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High Holiday Questions & Answers from Our Rabbis

Rabbi Topp

Q1: I spend countless hours in Shul over the Yamim Noraim and while the service is beautiful and inspiring, I often find it difficult to connect to the prayers themselves. How can I make the Tefillah experience more meaningful? 

Answer: Here are some suggestions on how to get more out of the Tefilla experience:  

Words Matter: Since Tefillah can be an imposing philosophical presence, we perhaps overlook the most simple and basic key to success which is to make an effort to understand the words you are saying. Understand the words, say them with sincerity, and Tefillah will come alive. 

Less is More: While we can’t deny the obligation to say all the words of the Amidah, the Shema and similar core prayers, Rav Yosef Caro, in the very first chapter of Shulchan Aruch teaches us an important principle. He writes emphatically that it’s preferable to say fewer words with kavanah (sincere intention) than to say many words with lack of feeling. 

Three Second Rule: Before each blessing of the Amidah, pause for three seconds to reflect upon the theme of the upcoming blessing, and thereby infuse deeper meaning into your prayers. 

Make your Tefillah Real: At the modim bracha of thanksgiving, for each Tefillah, think of at least one specific thing in your life which you are deeply grateful for and have that in mind in your expression of thanks to Hashem. Seek other similar opportunities to connect the Tefillah to your life.

Identify with Community: Tefillah is most powerful in the context of a Kehilla and the prayers themselves are typically in the plural. We derive strength from our fellow Shul goers and consider their needs as we personally engage with Hashem. 

If we approach it properly and work at it, Tefilla has the potential to change our lives by giving us renewed focus and direction. The Machzor, specifically, highlights the central themes of the holidays and enables us to tap into the unique power of these holy days. Hopefully the suggestions above can help us daven sincerely, focus on the meaning of the prayers, and transform our lives so we can be granted both a higher measure of providential blessing and a better understanding of ourselves.     

Q2: What is the purpose of Rosh Hashanah? 

Answer: The Talmud Rosh Hashana teaches us the tripartite theme of the holiday that serves as the framework of the Rosh Hashana Mussaf: Malchiyot (Gd’s Kingship), Zichronot (Asking Hashem to Remember us Favorably) and Shofarot, (Shofar is the vehicle that carries our prayers to Hashem). To achieve the first goal of Malchiyot, consider the powerful words of the Alter of Kelm “We are called on Rosh Hashana to crown Hashem as King. With what shall we crown Him? With love for others and charitable deeds.”   

Q3: In the U’netaneh Tokef prayer, we declare energetically that “Teshuva, Tefillah u’Tzedaka maavirin et ro’ah hagezeirah- Repentance, Prayer and Charity avert the bitterness of the decree.” Why are these three activities considered paradigms of religious behavior? 

Answer: We highlight these three elements because they signify a call to action for the three dimensions of our lives. Teshuva is our relationship with ourselves. Tefillah is our relationship with Hashem. And Tzedaka is our relationship with others. A Jew not only must strive to fulfill his or her responsibility in all three spheres of relationship, but without attention to one, the others will be lacking.

Cantor Arik

Q1: While during the year the congregation’s part during the repetition of the Amidah is limited to only reciting Amen, during the high holidays the congregation’s role is much bigger and includes much recitation and singing. Is it better to complete the silent Amidah quickly so one could participate in the repetition or should one take the time and continue the silent part even though the repetition has already started?

Answer: While reciting the silent Amidah, one fulfills the obligation to answer Kedusha by the rule of Shome’a K’oneh (listening is like reciting) and should focus on the silent Amidah. In addition,  most of the liturgy during the repetition is Piyutim (poems) which do not have the same Halachic status as the Amidah itself. 

Q2: My Hebrew is not great and while, with time, I was able to learn how to recite weekdays and Shabbat prayers in Hebrew, the high holidays prayers are difficult and I find myself struggling  and not being able to connect with the texts. Should I continue to struggle with the Hebrew and keep my davening in Hebrew or perhaps I should switch to English and get more Kavanah?

Answer: Since you already mastered the T’filah in Hebrew during the year, you should continue with Hebrew in those sections. Sh’ma and its blessings and the silent Amidah during the High Holidays are similar to the rest of the year. The challenge is the middle blessing of the Amidah called Kedushat Hayom (sanctification of the day) and I would highly recommend to go over this blessing and master it prior to the holidays. The main difference between the High Holidays and Shabbat service is the recitation of Piyutim (poems) during the repetition of the Amidah and those can be recited in English if one prefers.

Q1: Why is Yom Kippur such a sad day?

