

Beruchah at shekhinah elotenu ruach ha’olam shehecheyatnu vekiymatnu vehigiatnu lazman hazeh. (feminine) Blessed is the One who has given us life and sustained us and brought us to this season.

If you’re into tradition and vegetable symbolism, here’s a list of “punning” foods one might find at a Sephardic seder. A pomegranate (Heb. rimon), symbolizing fullness and fertility. A date (Heb. tamar), eaten while reciting a prayer that wicked people cease (tamu) from the earth. String beans or black-eyed peas (ruviah) , eaten after saying a prayer that merits increase (yirbu) in the coming year. A leek (karti), eaten with a prayer that enemies of the Jews be cut off (karet). A beet (silka) eaten with a prayer that enemies disappear (salek) from the earth. A pumpkin or gourd (kra), which represents the Rosh haShanah prayer that “kera roah g’zerah dineinu” (may all evil decrees against us be torn up). A carrot (gezer) eaten with a prayer that evil decrees (gezar) be annulled. (Moroccans stew all these vegetables together in one pot and eat them as a soup.) The head of a goat (or, in Europe, a fish) so that those present should be the “head” and not the “tail.”

Enjoy making sacred food for the new year!

List Source: Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Sept. 14, 2001

D'var Torah for Rosh haShanah Day 1

D’var Haftarah on Chanah’s Story, 2005 (Jill Hammer)

The story of Chanah is the story of a very stubborn woman. Chanah, the wife of Elkanah, cannot get pregnant; she is barren. Her rival wife, Peninah, torments her constantly because she cannot conceive— it is almost as if Peninah is the externalized punishing voice of Chanah herself, saying that she is not good enough. Chanah becomes deeply depressed. When she makes a pilgrimage to the tabernacle to eat sacred meals as part of a the holiday ritual, she cannot eat. Her husband Elkanah says to her: “Chanah, why are you crying? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart so sad? Am I not better to you than ten sons?”

In modern commentary, Elkanah is frequently portrayed as the man who does not get it. How can he belittle Chanah’s suffering, when her greatest desire has been frustrated, by offering himself as a substitute for children? But I want, for a moment, to give Elkanah the benefit of the doubt. Elkanah is regarded by the sages as a particular kind of great spiritual personality-- someone who radiates joy. There is a midrash, a story, that whenever Elkanah makes a holiday pilgrimage to the tabernacle, he tells others where he is going and invites them to come with him. His delight in God carries others along. Elkanah cannot change Chanah’s barrenness, but he wants to give her some joy in the pilgrimage in spite of her real pain. So he tells her that he loves her. What else can he say, really?

But Chanah has a different spiritual need. If Elkanah represents the joy of the festival, Chanah represents our real desire to be healed, to have our hurts addressed. She does not want to cover over her pain. She rises from the sacrificial meal and goes off to weep and pray on her own. Chanah vows that if God will grant her a child, she will dedicate that child to God. She prays in her heart, but her lips move with her fervor. Her prayer resonates through her entire body. She does not experience her prayer, she becomes her prayer.

Chanah’s form of worship is so unusual, so radical, that the high priest, Eli, who is passing by, thinks that she is drunk. He shouts at her to become sober. Chanah defends herself not by appealing to tradition but by telling the high priest what is in her heart. She says: “I have been speaking out of my pain and anger.” Eli rises to the occasion and blesses her that her prayer may be granted. Though she has no guarantee of Eli’s words, Chanah is no longer sad. She returns to the sacrificial meal, eats, and goes back home. Now that someone has spoken to her pain, she can truly rejoice. If Elkanah represents the joy of the holiday even before our prayers have been answered, Chana represents the comfort we feel when our pain has been heard.

Then a miracle occurs, and Chanah becomes pregnant. God grants Chanah a son. She keeps her son Samuel until she weans him, and then she brings him back to the tabernacle and dedicates him to God, saying: “This boy here, I prayed for him, and God did as I asked.” Chanah acknowledges the power of her own prayer.

During much of our time on this earth, we accept how things are. We try to rejoice in what we have even though there is much that we lack, even though many pains lie beneath the surface, and not all of our prayers have been answered. On Rosh haShanah we learn to demand the healing and fulfillment that we think we cannot attain. Many forces shout at us to become sober, to be more moderate, to accept the way the world is. Today Chanah tells us to ask for what we need, to ask that things change, even if it sounds crazy.

