Yom Kippur: Synagogues fill with the faithful each year

Yom Kippur students

Breaking the Yom Kippur fast in Texas, 2019. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

SUNSET TUESDAY, OCTOBER 4: From the hope-filled celebration of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish families move to the solemn observance of what often is called the holiest day in the calendar: Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Most Jews aged 13 and older try to complete a 25-hour fast with nothing passing the lips—no liquids or foods of any kind.

Between the two major holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—a period sometimes called the Days of Awe—Jews reflect on the past year and make amends for their failings. They look toward the balance of the new year (which is only 10 days old on Yom Kippur) and pray that God will renew their spirits and guide them in good ways.


Visit any Jewish house of worship and you will see ways that the main seating area can be expanded on special occasions. On Yom Kippur, all overflow seating areas are opened so that everyone in the Jewish community can show up for at least part of the long series of services.

Services open with Kol Nidre, a deeply emotional moment when the larger Jewish community gathers, amends are made, and the community symbolically opens itself to regular attendees as well as others who rarely come to services. There is a long and complex history to the traditions of Kol Nidre, but overall, it represents a fresh resetting of commitments and promises within the community.

The rest of the Yom Kippur litugy also has beautiful moments that encourage repentance, recommitment to the faith’s ideals and remembrance of the core story that has led the Jewish people through thousands of years of challenges. Rabbis typically spend a great deal of time preparing their Yom Kippur sermons, recognizing that they are preaching to many men and women who only hear them on Yom Kippur.

While this holy day often is described as somber—Rabbi Lenore Bohm makes it clear that this holy day is not intended to dwell on suffering and sadness. On the contrary, she writes in her holiday column, “Regret and remorse may have their place, but they are not the essence of the season. Rather, we strive to look at life with fresh eyes and trust that the new year will grant us opportunity to renew our purpose, hope and belief.”

Reflecting on our lives as Elul prepares us for New Year 5783

Illustration generated by AI via DALL-E 2


Author of Torah Tutor

EVENING OF FRIDAY, AUGUST 26—My favorite Hebrew month is about to begin. It is  called Elul and it leads up to the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

I love Elul because it is all about reflection and discernment: How has the past year impacted me? Is my heart more open or closed? Are my boundaries more elastic or rigid? Have my relationships become more transactional or have they deepened? Have I laughed and embraced more or less frequently this year? Has abundance or scarcity been my starting point in my quest to be a generous person?

The list of questions goes on and I love them all. They release me from the accrued pettiness of the year coming to an end.

Elul reveals not what we want but what we need: spiritual grounding. Elul invites us to take seriously that obscure feeling of something lacking, of something being amiss. Elul suggests we name and place front and center the desire to be at home in our selves and in our lives.  Slow down, Elul begs; what is the goal, the finish line you are striving so hard to reach?

Here is the crux of the matter as articulated in The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), a prolific British writer on mysticism and spiritual growth:

“We mostly spend our lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have and to Do. Craving, clutching, and fussing, on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual–even on the religious–plane, we are kept in perpetual unrest … But when we widen our horizon … a new coherence comes into our existence, a new tranquility and release.”

Elul is about widening our horizons and releasing our dis-eases and our mis-takes.

Each morning of Elul, we hear the sound (the cry) of the shofar. It is supposed to serve as a wake-up call to stir us out of our reverie and apathy. How have I grown complacent? What duties have I neglected? Can I reconcile my behavior with my values?

The idea isn’t to feel guilt or shame. It’s to promote self-awareness and renewal. If I want this year to be different, will I choose to be different? Free will is at the heart of the High Holy Day enterprise. I can choose to speak more, to chatter less, to (for)give more, to withhold less, to reveal more than revile, to be less certain, less judgmental, to open more widely my heart, my mind, my hands, my eyes, my doors.

Along with hearing the shofar, another custom of Elul is to recite Psalm 27 morning and evening. Psalm 27 is an interesting choice (made apparently in the 1700s) to accompany Elul.  It is not a paean to God’s forgiving nature or love of humanity.  The psalm does not demonstrate singular and unbending faith on the part of the author. To the contrary: Psalm 27 is full of uncertainty and apprehension. The psalmist hopes God will respond, but there is no conviction.

Why would this psalm be chosen to accompany Elul, a month preoccupied with preparation and self-accounting (called “cheshbon hanefesh”)?

