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September 7, 2018  RSS feed
Rabbinically Speaking

Text: T T T

The case for the ‘High Holy Days’

By RABBI CARLA FREEDMAN Congregation Beth Israel of Sun City Center

I recently talked with a woman who has just started a new job. She notified her supervisor that she would need time off in order to attend services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Since she works part-time, it should be possible to work around these two important occasions on the Jewish religious calendar. Her supervisor told her that the company policy specifically says that employees “must be available to work on all holidays,” and that she would therefore be expected to work those days.

When I think of “holidays,” I think of occasions like Thanksgiving and July 4th. I think of beaches and swimming pools, family gatherings and easy days of lounging around, doing very little.

When I think of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I think of the sanctuary dressed in white, long services with a very serious tone, and deep reflection on the year just concluded and the one just beginning. So for many years, I have insisted that we characterize these occasions, including the 10 days between them as the “High Holy Days,” not the “high holidays.” Compared to the way our Western culture ushers in a new year, the Jewish new year is no holiday.

It is, of course, true that in places like New York State (where I worked for 23 years before coming to Florida) the public schools are closed for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, so the non- Jewish teachers and students do indeed have a school holiday. But the whole policy was based upon the notion that Jewish teachers and students would be otherwise engaged on those days, and should not be penalized for their religious observances.

For Jews, this is a very sacred season of the year, which was publicly reinforced by the decision of Hank Greenberg in 1934, not to play professional baseball on Yom Kippur, though he had played on Rosh HaShanah. Even more famous was Sandy Koufax’s decision not to play on Yom Kippur in the World Series in 1965. And since Greenberg and Koufax, lots of Jewish baseball players have had to wrestle with this issue, with varying decisions and consequences. What these very public men did was to raise awareness amongst non-Jews that we Jews take these occasions seriously, and their choices made it possible for more and more Jews to take the same stand.

The High Holy Days are a time of reckoning. Whether you believe what the traditional liturgy says about God deciding, in this 10-day period, the fate of us all for the coming year, or you believe that we make those decisions ourselves by the way we live our lives in every moment, it is still a time to take stock of the choices we have made in 5778, and the goals we set for 5779.

Rosh HaShanah has a celebratory tone, for the most part. Yom Kippur, with its repeated confessions of sin, is somber and urgent. Taken seriously, these Yamim Nora-im, Days of Awe, are hard work. No time for lazing about, waiting for the fireworks display.

Words have meaning, and meaning conveys values. Therefore, I encourage you to identify the Days of Awe as “the High Holy Days,” and to communicate the significance of this season to those who might not understand that. Doing so will also serve as a reminder to you, that we are entering a numinous period, when the sense of the Divine Presence among us is at its strongest.

I wish you a year of health, peace and joy.

Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.

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