These words I believe were written by the poet Nikki Giovanni. I have meditated on them often, because they cannot be true. They cannot possibly be true. Yet in some way, I believe they are Chanah’s mysterious message to us. The poet writes: “You can have what you ask for, ask for everything.”

Liturgy for Tashlich

ashlich is a Jewish folk ritual for Rosh haShanah, in which bread, stones, or other objects are thrown into water as a way of casting off sins (or anything no longer wanted) and purifying oneself to enter the new year. Here is a brief liturgy to use.

Song (Taya Shere)

Holy holy (3x) Holy holy holy holy
Holy is the silence and holy is the sound
Holy is each one of us and holy is the ground
Holy is the river and holy are the tears
Holy is the autumn and the turning of the year
Kadosh kadosh (3x) Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh
Adonai tzeva’ot melo chol ha’aretz kevodo (2x)


We ask for a piece of sand
And God gives us a beach.
We ask for a drop of water
And God gives us an ocean.
We ask for time
And God gives us the bond of everlasting life.

"This is the secret of what Scripture says: Let us make the human in our image.” This verse is in the plural because all the worlds participated in the making of human beings… Human beings, through their deeds, help life to flow in heaven and earth, and it is as if humanity planted and founded the worlds…. (Hayyim Vital, Sha'arei Kedushah 3:2) In releasing all that we no longer desire to the water, we release the flow of our own abundance into the world.

Song (taya Shere)

The river is flowing, flowing and growing
The river is flowing down to the sea
Hashem guide me, be faithfully beside me
Hashem guide me and bless how I be
Shekhinah reside in me, your wisdom lives inside of me
Shekhinah reside in me, o holy of holies!

(Individuals now go to the water to meditate and cast away.)

Prayer for Tashlich (Rachel Barenblat)

Here I am again, ready to let go of my mistakes.
Help me to release myself from all the ways I've missed the mark.
Help me to know that last year is over, washed away like crumbs in the current. Open my heart to blessing and gratitude.
Renew my soul as the dew renews the grasses. Amen.

(Individuals now return to the group, and the leader offers this prayer:)

Travelers’ Prayer (Ursula K. LeGuin)

Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.
Let desert sand harden your feet.
Let the arch of your feet be the mountains.
Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps
And the ways you go be the lines on your palms.
Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing
And your outbreath be the shining of ice
May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words.
May you smell food cooking you have not eaten.
May the spring of a foreign river be your navel.
May your soul be at home where there are no houses.
Walk carefully, well loved one,
Walk mindfully, well loved one,
Walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return to us, return with us, be always coming home.

Closing song

Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul.
Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul.
Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are
born and reborn again.
Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul.

Kavvanot for Rosh haShanah, Day 2

Akeidah and the Birth of Rivkah

On a Shabbat afternoon in college, a long while ago, I was sitting with a young Jewish man and we were discussing a disturbing story in Torah and we were talking about obedience to God. I asked him: “If God told you to kill an infant, would you do it?” And he said, “Yes, because God knows more than me and I owe God complete obedience.” And I said: “I would not do that even if God asked me.” He said to me: “How can you say that you believe in God?” I replied: “The God I believe in wouldn’t ask, and if God did ask, God would want me to say no.”

The person who had that conversation is still the person I am. I think that if the God we have is asking us to sacrifice children just to demonstrate our faith, we need to seek out a better God. As a person and as the parent of an only child, I cannot read this story or interpret it to you with acceptance of Avraham’s act of faith. I can only read it with the knowledge that every day children are sacrificed to faith and tradition— children who are raised with hatred, girls who don’t get an education, boys who are sent to senseless war. But I want to look at the words behind the words, the God behind the God, the God who might be speaking to us through this story, who maybe even is the real God we’re meant to meet here this Rosh haShanah.

God calls: Avraham, and Avraham answers: hineni, here I am. God then says: Take your son kach et bincha

Your only one et yechidcha—

Whom you love asher ahavta

Isaac: et Yitzchak

And lech lecha, go to har haMoriah, Mount Moriah, And bring him up as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains I will show you.

Such an ironic and terrible lech lecha. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit with God’s promise to make Isaac a nation. Even if God wants only to test Avraham, how can God put Yitzchak through this terrible thing? So I want to understand. I want, as our ancestors have done, to examine each word: Your son, Your only one, Whom you love, Yitzchak.

