Kol Nidrei Sermon – the curious case of collective vows we made in error

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The Neder – The vow, is one of the earliest forms of prayer that we know, first recorded when Jacob speaks to God at Beit El, (Genesis 28)  though even by the time the bible was redacted  it was clearly something to be discouraged.  By the book of Deuteronomy we find “When you shall vow a vow to the Eternal God, do not be slow to pay it, for the Eternal God will certainly expect it from you and you will incur guilt. But if you have not vowed, there is no guilt upon you.” (Deut 23:21-23).

That biblical vow-maker par excellence – the nazir – must bring a sin offering and a guilt offering at the conclusion of his vow – indicating that the additional piety he has taken on himself has some negative aspects to it, and that by denying himself normal pleasures he is behaving wrongly. As the Babylonian Amora Shmuel (2nd/3rd century) said “even though he fulfils the vow, he is called wicked” (Nedarim 22a)

It is clear by the rabbinic period that taking upon oneself additional restrictions beyond those established by the Torah and the Sages is viewed with  extreme disfavour  -to the point of being called a sinner for doing so (Ned 77b) (see Rambam Hilchot De’ot 3:1)

Not surprising then that there is a habit in the orthodox world of adding “bli neder” to any promise or offer, thus ensuring that should it not happen they would not be guilty of an unfulfilled vow.

There are two Talmudic tractates (Nedarim and Shevuot) which are devoted to the complex legal and moral problems that arise when people make vows that cannot or will not be fulfilled, so while vow- making may be frowned upon, it clearly has a place in the heart of the person looking for tools of spiritual value in their lives, and remains a problematic habit in our world.

From the earliest rabbinic times, the annulling of the vows of an individual to another individual is done by a beit din, which must satisfy itself about the nature of the vow, its context, its probability of being able to be fulfilled and so on. And should a beit din act to annul any vow made between individuals, then both people involved must be examined by the court, and must be present for the annulment to take place. Whether they are Jew or gentile, their presence is necessary; no annulment can take place in secret or as a favour to an important person. This is a complex legal arrangement, with many safeguards and requirements in law, and it seems that the formulation of the beit din being asked to annul empty or unfillable vows began fairly early on in the rabbinic period, even while they knew explicitly that the annulment of vows has little basis in any text:  the Mishnah tells us “the rules about the absolution of vows hover in the air and have nothing to support them” (Hagigah 1:8).

But what of the Kol Nedarim prayer that names this service?  This prayer about all our vows was described by the Babylonian Geonim in the 7th Century as a minhag shtut – a foolish custom – but it was already clearly embedded in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah at that point, possibly as a way to begin a new year with a clean slate, or because it resonated with the magic of blessings and curses on incantation bowls from the sixth century – magic that would have been known to the community even if it was not supposed to form part of their world view, and so again promised some kind of supernatural cleansing of a problem at a critical time of the year.

Because it was so deeply ingrained in the customs and folk-understanding, the Babylonian sages compromised with the people, and turned the formula into a religious rather than legal one, seeking mechila, selicha v’kapparah – forgiveness, pardon and atonement – from God rather than from any human entity. They underpinned this text with one from bible – “And all the congregation of the children of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger that sojourns among them; for in respect of all the people it was done in error.” (Numbers 15:26)

וְנִסְלַח, לְכָל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלַגֵּר, הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם:  כִּי לְכָל-הָעָם, בִּשְׁגָגָה.

Bishgaga – as a collective we have vowed things to God in error.  It is an extraordinary statement, reaching well beyond both the laws of Nedarim and of the biblical verse. But it gives us the space to come together and make our teshuvah with the support of our community.

Even after the intervention of the geonim, changing the focus of the vows to those between us and God, changing the time frame of the vows and so on, here are so many problems still with the collective annulment we make each year. It is not really possible legally either to annul vows retroactively nor proactively, and yet a compromise was reached between the spiritual needs of the people and the carefully and closely read and understood legal texts of the rabbinate.   If only that were true today.

The battle between the people’s love for Kol HaNedarim and the rabbinic uneasiness with the whole idea of collectively annulling vows is long standing and ongoing. Each strand of Judaism right up to the early Reform movement has tried to remove the formulation from the liturgy at various times, but always found they had to put it back. The power of the people’s needs and wants in this particular case is extraordinary, it stands out in our history and it begs the question – why do the people venerate this prayer so much?

