High Holy Days 2020

It is not entirely clear what motivates Jews to attend services on the High Holy Days. There are some who are motivated by the themes of the holidays, focusing on self-reflection and reprioritizing their lives and others’ out of a sense of religious obligation. There are even some willing to admit that they attend services as an insurance policy, as if to say, “God, if you are really there and today really counts, I want you to know that I AM HERE.” The one thing many have in common is the enjoyment of seeing old friends. Attending Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is a type of Jewish reunion for many people. If you have been a member of a synagogue for a long time, there is the joy of reconnecting with people you have shared a lifetime of experiences with—parent-and-me classes, bar/bat mitzvahs, and weddings, along with the sadder moments of illness and death. Another common experience shared by everyone attending services is the sense of Jewish peoplehood they feel on these days. For some, it might even feel like a re-enactment of Mt. Sinai, when the entire Jewish people stood together to receive the Torah. It is the closest thing the Jewish people have to Coachella or Burning Man.

This year, the High Holy Days will be unlike any other year. As I write this article to meet a deadline well in advance of publication, it is hard to imagine conditions changing significantly enough that people will be able to gather together in large numbers as we usually do for the High Holy Days. The highest value in Judaism is for health, specifically for saving a life. Given our current condition with COVID-19, it would be hard for many Jewish people to imagine coming together by the hundreds– Temple Aliyah traditionally brings together more than a thousand people per service—for an indoor service that runs from two to four hours (depending on when people arrive) with everyone singing at full voice.

Therefore, every synagogue is figuring out how to answer the question, “How will these High Holy Days be different from all other High Holy Days?” Some synagogues will prerecord their services to ensure the highest quality. Others will rely on a hybrid system of prerecorded pieces (especially for choirs that cannot sing together) and live services. Will the Wi-Fi go out? Will Zoom go down? There are so many things that could go wrong. Yet, we have a remarkable opportunity to bring the High Holy Days into people’s homes with a quality not previously possible.

How else will these High Holy Days be affected? Families will not be able to gather as they do for Rosh Hashanah dinner and the break-fast meal at the end of Yom Kippur—two meals that are so different. The Rosh Hashanah dinner prepares us for the joyous nature of celebrating the Jewish new year. Candles are lit with the appropriate blessings as we do on all holidays and Shabbat. A round challah is used instead of the traditional braided one that adorns our table for Shabbat, symbolizing the lifecycle and circular nature of the year. Apples are dipped into honey with the typical blessing for eating a fruit of the tree, with the added words: “May it be your will O’God that we should be renewed for a sweet and good year.”

The break-fast meal is usually much more informal. After fasting for approximately 25 hours, people rush to get their food and find a corner to eat. There is a sense of relief that the fast is completed and yet also a sense of satisfaction for having taken part in the meaningful rituals of the day. The Rosh Hashanah meal represents the joy of celebrating life while Yom Kippur focuses on that question of what we are going to do with that life. How do we go back to correct some of the mistakes we made over the last year, including with the people we have hurt? What are the promises we make for ourselves in the coming year to be better and do better?

One of the most important prayers of the High Holy Days is called Unetaneh Tokef, where we conclude with a series of questions: “Who will live and who will die?” We acknowledge the ethereal nature of life. During this pandemic, these words will take on new meaning. Candles are lit with the appropriate blessings as we do on all holidays and Shabbat.

There are a number of mitzvot (commandments) that are closely tied to the High Holy Days, like the blowing of the shofar and fasting. This year there is an opportunity to observe another mitzvah. Whether it is people who are particularly at-risk who should not be attending services or others who may be asymptomatic carriers, our staying home this year could very well save lives and hence be seen as a mitzvah. At the same time, it is possible for these High Holy Days to be more profound than ever. In the midst of a pandemic, many people have already reprioritized what is important to them: a new emphasis on family (ironic when in many cases we can’t hug those family members) and simpler values. May these High Holy Days help us affirm life and what it means to live truly worthwhile lives.