Our tradition asks: why does God designate Yitzchak in these four ways? Surely “Yitzchak” would be enough. The medieval commentator Rashi, quoting a midrash, says that during this conversation between God and Avraham, Avraham keeps arguing that he doesn’t know who God is talking about when God says, bring your son, your only one, whom you love. He has two sons, Yitzchak and Yishmael. Each one is an only child to his mother, and he loves them both. Avraham holds to indeterminacy until the last possible moment when God says: Yitzchak, and then Avraham must admit that he knows what God is asking.

But I have another thought about these four names for Yitzchak. At the end of the story, when Yitzchak is spared, the angel says: “Do not lay a hand on the boy, do not cause any harm to him. For now I know that you fear God, for you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me.” The words “Your son, your only one,” repeat from the beginning of the story, but the words “the one you love, Yitzchak” do not repeat. Those words are missing. Half of the original sentence, the original fourfold naming of Yitzchak, has disappeared. I want to interpret the missing half of the sentence.

In taking the journey to Moriah, Avraham is willing to give everything for God. But had Avraham seen Yitzchak not as his son, his only one, his, his, but as a person, he might have said: Holy One, I could prove my faith to you by offering my life. But Yitzchak’s life belongs to him, and it is not mine to offer you. Sarah’s only child is not mine to offer you. That is why the words “whom you love, Isaac” are missing; the angel wants to tell us that Avraham thought of Yitzchak as his son, and the angel had to call to remind him of Yitzchak as a person.

Perhaps the angel calls also to us. We often do not live in the world of love. We often feel so compelled by our sense of what we should do or of what must be that we sacrifice others. Many of the actions and patterns we are here to repent arose out of Avraham’s motivations: a desire to be good, to be right. And many of the actions we are here to repent might not have happened had we taken a moment not to be right but to see the soul of the person sitting opposite us. So before we distance ourselves from the pain of the story, let’s remember that this is our story.

I think we are always hearing both voices, the voice of fear that says “take your son” and the voice of love that says “lay not your hand upon the child.” And we have to strain to hear the angel calling at the last moment. We have to hear the missing words of the hidden God, and those words are: asher ahavta, “the one you love.” For each one of us is beloved, and each of us knows how to love.

So I want to invite forward for this aliyah two groups of people: those who in our own lives have been hearing the voice of fear, and who want to hear the angel and the voice of love. And I want to invite for this aliyah also anyone who has been sacrificed, who has been on the altar, that you may remember that you are children and beloved before the Source of All, and you deserve to be saved.


May the One who blessed our ancestors bless us to know that we are children and unique and beloved and named before the Eternal. From that place may we learn to hear the voice of love, the voice that teaches compassion. And instead of haaleihu sham le’olam, raise him up for an offering there, may we hear instead haaleihu shem le’olah, may we raise up God’s name as our offering. May God’s name in us all inspire us to live with the voice of love. And let us say amein.

Aliyah for the end of the reading

We have already come to the end of the story, which is the birth of Rebekah, Rivka, the girl who will one day marry Yitzchak. The tragedy becomes a comic opera. A happy ending, just like Gilbert and Sullivan: Oh, it’s a wedding, everything is okay. The story of the Akedah ends with the arrival of Rivka, who will be Yitzchak’s bride and continue the story of the generations of Avraham’s family. Very nice.

But there’s a strange thing about this happy opera. It doesn’t end with Rivka. The birth of Rivka is the second-to-the-last verse. The verse ends not with the grand-niece of Abraham. The aliyah ends with another genealogy: it speaks of Rivkah’s grandfather’s concubine, Reumah. Literally, her name means “look what’s here,” as if it’s saying, haven’t you forgotten something? The verse also speaks of her children Tevach, Gacham, Tachash, and Maachah, who are not part of the Jewish people. In fact, the list of children ends with Maachah, a name that in every other place in the Bible is a girl’s name. A concubine’s daughter. That’s how we end our Rosh haShanah reading.

Why do we end our Rosh haShanah Torah reading with Maachah and not with Rivka? Maybe because we are not here solely to revere our ancestors. As our last act of hearing Torah on Rosh haShanah, we hear of those who were not born to privilege and who did not inherit anything. Those who were invisible, passed over. To use contemporary language, this text invites us to remember those who because of race, gender, gender identity, age, health status, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or class, or because of more particular circumstances, are easy to forget.