Why is this prayer almost the only thing that the Jews have resisted the rabbinic rulings about? Across the generations, from the earliest liturgies for the Yamim Noraim till today, ordinary Jews demand the right as a community to convene a communal Beit Din, to remove the scrolls in the evening service from the Aron Kodesh – which we leave open and empty -, and in the presence of the community repeat this formulation three times, each time louder than the last.

We know how this prayer looks to the uninformed – the idea that we begin our service annulling any vows made retroactively or proactively does not play well to the outside world who would not understand that the vows in question are only those between us and God.  Many Jews listening to Kol HaNedarim would have had real lived experience of the anti-Semitic uses this prayer has been put to.  Christian Europe called us perfidious oath breakers precisely because they did not understand the limits of the Kol HaNedarim prayer, did not understand that it was framed in the relationship between us and God, not the relationships between human beings.  The More Judaico (Jewish Oath) was a special form of oath taken in the courtrooms of western Europe, rooted in antisemitism and accompanied by particularly unpleasant requirements such as making the Jew stand on the bloody skin of a pig to recite the words of the oath, or to stand bareheaded on a wobbly stool and beaten if he fell off. The intentionally humiliating, painful and dangerous More Judaico was required of Jews in some European courts of law until the 20th century.

So what is it about the Kol HaNedarim prayer that causes us to cling to a formulation of dubious wording, decried by the rabbis and used against us so cruelly and violently by the people among whom we lived? Why have the Jewish people so consistently and so determinedly fought for this prayer, even using it to describe the service that begins Yom Kippur? What is going on that across the generations, across geography, across every expression of the Jewish people, this formulation – the Kol HaNedarim is so cherished?

It is a question that cannot be definitively answered, but I think driving this determination to recite and to hear the words of this prayer – even for Jews who have little contact with the liturgy or with the community – are the twin ideas of our obligation and commitment to a relationship with something outside ourselves, and of a need for the connection and possibilities of being truly seen and understood, leading to deep forgiveness.

Were we not to consider ourselves somehow obligated to God – however distant this feeling might be in our ordinary daily lives, we would not need a ceremony to forgive us having failed in this obligation and help us to find a way back.  The need for relationship is primal; the connection to the divine giving meaning to our lives is somehow hard-wired into us.

Just as the vidui – the recitation of our sins, is a collective public confession that happens in each of the services of Yom Kippur, the Kol HaNedarim is a collective public statement. Both prayers work at a number of levels in the liturgy, but perhaps the most important is that they enable us to say out loud and within our community things that we might find almost impossible to say or do any other way. We have not all done all of the sins we publicly confess to, yet we join in with the recitation of them all, both to allow any individual to speak out without being noticed or judged, and also to create – and to return to -the community we are . The confessional prayers are written in a particular liturgical form which uses the whole alphabet to describe the sins – to show that we are, when reciting the sins on the page, also symbolically confessing to every other form of bad behaviour which is staining our souls and causing us spiritual discomfort or alienation.  The point of the vidui is to bring us together, into a collective, back to our moment of truth. It allows us to be the truth we seek. It reminds us of our commitments – the active obligations we took upon ourselves, and it allows us to be clear and honest, inside the protection of a community at prayer.

The sound of the shofar, which has been blown every weekday of Ellul, and which will be the last sound of the services of Yom Kippur, also calls us to our true selves.   The Tekiah Gedolah is the bookend to the Kol HaNedarim – alongside that opening ceremony,  it frames the journey we make and makes the space for us to be completely true, fully aware of the sacred within us, as we become part of our community.

My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg writes of the shofar “I always think of the shofar as coming from the depths of creation. Formed from the horn of a ram or mountain goat, its rough, un-honed cry calls of the bond which unites all nature, animal and human. It speaks without words of our bare and basic togetherness in this world of cold and warmth, food and hunger, life and death. The breath which flows through the shofar resonates with the ruach, the breath or spirit which breathes through all life, the spirit of God which hovered over the face of the deep in the beginning and which creates and sustains all living being. It calls us home to the sacred within ourselves, and in all life.”

Why have we Jews fought to keep Kol HaNedarim, both against the internal opposition and the external opprobrium it engenders? I think because it allows us access to what Jonathan calls “our bare and basic togetherness… it calls us home to the sacred.. to the bond of life… to the breath of {God}.” It engenders a place where we can be truly who we are, and where our souls can give our most authentic expression.

So as we begin the final services of this period of Yamim Noraim, of the Days of Awe, with the Kol HaNedarim still echoing in our hearts and minds, we journey together this evening and tomorrow in a space of truth, allowing our awareness of the sacred within ourselves and our world. And we hope that when the Tekiah Gedolah ends the services of Yom Kippur tomorrow evening, we can begin to move on in our lives with a renewed awareness of our purpose, and of the sacred tasks of being, and of becoming, bonded together and filled with the breath of God.