Answer: It’s not. It’s actually one of the more joyous days. We get confused by the idea of fasting and assume it’s because we are in mourning. Usually when we fast that is the case, but on Yom Kippur we fast because we are like angels for that day, and we try to resemble them as much as we can.

Q1: What actually occurred on the first Rosh Hashanah?

Answer: Although in the Tefilot (prayers) we refer to Rosh Hashanah as “Yom Harat Olam”, the day the world was created, Rosh Hashanah was not actually the first day of creation, but rather the sixth day of creation - the day upon which G-d created humankind.

There is a profound lesson in celebrating Rosh Hashanah specifically today. Prior to the creation of human beings, there was no concept of free will or moral decisions in the world. As human beings, we alone have the power to choose how we relate to the world around us. 

Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity for us to reflect on those choices. As the Torah relates, “I have placed before you life and death, blessing & curse - choose life!” Today we remind ourselves that we are not passive or powerless participants in our lives or the world around us.

We celebrate Rosh Hashanah today because we recognize that we are G-d’s partners in creation and we have been given the awesome opportunity to renew that choice again today; to choose a life filled with purpose, significance and meaningful connection. 

Q2: What is the meaning behind the sounds of the Shofar?

Answer: Our Sages teach we are to sound three different types of shofar blasts. The first is a tek’iah - a long continuous burst. Followed by a shevarim - three shorter blasts, and a teruah -  the sound of nine short blasts. 

The Ben Ish Chai explains that the tek’iah is a sound of triumph and joy, while the shevarim and teruah are sounds of pain and suffering. He explains their deeper significance by means of a beautiful story. 

“A man had a ring specially made for him. Upon this ring, he had engraved the words “This, too, will pass.” If he were troubled and in pain, he would look at his ring and remember that the suffering would eventually end. This thought comforted him. During times of happiness and comfort, he would gaze at the ring as well. He would realize that his wealth and good fortune could also change in an instant. This ring reminded the man that all in his life had to be put in perspective, and that one should live his life neither complacent nor despondent - but with a sense of greater purpose.”

On Rosh Hashanah we recognize that our triumphs and pain all come from the one above in service of our mission. In hearing these sounds of the Shofar, we reconnect and recommit to ourselves to our purpose for the year ahead.

Q3: What is the significance of Tashlich?

Answer: On the first day of Rosh Hashanah after the afternoon prayer, we go to a body of water that preferably has fish, and recite the Tashlich (which means 'casting off') prayer, wherein we symbolically cast our sins into the water and leave our old shortcomings behind us, thus starting the new year with a clean slate.

As we connect with our better selves on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we gain clarity and refocus our lens towards our values. However, oftentimes, we find that the paradigm of past experience begins to create self-limiting behaviors and thoughts. Tashlich is a powerful opportunity to psychologically cast-off that mindset through action, prayer and deep personal commitment.

Rabi Posy

Q1: I know that the high holidays are about forgiveness, but what does that really mean? Am I really supposed to just ignore those who have hurt me? 

Answer: Forgiveness is a deeply personal experience and there is no easy answer to allow us to reach into the depths of our soul. I believe, however, a quote from a Rabbinic colleague sums it up best.

“When we walk around with the accounting books and keep track of everything everyone around us has done that is hurtful both intentionally and unintentionally, the one who suffers the most is ourselves.”

The sins of others often weigh far more on us then they weigh on the perpetrators.  The Yamim Noraim season is an opportunity for us to break free of the negative emotions and feelings that can sometime paralyze us and bring us down.  

Q2: Either I or someone close to me has a medical issue and cannot fast on Yom Kippur - do they still get “credit” for observing Yom Kippur?

Answer: The fast of Yom Kippur is an extremely important mitzvah that is explicit in the Torah and is seen as an integral part of the Yom Kippur experience. With that being said, Halacha places prime importance on the value of human life and the notion of “Pikuach Nefesh” (life threatening danger) overrides the obligation to fast.  Determining the nature of Pikuach Nefesh is a very delicate process and must be done in consultation with both a Halachic decisor and a medical professional. However, once the determination has been made that it is dangerous to fast, acting to preserve your health is not considered a violation of Yom Kippur and indeed is considered following the values and guidance of the Torah, which will hopefully help to inscribe all of us for a good year. 

Rabbi Broner - Youth Rabbi

Q1: Can I really ask Hashem for anything when I daven on Rosh Hashana?

Answer: Yes certainly as long as we are sincere and caring when we ask. When we daven it is a time to have a private conversation with Hashem and there is nothing to be embarrassed of when we are talking to Hashem.

Shabbat starts Friday: 7:05PM
Shabbat ends Saturday: 8:06PM
Fri, April 12 2024 4 Nisan 5784