High Holidays Like No Other


This evening marks Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the month of  Elul is the month when we begin our spiritual preparations for the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe. Elul is the official opening of our High Holidays. The numerical value of the word “Elul” is the same as the numerical value of the word “binah” – understanding.  Through understanding comes repentance.


These upcoming High Holidays will be, in many ways unlike any other we have ever experienced. Some of us will welcome the changes and adaptations necessitated by our need to conduct services online due to restrictions related to Covid-19.   One noticeable change is that our services will be shorter than usual.  Over the years I have been asked why we repeat so many of our prayers during the course of our High Holiday services. This year it will be “one and done, no prayer will be repeated. I have heard it said, on occasion, that some of us are bored at services.  I am happy to announce that this year, in the interest of brevity, we have cut out all the boring parts! Surely this will be a welcome change for some in our congregations.

Yet none of these changes compensate for the fact that we will not be together as a community in our beautiful sanctuary this High Holiday season. Extended families and friends are less likely to get together. We will not be able to sing together. Much of what makes the High Holidays a joyous, comforting and celebratory occasion will be absent. We will all have to work harder to make the holidays memorable, special and spiritual.

Rabbis and Cantors and worship committees throughout the world are working hard to re-design High Holiday services so they can be spiritually meaningful to themselves and to their congregation. I have been having regular meetings with my rabbinic colleagues over the internet and believe me we are all rather anxious about this. Many of us are even worried whether our congregants will show up at all! And if they do, how involved could they possibly be participating through a computer

Even in the best of times, clergy  cannot do it alone. Even in the best of times, we need the help of our congregation. These, I do not have to tell you, are NOT the best of times. The cantor and I need YOUR help more than ever if we are to make these holidays  meaningful , spiritually rich and sustaining. 

How can you help us? Since you will not be coming to the sanctuary, we ask you to make your home into a sanctuary. Cantor Matt Axelrod of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, recently made some suggestions on how to do this. I have added several suggestions myself.    

1)     Set up a pleasant space in your home where everyone can gather to see the services. If you have external speakers for your computer, use them. If you are able to hook up your computer to your larger television screen, even better.  Buy flowers to make the room more cheerful. If you can face east, toward Jerusalem, do so. If you are unable to face east, at least know where east is in your room.

2)      Get dressed up.  Although you may choose not to get dressed up in a suit or a formal dress, you might want to reconsider attending services   in sweatpants or jeans. Buy a new shirt or blouse for the Holidays and wear it for services. It is traditional when wearing clothing for the first time to recite the Shehechiyanu blessing. Don a tallit and a kipah for services. If you do not own a tallit, this would be a great time to purchase one. (and another chance to recite “Shehechiyanu”!) Stand up and sit down at the appropriate times. Being dressed in a certain way and sitting in your specially created sanctuary can go a long way in creating the proper mood and atmosphere conducive to prayer.

3)      Come on time and make sure everybody in the family is there in your newly created worship space. Since services will be shorter, the older children in the household should be encouraged to attend throughout. When you hear a congregational melody that you know – sing!  Respond, “amen” when it is time.

4)      Hold a prayer book. Our congregation is holding a drive-through Food Donation and Prayer Book Pick-up event on Sunday September 13 from 10 am to noon. If you cannot make it, we will drop off as many prayer books at your home as you need. Each family member should have their own Machzor. You can also follow along with the Torah reading in that chumash that your son or daughter got for their bar or bat mitzvah. Or, download the Torah reading for the day from the internet. The High Holiday Machzor is also available on our website if that works for you.

5)      We will all be sitting in front of our computers. You will be tempted to check your emails. DON’T. You will be tempted to shop online. DON’T. You will be tempted to plan next summer’s vacation. DON’T. You will be tempted to go to the kitchen for a snack. Don’t go! Resist these temptations. Stay focused on the services. Stay with us, physically and spiritually. We need you.


        Finally, I am going to post this on our Facebook page. Please share it with your friends and fellow congregants. Spread the word and brainstorm ideas. Send your ideas to me!

Above all, please do not wait until the last minute to think about how you will experience the High Holidays this year. In previous years, walking into the synagogue and taking your seat among the congregation was enough. That is not possible this year. This year, physical preparation and spiritual preparation go hand in hand. Think of this not as a loss, but as an opportunity to take more responsibility for your own experience of the Days of Awe.

Shabbat Shalom