From Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur

There is a change of mood from the beginning to the end of the ten days of repentance.

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This article is excerpted with permission from Entering the High Holy Days, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

Although rabbinic tradition has created a strong connection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there are major points of distinction between the two. On Rosh Hashanah we proclaim God King and acknowledge that we are responsible for our actions. Yet despite the day's solemnity, the overall tone is positive and celebratory. The affirmative connotations of God's remembering and visiting outweigh the seriousness of judgment. The Rabbis deliberately decreed that the biblical verses to be recited in the three special prayers on kingship, remembrance, and shofarot should contain only positive ideas, and nothing indicating punishment. However, as we move toward Yom Kippur, even though we retain our basic optimism that the verdict will be positive (hence the wearing of white garb rather than black), the atmosphere darkens and turns somber. We begin to concentrate on the problem of sin, on the flawed nature of human beings, and on the removal of sin and guilt through repentance, forgiveness, and atonement.

As human beings, we try to define our place in the vast, mysterious universe in which we live. We want to understand our nature and how we relate to other living things. We think about what came before us and what will come after. We envision the end of life and ponder what follows.

The Yamim Nora'im [Days of Awe] respond to this need to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. At one point during the confession of the Yom Kippur Ne'ilah [closing] service, we articulate these questions in a way that seems to indicate a pessimistic, negative valuation of human beings and human life:

"What are we? What is our life? What is our piety? What is our virtue? What is our salvation? What is our strength? What is our accomplishment? What shall we say before You, O Lord our God and God of our ancestors? Are not all the mighty as nothing before You, men of renown as if they did not exist? The wise as if they lacked knowledge, the discerning as if they had no wisdom, for most of their deeds are valueless and the days of their lives a mere nothing before You. Man's superiority to the beast is nonexistent, for all is futile."

What an apt commentary on the pessimistic words of Kohelet:

Utter futility! said Kohelet. Utter futility! All is futile! What real value is there for a man in all the gains he makes beneath the sun? One generation goes, another comes, but the earth remains the same forever (Eccles. 1:1‑4).

Unetanah tokef [one of the unique High Holiday prayers] also expresses these feelings of awe at the enormity of God's universe.

In truth You are their creator and You understand what motivates them, for they are but flesh and blood. Man's origin is dust and his end is dust. He earns his bread with the exertion of his life. He is like broken pottery, like dry grass, like a withered flower, like a passing shadow, like a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that passes by, like floating dust, like a dream that flies away.

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Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, he is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel and is currently Head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.