And we’re here to remember the forgotten and rejected parts of ourselves and bring them into the new year with us. We are here to be with strangers and wanderers and be strangers and wanderers, and we are here to rejoice— because the birth of Maachah is just as precious as the births of Yitzchak and Rivka. That is why we end our reading with Maachah bat Reumah, so we can be part of the raising up of all that has been neglected and forgotten.

If you want to be a witness to the birth of the concubine’s daughter, if you feel a special call to acknowledge the forgotten and the rejected as part of your holiday, come forward for this aliyah.

Misheberach: May the One who blessed our ancestors, not only those who we know but whose names we don’t know, may that one teach us that Maachah the concubine’s daughter has a story just like Yitzchak and Rivka have a story. May the Holy One bless us to honor those in our midst who have been ignored, forgotten, or rejected. And as we do so may we come to honor the forgotten and rejected parts of ourselves. And let us say amen.

Soul Candles: A Practice for the High Holiday Season

ewish women in Europe once made candles at the season of the High Holidays. The wicks of the candles represented beloved souls: biblical ancestors as well as family members and individuals that particular woman wished to remember. The candles were then used throughout the year. This is a wonderful ritual activity to do with women together at this season.

Here is a prayer, translated from Yiddish, that was recited to honor the souls while the candles were being made:

Riboyne shel Olam (Master of the World), I ask you, merciful God, to accept my mitzve of making these candles for the sake of your Holy Name and for the sake of the holy souls. Yehi rotsn (may it be your will) that we may be remembered favorably, as Yom Kippur approaches, because of this mitsve of making the candles.

May we have the merit of donating candles to the holy temple as was done in ancient times, and may these prayers over the candles be said with complete kavone, fear, and awe. May Satan not confuse our prayers and may the candles that are made for the sake of the pure and holy souls cause them to awaken and inform each other until they reach the souls of the holy matriarchs and patriarchs. May they then inform each other until the prayers reach odem and chava (Adam and Eve), so that it may mend their sin which brought death to the whole world. May they arise from their graves and pray for us that this year be a good year.

May the merit of all the just and righteous people, from the time of the first person until the present, protect us on this yom hadin (day of judgment). May our fates be sealed in the Book of Life so that good may come to us. May our lights and the lights of our families not be extinguished, God forbid, prematurely. May the merit of our holy and pure patriarchs and matriarchs and the merit of our little children protect us so that the dead may arise speedily and soon and may they intercede for our future. May they awaken from their graves and prayer for us that the coming year will be a good year and the attribute of justice will be united with the attribute of mercy. May all the pure and holy angels also pray that the dry bones will come to life speedily and soon.

Riboyne shel olam, you commanded us to prepare candles for this holy day, therefore I ask you, dear Father/Mother, that you accept my performing of this mitsve of preparing the wicks and grant us life and health.

Excerpt from the article "soul Candles" by Jane Enkin

Jane Enkin is a woman in Canada who is reclaiming this ritual of Soul Candles.

Every year I enjoy an old ritual, a women's ritual. I didn't learn it from my mother, or from my grandmother -- I've never met anyone else who does it. My source was books, my impulse was to make something with my own hands and my own prayers. The ritual, performed by Ashkenazi women for many generations, is the making of soul candles for Yom Kippur.

I lay out on the table my scissors, a roll of candle wick, and sheets of sweet smelling, coloured beeswax. I open my books and read out loud. The wicks I wrap in wax will be dedicated to beloved souls. I roll one rectangle of wax around a wick for my husband, in gratitude. One for my son, in fierce hope and fear. One for myself. Then I gently braid the three tapers together, and squeeze them tightly to join them. I press on a cut-out scrap of wax that suggests something to me – a flame, a tree, a heart. I’ve made a sturdy braided candle to keep, to use for havdalah in the coming weeks.

In the old days, soul candles were made to light the synagogue. The women of a community pressed beeswax on to wicks during the days after Rosh Hashana. The candles were collected, brought to the shul, and lit for the Kol Nidre service. In Ashkenazi communities, women often surrounded their ritual actions with prayers and intentions that were filled with personal, emotional content. Sometimes the thoughts were spontaneous, although shaped by tradition. Other prayers were passed orally from generation to generation.