I think this choice speaks to an appreciation of honesty as the linchpin of this month’s self-assessment. Not pretend piety or sanctimony, but truth-telling. Have I or haven’t I? Did I or didn’t I?

I love Elul because pretending makes me uneasy. Not that I don’t to it, but I’m always regretful when I do, and Elul won’t let me get away with it. The early spring holiday of Purim invites us to mask ourselves and to engage in parody. Elul, some six months later, incentivizes unmasking and frank, unpretentious confrontation of self.

Returning to this season is like letting go of a tightly held breath.

I release it and it releases me.



Meet Rabbi Lenore Bohm …

VISIT RABBI LENORE’S RESOURCE PAGE: Go to TorahTutorBook.com to find more information about her ongoing work and her new book.

Rabbi Lenore Bohm began her career among the first wave of women ever ordained as rabbis. Drawing on a lifetime of teaching the Torah to groups of adults, Bohm divides her book into the 54 portions read each year from the Torah, which are the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. This is a perfect book for individual reading or small group discussion.

Order a copy of her new book from Amazon.



Lag B’Omer: Jews count 33rd day in the Omer with bonfires, parades

Lag BaOmer, New York

Lag B’Omer in Brooklyn, NY. Photo by Several seconds, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, MAY 18: Enormous bonfires blaze against the night sky across Israel and in Jewish communities worldwide, for Lag B’Omer (or Lag BaOmer; spellings may vary). During daylight hours, celebrants venture outdoors for picnics and children’s activities, while the commemorations of Lag BaOmer are twofold: the holiday marks the end of an ancient plague and, duly, the passing of the mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. On Lag BaOmer, thousands of Jews gather in Meron, Israel, at the tomb of Bar Yochai.

s'more Lag B'Omer

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Literally 33rd day in the Omer, Lag BaOmer marks traditional anniversaries in the Jewish calendar. Between Passover and Shavuot, Jews are, per the Torah, obligated to count the days. (Learn more from Judaism 101.) The omer is a unit of measure, and each night from the second of Passover until Shavuot, Jews recite a blessing and count the omer in both weeks and days. During this period, men and women recall a plague that struck during the time of Rabbi Akiba; haircuts, weddings and parties are put on hold. On Lag BaOmer, the mourning restrictions are lifted.

Fun fact: S’mores are permitted on Lag B’Omer! Read more at Aish.com.

The Talmud relates that during the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, a plague hit Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, because of their disrespectful conduct toward one another. On Lag BaOmer, the dying ceased and, among the surviving students, was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Later, he became the most esteemed teacher of the Torah in his generation. He penned the classic mystic text, the Zohar, still revered by those who study Kabbalah. Today, the importance of love and respect is emphasized on Lag BaOmer, as is the great “light” that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai brought to the world.

Some also are emphasizing Lag BaOmer as an anniversary of the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire. In Israel today, Lag BaOmer is marked in varying ways. In 2004, the Israeli government began designating Lag BaOmer as a day for honoring the Israeli Defense Forces reserves.

Fast of Esther and Purim: Jews celebrate bravery and victory with jovial traditions

Child Purim dressed up

In Israel, a young person is dressed up for Purim. Photo courtesy of PxHere

(Purim begins at sunset) WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16: For many observant Jews, the dawn-to-dusk period on Wednesday is a time of self denial: It is the Fast of Esther, related to the story of Purim. Unlike other Jewish fasts, which typically last from sunset to sunset, today’s fast lasts only from sunrise to sunset—and for a joyful reason. While other fasts involve mournful remembrance, the Fast of Esther recalls a story of victory.

Here’s the story of today’s fast:

About 2,500 years ago, a beautiful young woman named Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, the king of Persia. When Esther became queen of Persia, she hid her true Jewish identity.

Queen Esther’s husband, King Ahasuerus—who did not know that his wife was Jewish—was swayed by an evil advisor (Haman), who wanted to rid Persia of all Jews. When Esther was informed of this tragic plan, she knew she had no other choice; Esther asked her fellow Jews to fast with her in hope of divine favor, and she courageously revealed her true religious identity to her husband. Queen Esther’s brave act could have resulted in her death, but King Ahasuerus was partial to his wife—and he spared the lives of all the Jews.

Today’s classification as a “minor fast” speaks of an event that has brought great inspiration to Jews for thousands of years. In the Middle Ages, for example, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition looked to Queen Esther and drew strength from her bravery.