 

 

Il Neder, Il voto, è una delle prime forme di preghiera che conosciamo, registrata per la prima volta quando Giacobbe parla a Dio a Beit El (Genesi 28), sebbene, già quando la Bibbia fu redatta, il voto era chiaramente qualcosa da scoraggiare. Nel libro del Deuteronomio troviamo: “Quando farai un voto al Signore tuo Dio, non dovrai tardare ad adempierlo perché il Signore tuo Dio te lo richiederebbe ed in te si troverebbe il peccato. Se invece cesserai di far voti, non ci sarà in te peccato.”. (Deut 23: 22-23)

Quel creatore di voti biblici per eccellenza, il nazir, deve portare un’offerta per il peccato e un’offerta di colpa alla conclusione del suo voto, mostrando che la pietà aggiuntiva che ha preso su di sé ha alcuni aspetti negativi e che negando a se stesso normali piaceri si sta comportando in modo errato. Come disse il babilonese Amora Shmuel (II/III secolo) “anche se adempie al voto, viene chiamato malvagio”. (Nedarim 22a)

Dal periodo rabbinico è chiaro che chi si assume ulteriori restrizioni oltre a quelle stabilite dalla Torà e dai Saggi è visto con estremo sfavore, fino al punto di essere chiamato peccatore per averlo fatto. (Ned 77b) (vedi Rambam Hilchot De’ot 3:1)

Non sorprende quindi che nel mondo ortodosso vi sia l’abitudine di aggiungere “bli neder” a qualsiasi promessa o offerta, assicurando così che, se ciò non dovesse accadere, non si sarebbe colpevoli di un voto non realizzato.

Esistono due trattati talmudici (Nedarim e Shevuot) che si dedicano ai complessi problemi legali e morali che sorgono quando le persone fanno voti che non possono o non vogliono adempiere, quindi, mentre il voto può essere disapprovato, esso ha chiaramente un posto nel cuore della persona che cerca strumenti di valore spirituale nella propria vita e rimane un’abitudine problematica nel nostro mondo.

Fin dai primi tempi rabbinici, l’annullamento dei voti fatti da un individuo verso un altro individuo viene svolto da un beit din, che deve accertarsi sulla natura del voto, il suo contesto, la sua probabilità di poter essere adempiuto e così via. E in caso di annullamento di qualsiasi voto fatto tra singoli individui, entrambe le persone coinvolte devono essere esaminate dal tribunale e devono essere presenti affinché l’annullamento possa aver luogo. Che siano ebrei o gentili, la loro presenza è necessaria, nessun annullamento può aver luogo in segreto o come favore a una persona importante. Si tratta di un complesso accordo giuridico, con molte garanzie e requisiti di legge, e sembra che la formulazione del beit din cui viene chiesto di annullare i voti a vuoto o non adempibili sia iniziata abbastanza presto nel periodo rabbinico, anche se sapevano esplicitamente che l’annullamento di voti ha poche basi in qualsiasi testo: la Mishnà ci dice infatti: “le regole sull’assoluzione dei voti fluttuano nell’aria e non hanno nulla per essere sostenute”. (Hagigà 1:8)

Ma che dire della preghiera di Kol Nedarim che dà il nome a questo servizio? Questa preghiera, che riguarda tutti i nostri voti è stata descritta dai Geonim babilonesi nel VII secolo come un minhag shtut, un’usanza folle, ma a quel punto era già chiaramente inserita nella liturgia di Rosh HaShanà, forse come un modo per iniziare un nuovo anno con una tabula rasa, o perché risuonava con la magia delle benedizioni e delle maledizioni sulle coppe incantatorie del sesto secolo (oggetti rituali apotropaici con la funzione di trappole per demoni), magia che sarebbe stata conosciuta alla comunità, nonostante non avrebbe dovuto far parte della loro visione del mondo, e così da promettere una sorta di pulizia soprannaturale di un problema in un momento critico dell’anno.

Poiché era così profondamente radicata nelle usanze e nella comprensione popolare, i saggi babilonesi scesero a compromessi con il popolo e diedero alla formula aspetto religioso invece che legale, cercando mehilà, selichà ve kapparà, perdono, assoluzione ed espiazione, da Dio piuttosto che da qualsiasi entità umana. Avvalorarono questo testo con uno tratto dalla Bibbia: “E verrà perdonato a tutta la comunità dei figli di Israele e allo straniero dimorante fra essi, perché tutto il popolo ha parte nell’errore.”. (Numeri 15:26)

וְנִסְלַח, לְכָל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְלַגֵּר, הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם:  כִּי לְכָל-הָעָם, בִּשְׁגָגָה.