By the 17th century, printed tekhines, prayers usually composed in Yiddish, were available to accompany women's mitzvahs. One long, very beautiful and detailed tekhine was written specifically for Yom Kippur candle making. This is a section of the Tekhine of the Three Gates, composed by Sore Bas Toyvim, probably in the late 18th century.* It was reprinted widely, available in many communities. This prayer presents the spiritual intentions of the mitzvah. Here are the opening words of the tekhine: “Riboyne shel oylem, I beseech you, merciful God, to accept my mitsve of making these candles for the sake of Your Holy Name and for the sake of the holy souls.” (Klirs, p.22)

As a woman made the candles, she would focus on the neshome, the soul, of an individual. Each wick was dedicated to a particular soul, or group of souls. In the traditional world view of this prayer, two things happen when someone focuses on the soul of a dead person at an advantageous time. The soul can be lifted to a higher level, to be relieved of after-life suffering or brought to an enhanced experience of after-life bliss. And the soul can be asked to carry the prayers of the living, enhancing the power of those prayers. In the days before Yom Kippur, traditionally the time when our futures will be decided for the coming year, petitions for health and livelihood have a special intensity.

A beautiful give and take can be seen in our relationship with these souls, especially if, as I do, we allow ourselves to believe in the power of blessing. We ask these beloved souls to pray for us, and we pray for them: "For the lifting up of this soul ... for a year of good health ...may this soul feel honored and remembered ... may some of your strength and wisdom be reflected in me ... My own candle making was brief this past year. There wasn't much time for my friends and me to be alone together. My husband and my son were home, the grandmothers were on their way over to enjoy the new baby, I. and S. had limited time. My life was full to overflowing that morning-- my baby Sura was only a few hours old. I felt in myself a superwoman, awesome mother persona, holding my very new baby in the home where she was born, teaching my two friends something very old and useful that was new for them.

I chose a few parts of the tekhine to read, told them about the Chagall, and added a bit of what I've learned. Editing can be good -- I found out which parts seemed to matter the most to me. I. and S. immediately think of their parents' souls. I. makes dazzlingly vivid, image filled candles. One candle for each parent, but very much connected in their stories -- the candle for her mother decorated with the roses her father always presented to her. S. makes one candle, in bright colours, celebrating the vitality of her parents' marriage. She looks forward to telling them all about it when she visits in October.

I reach for wicks to make the candle I make every year, for my intimate little family. And find I'm puzzled about making a candle for four souls, not three. Always before I've made three tapers and simply braided them together. I cut four identical lengths of wick, then wonder what to do with them. Soon an image forms. I make a taper for Shlomo, for Sura, for Justin, each in a different shade of blue, and braid them together. Then I cut a very long wick. I wind the taper of cream coloured wax I make around the other three -- I make home for my family, surrounding them with care.

Lying on the table still is the fourth short wick. I make a taper of deep blood red wax. Then I lay out a cream coloured rectangle and roll into it wicks for many different circles of women, naming as many as I can and praying that those unnamed would also be included – a circle of my ancestors, of my teachers, of my friends... at last I add the red taper for myself and close the circles. On Erev Yom Kippur, I set aside the family candle for havadalahs and light the circles of women candle. I light the wicks for Sore bas Toyvim, for Bella Chagall, for my other teachers near and far, for my mother and her mothers, for my friends, and for myself among them. The red colour flows magnificently from within the circles of cream.

A Ritual for the Avodah Service on Yom Kippur

(excerpt from The Hebrew Priestess)

On Yom Kippur in 2005, I served as the leader of the recitation of the biblical ritual of atonement, known as the Avodah service.[i] This is a liturgy that describes how the high priest enters the Holy of Holies alone, once per year, to sprinkle blood seven times on the altar and cleanse the innermost shrine. The sprinkling of blood seven times represents the cleansing of creation itself, as if the world returns to its beginning.

In most Jewish congregations, this recitation is chanted without much explanation. That year, I decided to do something different. I had someone make for me a wooden frame, about the height of a person, and this frame was placed about three feet in front of the Ark of the Torah. The frame had white curtains, which were tied back for most of the service. When it came time for the Avodah service, I untied the curtains so that the Ark could not be seen.

