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Last Year’s New Year Column for the BIJ Newsletter

September 13, 2011

Here is my column from last September’s BIJ Bulletin, entitled: Fresh Mitzvot For Your New Year. I referred to it in my current column, so here it is …

The High Holy Days are a time of deep reflection, heartfelt prayers and renewal. At the same time, they can bring opportunities for new blessings and fresh connections to our spiritual heritage, and perhaps, the creation of traditions for you and your family.

Many of the High Holiday symbols and customs are familiar: the round challah, which represents a crown (we refer to G*d as Melech, “king,” in a number of prayers in the liturgy ); and the dipping of apples and challah into honey on the first day of the new year  (adding the special blessing “to renew unto us a good and sweet year”).

Yet there are many other customs and observances for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that can enrich your spiritual connection to the season. Here are a few for your consideration:

Piling on the Shehecheyanu blessings. On holidays, we say shehecheyanu, the blessing for special occasions thanking G*d for “granting us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this time or occasion.” But is one blessing enough? No way! Our tradition points to creative ways to double up on shehecheyanus.

On the second night of the holiday, we can eat a fruit that we haven’t yet eaten in the season. Some people use a pomegranate for this purpose, since it’s a Biblical fruit and by tradition it contains 613 seeds, the number of the mitzvot in the Torah (that would be one big and seedy pomegranate!).

However, nowadays many people eat pomegranates throughout the year. With our foodie culture in the Bay Area, it’s not hard to find other choices. For example, I ate a cherimoya for this ritual purpose several years ago — it’s a Latin American fruit that’s now cultivated in the Bay Area (when ripe it’s soft and sweet and eaten with a spoon). Same with the Cape Gooseberry, a beautiful if tart fruit with its own paper-like leafy wrapper.

Wear a Kittel and Keds. What is a kittel? It’s a white robe that is worn a number of times a year, including Yom Kippur and Passover. Some Jews also wear it when they are married and when they are buried. Some of the custom is from the phrase in Isaiah 1:18, Is. 1:18 “Come, let us reach an understanding, — says the LORD. Be your sins like crimson, They can turn snow-white; Be they red as dyed wool, They can become like fleece.”

Most Jewish shops on the Web sell kittels. There are “plain” ones that have pleating down the front, and “embroidered” ones that have lace decoration on the collar and over the buttons. They range in price from $25 to $50.
The tie is called a gartel and there are color and style options there.

There’s another excellent custom for Yom Kippur around shoes: instead of wearing leather shoes, we wear canvas or plastic shoes. Some of the traditional view of this custom is that we’re supposed to “afflict” ourselves on Yom Kippur, and to avoid luxuries on the day. However, many Jews feel it’s better to avoid wearing or walking on an animal skin on this holy day. I would add that canvas and recycled plastic shoes are a more green alternative than leather, another benefit for a day when we examine our lives and our connection to G*d and the Holy One’s creations.

Some readers may consider that these rituals are “too much“ for members of our congregation. However, I would point to the increasing interest within the Reform Movement towards these personal observances.

For example, a few years ago, I attended a URJ seminar for lay leaders who wanted to increase their knowledge and participation in worship services and lifecycle events. I was surprised to find that 10 percent of them put on tefillin when they prayed in the weekday morning services! And a recent family education day with our own Bar/Bat Mitzvah families, we practiced the mitzvot around mezzuzot, tallit and tefillin. There was a lot of interest in these rituals. Hey, have you kissed a mezzuzah today?

A sweet, healthy 5771 for everyone, a year filled with simchas, mitzvot and meaning.

B’vracha (With blessing)
David Morgenstern

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