Bishgaga: collettivamente abbiamo promesso delle cose a Dio per errore. È un’affermazione straordinaria, che va ben oltre le leggi di Nedarim e del versetto biblico. Ma ci dà lo spazio per riunirci e fare la nostra teshuvà con il sostegno della nostra comunità.

Anche dopo l’intervento dei geonim, cambiando l’obiettivo dei voti a quelli tra noi e Dio, cambiando l’intervallo di tempo dei voti e così via, abbiamo ancora tanti problemi con l’annullamento collettivo che facciamo ogni anno. Non è davvero possibile legalmente né annullare i voti retroattivamente né proattivamente, eppure è stato raggiunto un compromesso tra i bisogni spirituali delle persone e i testi legali del rabbinato attentamente e minuziosamente letti. Se solo fosse vero oggi.

La battaglia tra l’amore del popolo verso Kol HaNedarim e il disagio rabbinico con l’idea di annullare collettivamente i voti è lunga ed è in corso.

Ogni filone dell’ebraismo fino al primo movimento della Riforma ha cercato di rimuovere la formulazione dalla liturgia in varie occasioni, ma si è sempre trovato a doverla reinserire. Il potere dei bisogni e dei desideri delle persone in questo caso particolare è straordinario, si distingue nella nostra storia e pone la domanda: perché le persone venerano così tanto questa preghiera?

Perché questa preghiera è quasi l’unica cosa per cui gli ebrei hanno opposto resistenza alle sentenze rabbiniche? Attraverso le generazioni, dalle prime liturgie per gli Yamim Noraim fino ad oggi, gli ebrei ordinari chiedono il diritto come comunità di convocare un Beit Din comune, per rimuovere le pergamene nel servizio serale dall’Aron HaKodesh, che lasciamo aperte e vuote, e in presenza della comunità ripetere questa formulazione tre volte, ogni volta più forte della precedente.

Sappiamo come questa preghiera appaia ai non informati. L’idea che iniziamo il nostro servizio annullando qualsiasi voto fatto retroattivamente o proattivamente non suona bene al mondo esterno che non capirebbe che i voti in questione sono solo quelli tra noi e Dio. Molti ebrei che ascoltano Kol HaNedarim hanno avuto una vera esperienza vissuta degli usi antisemiti per cui questa preghiera è stata utilizzata. L’Europa cristiana ci ha chiamato perfidi interruttori di giuramenti proprio perché non capiva i limiti della preghiera di Kol HaNedarim, non capiva che era inquadrata nella relazione tra noi e Dio, non nelle relazioni tra esseri umani. Il More Judaico (giuramento ebraico) era una forma speciale di giuramento prestata nelle aule dei tribunali dell’Europa occidentale, radicata nell’antisemitismo e accompagnata da requisiti particolarmente spiacevoli come far stare l’ebreo sulla pelle insanguinata di un maiale per recitare le parole del giuramento o stare a testa nuda su uno sgabello traballante e picchiato qualora fosse caduto. Il More Judaico, umiliante, doloroso e ed intenzionalmente pericoloso era richiesto agli ebrei in alcuni tribunali europei fino al XX secolo.

Allora, che cosa c’è nella preghiera di Kol HaNedarim che ci induce ad aggrapparci a un enunciato di dubbia formulazione, denigrata dai rabbini e usata contro di noi in modo così crudele e violento dalle persone tra le quali abbiamo vissuto? Perché il popolo ebraico ha combattuto così costantemente e con determinazione per questa preghiera, arrivando a usarla per descrivere il servizio con cui ha inizio Yom Kippur? Per quale motivo attraverso le generazioni, attraverso i continenti, attraverso ogni espressione del popolo ebraico, questa formulazione: il Kol HaNedarim è così amata?

È una domanda cui non è possibile dare una risposta definitiva, ma penso che guidare questa determinazione a recitare e ascoltare le parole di questa preghiera, anche per gli ebrei che hanno pochi contatti con la liturgia o con la comunità, siano le idee gemelle del nostro obbligo e l’impegno per una relazione con qualcosa al di fuori di noi stessi e per il bisogno di connessione e possibilità di essere veramente visti e compresi, portando a un profondo perdono.