One woman read the text of the priestly rituals: the bathing and the putting on of sacred clothes; the sending away of the scapegoat. Another woman alternated with the first, reading an anthropological text that described rituals of initiation—so that it would be clear that the high priest’s ritual was an initiation and transition for the whole community. In between them, I mimed the high priest’s actions.

There was a basket of rose petals near the Ark. We invited each member of the community to come up, take a handful of petals, go into the curtained space in front of the ark, and cast them, as if casting the blood of the sacrifice. We began to chant and drum, and a long line formed in front of the ark.

As each person passed me, I sprinkled red rose petals on them to represent the bathing (and bloodiness) of the high priest. People went into the “holy of holies” one by one, stayed a moment alone in that small space, and came out again. Later, a number of people told me how profoundly affected they had been inside the sacred space we had created; a few told me they had experienced an initiation. 

Monologues of the High Priestess and High Priest for Yom Kippur

he Yom Kippur Torah reading contains the story of the high priest's cleansing ritual on Yom Kippur within the Holy of Holies, and also mentions the "ish iti" or appointed person, the one who leads the scapegoat to the wilderness, taking the peoples; sins with it. Here are two pieces of writing i did recently, one for the "isha itit" (feminine of ish iti) and one for the kohen gadol (high priest).

The Isha Itit

I am the servant of the underworld. I take away what is repressed, rejected, unwanted, unloved, unseen, unconsidered, unmade—and I bring it back again, unending. I take the goat from your hands, and with my veil and my staff pass into the wilderness, and it is gone. You do not see me bring it back. You do not see me as your mother, daughter, grandfather, poet, singer, judge—but I am there, and the goat’s horn is in my hands, and when I sound it, what you did not want is back with you again. And if you are lucky enough to see it, you will know that I have returned to you what you threw away and made it new, and put a blessing on it. If you are wise enough to know, you will know that I have purified you and made you clean, not by purging but by reinventing. I am the servant of the underworld. You send me away, but it is I who make you whole.

The Kohen Gadol

I am the keeper of dreams. You dream of a perfect world and I build it for you. You want your sins forgiven and I snap my fingers and make it happen. I am a magician of transformation. I build edifices that cannot fall. Of course, under my foundation sand leaks out to the sea, and channels go down deep into the dark where the births and deaths happen. But I don’t need to show you any of that. I will show you the purple and crimson and scarlet thread, the blood and the magic, and you will believe. You can believe. I am a showman, but you can trust me. That is my secret.

A Goddess Drash for the Book of Jonah

The book of Jonah is traditionally read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

A Divine voice speaks to Jonah and tells him to go to Nineveh and preach to the people there that because of their wicked ways they will be destroyed. But Jonah doesn’t want to take part in a drama of repentance. Jonah flees the command of the Holy One by hiring a boat and fleeing to the city of Tarshish. Why does Jonah flee by sea? It may simply be the fastest way out of the land of Israel. Or perhaps, Jonah may be unconsciously drawn to the thing he is trying to avoid. What Jonah is trying to avoid is the interconnectedness of all things.

In myth, the ocean represents the dawn of creation; in science, the ocean is where all life was born, and in some forms of psychology, the ocean is the place of the collective unconscious. The sea represents the origin, the mingling, the oneness of life. The sea is Goddess: the life-force of all. The Divine asks of Jonah that he acknowledge this oneness by going to Nineveh, an enemy city, to preach to foreigners that he has never met and give them a chance do teshuvah.

Jonah refuses, yet he flees to the sea. His actions contain within them the seed of his own return. Jonah gets a berth on a ship and goes down into the lowest part of the hold. He actually goes under the waterline, under the level of the ocean, and goes to sleep. He enters a state of denial. The sea becomes Jonah’s shofar; it becomes the instrument by which he is awakened. The ocean begins to storm and the captain shakes Jonah. How can you be asleep? The captain asks. Get up and call upon God! Jonah goes aboveboard and all the sailors cast lots to see who is the cause of the storm. Jonah is chosen. Which god do you serve? he is asked. He replies: I serve the God of the Hebrews, who made both sea and land. Again, Jonah has the sea on his mind. He is feeling the presence of God/dess in the earth and the water, the living Presence all around.