Se non dovessimo considerarci in qualche modo in obbligo verso Dio, per quanto distante possa essere questo sentimento nella nostra vita quotidiana ordinaria, non avremmo bisogno di una cerimonia per perdonarci di aver fallito in questo obbligo e aiutarci per trovare una via di ritorno. Il bisogno di relazione è fondamentale; la connessione col divino dà significato alla nostra vita, è in qualche modo connaturata in noi.

Proprio come il vidui, la recitazione dei nostri peccati, è una confessione pubblica collettiva che accade in ciascuno dei servizi di Yom Kippur, il Kol HaNedarim è una dichiarazione pubblica collettiva. Entrambe le preghiere lavorano a vari livelli nella liturgia, ma forse la più importante è quella di consentirci di dire, ad alta voce e all’interno della nostra comunità, cose che potremmo trovare quasi impossibili da dire o fare in altro modo. Non tutti abbiamo commesso tutti i peccati che confessiamo pubblicamente, eppure ci uniamo nella recitazione di tutti, sia per consentire a qualsiasi individuo di parlare senza essere notato o giudicato, sia per creare, e tornare ad essere, la  comunità che siamo. Le preghiere confessionali sono scritte in una particolare forma liturgica che usa l’intero alfabeto per descrivere i peccati, per mostrare che, quando recitiamo i peccati sulla pagina, stiamo anche confessando simbolicamente ogni altra forma di cattivo comportamento che sta macchiando le nostre anime, causandoci disagio spirituale o alienazione. Il punto del vidui è riportarci insieme, in maniera collettiva, al nostro momento di verità. Ci permette di essere la verità che cerchiamo. Ci ricorda i nostri impegni, gli obblighi attivi che ci siamo assunti e ci consente di essere chiari e onesti, all’interno della protezione di una comunità in preghiera.

Il suono dello shofar, che è stato suonato ogni giorno della settimana di Elul, e che sarà l’ultimo suono dei servizi di Yom Kippur, ci chiama anche a noi stessi. Il Tekià Gedolà è un po’ il corrispettivo del Kol HaNedarim, insieme a quella cerimonia di apertura, incornicia il viaggio che facciamo e rende lo spazio per noi completamente vero, pienamente consapevole del sacro dentro di noi, mentre entriamo a far parte della nostra comunità.

Il mio collega Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg scrive dello shofar Penso sempre allo shofar come proveniente dal profondo della creazione. Formato dal corno di un ariete o di una capra di montagna, il suo grido aspro e scabro richiama il legame che unisce tutta la natura, animale e umano. Parla senza parole della nostra nuda ed essenziale unione in questo mondo di freddo e calore, cibo e fame, vita e morte. Il respiro che fluisce attraverso lo shofar risuona con il ruach, il respiro o lo spirito che respira attraverso tutta la vita, lo spirito di Dio che aleggiava all’inizio del profondo e che crea e sostiene tutto l’essere vivente. Ci chiama alla casa del sacro in noi stessi e in tutta la vita.

Perché noi ebrei abbiamo combattuto per mantenere Kol HaNedarim, sia contro l’opposizione interna che contro l’obbrobrio che genera all’esterno? Penso perché ci consente di accedere a ciò che Jonathan chiama “il nostro nudo e fondamentale insieme … ci chiama alla casa del sacro … al legame della vita … al respiro di {Dio}”. Crea un luogo dove possiamo essere veramente chi siamo e dove le nostre anime possono dare la nostra espressione più autentica.

Così, quando iniziamo i servizi finali di questo periodo di Yamim Noraim, dei Giorni del timore reverenziale, con il Kol HaNedarim che riecheggia ancora nei nostri cuori e nelle nostre menti, viaggiamo insieme questa sera e domani in uno spazio di verità, consentendo la nostra consapevolezza del sacro in noi stessi e nel nostro mondo. E speriamo che quando domani sera Tekià Gedolà terminerà i servizi di Yom Kippur, potremo iniziare ad andare avanti nella nostra vita con una rinnovata consapevolezza del nostro scopo e dei sacri compiti dell’essere e del divenire, uniti e riempiti con il respiro di Dio.

 

 

 

Traduzione di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

20th Elul – the great shofar sounds…

20 Ellul

Even though the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Biblical decree, it hints at something, i.e., “Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep! And slumberers, arise from your slumber! Search your ways and return in teshuvah and remember your Creator! Those who forget the Truth amidst the futility of the moment and are infatuated all their years with vanity and nothingness that will not help and will not save, examine your souls and improve your ways and your motivations! Let each of you abandon your wicked ways, and your thoughts which are no good.” (Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Hilchot teshuvah 3:4)

The shofar is a peculiarly powerful instrument. Its call pierces the air – we cannot ignore its sound.  It has been used to summon people for battle, as a warning, as a blast to terrify the enemy. It was heard at Sinai – though it is not clear who was blowing it. The ram caught in a thicket at the binding of Isaac was caught by its horn, from which comes the rabbinic idea that God instructed Abraham that his descendants should blow the shofar whenever they were in danger of divine punishment – the merits of the protagonists in the Akedah would be brought in front of God who would therefore forgive us.  Bible tells us to blow it to announce the New Moon of Tishri, and from that comes the idea that every new month is publicised in this way.

The sound of the shofar is also close to the sounds of wailing and of more gentle but insistent crying.  The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) discussing the sounds has one tanna saying the Teruah means a wailing sound, the Sh’varim denotes moaning or broken sighs.  The Tekiah, the straight blast of sound, is both introductory and closing sound, to contain and to announce the sorrowful nature of the other calls.

The shofar does much of our work for us. It is designed to wake us up, but also to give voice to our fears and anxieties, and then to strengthen us in our battle to become our best selves.  There is a debate in the Talmud about whether the shofar should be bent or straight, and the implication is that the shofar represents the person who is approaching God – should we approach with our backs straight and, so to speak, look God in the eye while asking for forgiveness, or should we be bent with the weight of our sorrow at the sin we are carrying, and looking down to the ground?

There is no answer given – all shofarot whether straight or curved are permissible. Each of us, however we feel about ourselves, can come before God and under that divine gaze, be open about what and who we currently are.

 

 

Sermon for Rosh Hashanah at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague

My father was the son of Walter, the son of Alice, the daughter of Leah, the daughter of Rosalie, the daughter of Abraham, the son of Gitel, the daughter of Isaac, the son of Jacob, the son of Meir the son of Shmuel, the son of Yehoshua, the son of Rabbi Pinchas Halevy Horowitz, for whom this synagogue is named and grandson of Aharon Meshulam Horowitz it’s founder: my eleventh great grandfather.

So in a strange sort of way, I feel this Rosh Hashanah that I am coming home.

pinkus synagogue pinkus synagogue4

This family link got me to thinking about the roots and connections, and about the nature of Jewish history which in bible is framed within the structure of ‘toledot’ – generations. Judaism has traditionally passed on its defining ideas and ways of being within the family home and within the extended family we call community. The teaching goes from one generation to the next, the identity formed by watching and doing as much as by any formal learning.

( That said, from earliest times the idea of Judaism being a family tradition alone doesn’t really have traction. Abraham and Sarah famously “made souls” in Haran before leaving on God’s instructions ‘Lech Lecha’ – go, leave your ancestral land and go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:5). These souls are understood to be people they had converted to their faith; in other words, birth is only one doorway into Judaism, and the formation of Jews happens in a wider context than family alone.)

So I was thinking about the genealogical line between me and Pinchas Halevy Horowitz, the 13 generations between us, eight of whom were rabbinic families whose history I know only sketchily, and I wondered about what this relationship might mean, how his life fed ultimately into mine. I wondered too about how Judaism had developed in the almost 400 years since his death, what had changed, what had endured. For the truth about Judaism and about families is that they are not monolithic, they do not stay the same and their natural state is of flux and of change.

So if my ur-ancestor Pinchas was sitting here today in the synagogue that bears his name, what would be familiar to him? What would be radically changed? And what would be the golden thread, the Shalshelet haKabbalah, that ties his community to us, the latest in the toledot line?

There is a famous story in the Talmud (Menachot 29b) “Rabbi Yehudah said, “Rav said, “When Moses ascended to the heavens, he found the Holy One, sitting and attaching crowns to the letters. He said to God “Sovereign of the Universe! What are you doing? God said to him, “There is one man who will exist after many generations, and Akiva the son of Yosef is his name, he will in the future expound on every crown and crown piles and piles of laws.” Moses said “Sovereign of the Universe! Show him to me.” He said to him, “Turn around.” He went and sat behind the students in Rabbi Akiva’s Beit Midrash, and he did not know what they were talking [about]. He became upset but when he heard the students ask “Our teacher, from where do you learn this?” And heard Akiva answer “It is a law [that was taught] to Moses at Sinai” he calmed down.