When the storm gets even worse and the sailors realize they will all be killed, they ask Jonah what they must do to him to calm the waves, he does not say: take me back to Israel and I will obey the command of Adonai. He says: Throw me into the sea. Is this a death wish, a result of his depression? Partly, but there is also something else here. The depths of the ocean have a lesson Jonah needs to learn. He knows this, and so he asks the sailors to heave him overboard. The sea stops raging. Jonah plunges into the water and is swallowed by a great fish. He sits in the belly of this fish for three days.

Jonah recites a psalm with the words “tehom yesoveveni,” the great deep surrounded me. Inside the whale, Jonah experiences being completely surrounded and protected by another life. Jonah, who cannot bear to reach outside himself to strangers, is saved by another life, a life completely strange to him. This too is a truth of the Goddess, Tiamat, Tehom, the great depths. we are dependent on the larger world, the Mother of All.

There is a midrash from a source called Otzar Midrashim. It tells how the whale took Jonah all around the oceans of the world, and the deepest places on earth, and their last stop was the foundation stone. The foundation stone, according to Jewish legend, rests directly beneath the Holy of Holies, and is the place where the Divine One created the world. It is made of undifferentiated being, and from it God spread out the world just as a fetus grows from a single cell in the womb of its mother. This midrash suggests that the secret Jonah learns is that we are all connected.

Jonah agrees to go to Nineveh, and the fish spits him onto dry land. In Nineveh, Jonah proclaims his prophecy that Nineveh must repent or it cannot survive. The people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s voice, the truth he has imbibed from the waters, and they repent and change their ways. They put on sackcloth, which is a sign of unity, where rich and poor are equal, and they fast, so that for one day no one takes the life of anything, not even a plant, in order to eat, and no one even takes the water from the earth. The king leaves his throne to sit in the dust, showing humility before Adonai. The king even asks that the animals cry to God, as if he has discovered that all life is one, all beings are interconnected. Because the Ninevites understand this truth, the Holy One forgives them.

And Jonah, who has not fully learned his lesson, complains bitterly. Didn’t I know, he says to God, that you are compassionate and love all things equally, and that you would forgive this wayward city? But there are divisions in the world. I have been righteous, I am an Israelite who serves you; why should I be an instrument of redemption for these problematic and sinful people? Jonah wants to enact the ultimate separation; he wants to die, and he wants others to die as well. He waits in the desert for the city of Nineveh to be destroyed.

So the Holy One teaches Jonah about the Goddess in yet another way. The Holy One provides a plant, with broad leaves, to shelter Jonah. It shades him from the sun. The next day, the plant dies. Because of its death, Jonah has no shelter, and so he weeps and wishes for death. And the Holy One tells him: you feel connected to a simple, ephemeral plant, just because it served you. And should I not feel connected to the thousands of people in Nineveh, and even the animals who dwell there: the many forms of life I made? This plant that shelters Jonah represents the world, that shelters us and provides for us. As it lives and dies, the Divine tries to teach Jonah empathy for all mortal and fragile things. More than this, the word for gourd, kikayon, is very similar to the Greek word kykeon, the cup from which seekers at Eleusis received the mysteries of the Goddess. Jonah receives the mysteries from the plant that lives and dies.

Not for nothing does our tradition call Adonai Mikveh Mayyim Chayyim, the gathering of living waters. The Holy One, like the ocean, is a source of life that connects all our shores together. The book of Jonah ends with God’s question. Jonah never answers “yes, you should care about the people of Nineveh, and so should I.” But we, who hear the question, we are asked to say yes to empathy and responsibility. We are asked to say yes to the sea of life and to our place in it. Maybe we deny ourselves water on this day so that we will know how much we long for it, how much we need to let go into the flow of life, to let go the divisions, to let the separations wash away. This is the teaching of the divine oceanic Mother for us.

We go down to the ocean with Jonah as we went to the river on Rosh haShanah, to let ourselves be one. It is written in a midrash that there are three realms of the world, the sky, the earth, and the sea. Maariv, the evening service, represents the sky. Shacharit, the morning service, represents the earth. And minchah, the afternoon service, represents the sea. Minchah is where we have now arrived. As we hear the story of Jonah, may we learn the lesson of the sea: that we come from one place, that we are one, and our actions to one another are like the waves of the sea, connecting us in even deeper ways than we could ever imagine.

Spirit Journey: Yom Kippur