This very early Talmudic story sets the rabbinic principle that Judaism evolves, and that what was understood or necessary in one generation was not written in stone. Just as Moses would not understand the teachings of Akiva, so would Pinchas Halevy Horowitz not recognise much of the Judaism of the 21st century.  Yet there is a great deal he would recognise. The great themes of this service have remained the same since the Rosh Hashanah liturgy was instituted and the mussaf service in particular is explicit about the leitmotifs of the festival – Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot – the Coronation of God, the time for both we and God to Remember each other, and the blowing of the Shofar. Essentially, the service we have today stays true to the ancient themes of Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah has a number of different names: it is Yom Teruah, the day of blowing of the shofar; Yom haZikaron, the day for remembrance; Yom haDin, the day for judgement; and less well known it is also Yom haKesseh, the day of concealment. The first three are clear to us, we hear the shofar calling us to attention, and speak of standing before God (and also in our own eyes) in order to judge ourselves. We think back over our lives and our actions in order to be able to put things right where possible. But what is the concealment of which our liturgy speaks when we recite “Tiku ba’chodesh shofar, ba’kesseh l’yom chageinu. Ki chok l’yisrael hu, Mishpat lelohei Yaakov. (Psalm 81:4-5) Sound the shofar at the new moon, at the [Kesseh] concealed time for our feast day. For this is a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.”

It would make sense in the poetic structure for Kesseh to be the parallel of Chodesh and mean the new moon, and so the psalmist would be speaking of blowing the shofar when the moon is so new it could barely be seen, Rosh Hashanah is the only festival to be celebrated at the beginning of a month rather than at the full moon or later. But Kesseh is an unusual word to use and so it draws our attention. And suddenly the work of this season becomes clearer, though ironically the clarity we gain shows that the work of the Yamim Noraim is to both make transparent and then to obscure some of our past behaviour.

The core meaning of the word Kesseh is to cover or to conceal; the meaning of Kapparah is also to cover over, to hide or even obliterate. We are in the season of concealment – but who is doing the hiding, what is being concealed, where does it go and to what purpose?

One of my favourite teachings of how Jews do teshuvah, the work of this penitential period is that we do not expect to wash clean all our past actions as if they never existed, and start again as if we were newly born souls. Instead we have time to reflect on our past, to face all the things we did that we wish we had not, and all the things we did not do that we wish we had done, and to own up to them, to accept our own actions. We admit to ourselves under the watchful gaze of God, and we repent – an active behaviour in Jewish law that requires us to try to make good the damage we have done, to ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt, to resolve to change how we will act in the future when faced with the choices again. And then, when we have done all we can to repair our past, we are able to let go of it – not to deny it or to disown it, but to cover it (kapparah) to conceal from view (Kesseh) all the things of which we are ashamed and of which we have repented. We know that if we do this, God too will forgive us, the page will turn on our heavenly record so that a clean sheet shows going forward, although the previous pages of the book remains written, just hidden from view and not holding us back in hopelessness. We are shaped by our past but our future is not distorted because of it.

Reading recently about transitional justice I came across an interview with Vaclav Havel and was struck by the similarities in his views. Speaking of dealing with the political past and its effects, he said “It is important to find the right balance, the right approach, one that would be humane and civilized but would not try to escape from the past. We have to try to face our own past, to name it, to draw conclusions from it, and to bring it before the bar of justice. Yet we must do this honestly and with caution, generosity and imagination. There should be a place for forgiveness wherever there is confession of guilt and repentance.” Transitional Justice: Country Studies v.2: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes: Country Studies…Dec 1996 by Neil J. Kritz

Jewish tradition holds that the work of this season – teshuvah – requires us to bring to mind the harsh realities of our failings, to go through a process that ends with us no longer held back by the pain or the shame or the fear of what we have done, and to move forward in our lives. We leave behind, concealed from view but not forgotten or denied, the actions and inaction that stained our souls, that had imprisoned us. This is what we are doing here today, it is what the Jews of this community were doing when this synagogue was built. While some of the language may have altered and some of the prayers been edited, Rabbi Pinchas Halevy Horowitz would recognise what we are doing were he to join us today. As would those whose names are inscribed on the walls, and all the Jews of the generations between the two. We are joined to them by the liturgy of this day, by the shared understanding of the meaning and work of this season, by the timelessness of the tradition that speaks of repentance and return to God, of forgiveness and of moving on, of not denying the past but not being held captive to its power.

The Jews who came before us are held with us in a chain of tradition, their wisdom and experience passed on through the generations and through the communities which welcome people into Judaism We in modernity will one day pass into history, leaving behind a name, some family stories, some wisdom and some love, maybe some descendants, and hopefully a physical memorial of some kind. On that memorial will no doubt be the acronym also found on the walls of this synagogue over the names of those Prague Jews taken and murdered in the camps  ת’נ’צ’ב’ה  It is taken from a verse in Samuel via the memorial prayer and which speaks of the soul being bound up in the bundle of life, an image rather like an unending piece of fabric or carpet, in which the souls of those who came before are part of the weave, necessary to anchor and to hold the structure which will go on being woven as new souls come into the mix. In this image, the lives of those who came before are an integral part of the fabric of our lives, as our lives will help shape the world of those to come. And this knowledge brings both a sense of rootedness and of responsibility to those who came before and to those who will come after.

For the fabric to be strong, the lives must be connected, and even when one thread physically ends, its existence provides the anchor for the later ones. For that anchor to be solid, there must be regular teshuvah, the reflection and balance, the bringing to mind and naming of what went wrong in order to face it, to learn and understand, to apply compassionate and proper justice, and to bring about a conclusion, an end to the pain or bitterness or anger in order to let go, to cover over and to move on with the weave. Whether that image is about each of our individual lives, or scaled up to the life of a family or of the Jewish people as a whole, the lesson and the work remains the same. We reflect and remember, we admit and repent, we try to repair, we do our best to make good, and then we let go and go out into life ready to write on a new page of our Book of Life.

Our Rosh Hashanah Liturgy quotes not only the psalmist but also Isaiah (65:16-17) who describes God as saying “So that the one who blesses in the earth shall bless by the God of truth; and the one that swears in the earth shall swear by the God of truth; because the former troubles are forgotten, and because they are hid from Mine eyes. For now I create new heavens and a new earth, and the past need not be remembered, nor ever brought to mind. Be glad and rejoice in what I can create.”

The work of remembering, of making transparent, of repenting and repairing and of letting go in order to go move on is holy work. The Kesseh or Kapparah of this season mirrors the divine work of creation. This season is the season of penitence in which we wear white; Yom Kippur a joyful fast rather than a time of misery and gloom. The sound of the shofar reminds us of the work we do alongside God, the concealment and covering of a reasonably resolved past nudges us forward to do the work God expects from us. We are tied into the past and we honour from where we came. We are tied into the future, and in order to help bring about the best one we can, we are here together. As links in the shalshelet haKabbalah, the chain of tradition, the golden thread that brings us close to all who prayed the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, it is our turn to Remember, to Repair, to Repent, and to Return. May all who came before us bless us, and may we in turn be a blessing to those who journey with us and those who come after.

Rosh Hashanah: look closely and see the feminine aspects

There is a long standing tradition that Rosh Chodesh is a woman’s festival.  In honour of women who did not want to give up their jewellery to create the golden calf, their female descendants were allowed to take time for themselves every month at the new moon.

Rosh Hashanah is a new moon par excellence.  Both the first day of the new month of Tishri, and the new year for the counting of years (the first of Nisan is the beginning of the year itself), so how important must Rosh Hashanah be for women?

Unlike the month of Nisan when the year begins with a frenzy of house cleaning and the nearest experience of slavery most women ever encounter as they prepare their home for Pesach, Rosh Hashanah has a gentler and sweeter feel to it.  A month of preparation in Ellul focuses on inner rather than outer cleansing, as we spend the time contemplating our lives, reflecting on how we are using our time in this world, and carefully repairing the mistakes in our relationships. Ellul is the time for introspection, for healing the soul and for readying ourselves for a new beginning.  There is, I always feel, a rather feminine character to this time, as God is traditionally said to be close by, ready to help us in our approach back to the relationship we want and need..  There is a feeling of openness, a sense of nurturing and of creating space to live in, with God as the caring and warm parent who wants us to be more fully ourselves.  During the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, the shechinah (the feminine indwelling presence of God) seems to be gently nudging us to be the best people we can be, to seek and to offer forgiveness for the many small hurts and the lack of proper attention we gave during the year.

The service for Rosh Hashanah itself is more majestic – God is repeatedly described in terms of masculine power in the liturgy, crowned as king of the world again and again – yet we know that this is only one facet of the day, and that God as nurturer, as giver of second chances, as open armed receiver of returning souls is still there under all the pomp and circumstance of the liturgy. 

Rosh Hashanah has a variety of different customs, many of them dedicated to the sweetness of continuing life.  From the roundness of the challah to the apple and honey, the symbolism is comforting and somehow integrally female.  The tradition to eat foods with many small components – be they pomegranates or cordon bleu baked beans – symbolises fertility and plenty. 

Rosh Hashanah is underrated as a female festival.  We can get so mesmerised by the strident masculine sound of the Shofar that we are in danger of forgetting the balancing silent gently insistent pull of the new moon as it leads us into yet another cycle, a new beginning, rebirth.