Haman's pockets, Purim

Hamantaschen, the traditional treat of Purim. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


The story of Purim is found in the pages of the book of Esther, in the Hebrew scriptures of the Bible. Many Jews still observe the Fast of Esther from dawn to dusk—and then, with the start of Purim at sundown, fruit-filled cookies are served, outrageous costumes are donned, plenty of wine is consumed and comical skits entertain audiences. In the synagogue, readings from the book of Esther evoke hissing, booing and stomping, as Jews “blot out” the name of the villainous Haman. Some Jews even write Haman’s name on the bottom of their shoes, so as to literally stomp on his name!

Did you know? The name of G_d is not mentioned in the book of Esther, and many Jews interpret this as indication that G_d works in ways that are not always apparent. On Purim, disguises and costumes serve as symbolism of G_d “hidden” behind the scenes.

The carnivals and masquerades of Purim are accompanied by the four primary obligations of the day: to listen to a public reading of the book of Esther in the evening and the morning; to send food gifts to friends; to give charity to the poor; and to partake in a festive meal. (Find interactive tools and more at Chabad.org.)

While traditional Purim costumes reflect the various roles in the story of Esther, Jewish organizations continue to make merry on this ancient holiday by including cultural themes that tie Purim with the 21st century: themes like Harry Potter, “Star Wars” and Marvel superheroes, for example, have gained popularity in recent years.

The signature treat for this holiday is Hamentaschen, or Haman’s pockets, which consists of sweet pastry filled with prunes or poppy seeds. FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis tells the story of baking these delicious triangular treats in her family—and provides her own recipe for these cookies.


An array of Purim recipes can be found at AllRecipes. Thirsty? Try making your own apricot-infused bourbon for Purim.

Yom Kippur: Jews repent, end High Holidays on holiest day of the year

Jewish Yom Kippur

Jews break the Yom Kippur fast. Photo by Sam Litvin, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 15: From the sweet wishes of Rosh Hashanah and through the High Holidays, Jews arrive tonight at what is often referred to as the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur.


A solemn observance, Yom Kippur (also called the Day of Atonement) is believed to be the final opportunity to make amends before one’s fate is sealed for the coming year.

Did you know? Throughout history, when Jews were forced to publicly convert to another religion, the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service would annul those vows.

For 25 hours–this year, from sunset on September 15, the official start of Yom Kippur–Jews uphold a strict fast. Intense prayer accompanies the fasting, and many Jews spend hours repenting. Having asked forgiveness from others and made amends in the days preceding Yom Kippur, Jews ask forgiveness from God on Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre, or “All Vows,” gathers the larger Jewish community and begins Yom Kippur evening services; Ne’ilah, a service during which the Torah ark remains open and the congregation stands, is the final plea to God for forgiveness. A blast from the shofar follows the final prayers.

Why is Kol Nidre so significant? Kol Nidre is a deeply emotional experience for many Jews. At the start of Yom Kippur, amends are made and the community symbolically opens itself to regular members as well as others who rarely attend services. There is a long and complex history to the traditions of Kol Nidre—and there are many examples in Jewish fiction of moving scenes set at Kol Nidre. Overall, Kol Nidre represents a fresh resetting of commitments and promises within the community.


Most years, Jewish house of worship to capacity on Yom Kippur: Main seating areas can often be expanded on special occasions, and Yom Kippur is the main holiday when all the partitions separating rooms are removed. Overflow seating sometimes is added in other parts of the building and the majority of the Jewish community shows up for at least part of the long series of services.

UPDATE 2021: While many synagogues are reporting that in-person Yom Kippur services will take place this year, pandemic regulations will be followed and most temples won’t be filled to capacity. Alternatively, some synagogues will be offering virtual services. (The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports on available online services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.)

Although Yom Kippur is a solemn day, it is also one of celebration: Celebration of the anniversary of God forgiving the Jewish people for worshipping the golden calf. According to Jewish scholar and ReadTheSpirit contributing writer, Joe Lewis:

By traditional calculation, Moses brought the second tablets to the people on Yom Kippur. God’s nature is revealed to Moses as a God of mercy and compassion, patience and kindness (Ex. 34:6), and this idea is central to the liturgy of the day. We end the day with a blast on the shofar, eat our fill, and make plans for the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), which is only five days away.

Rosh Hashanah: Happy (Jewish) New Year 5782!

shofar boy rosh hashanah

A boy blows the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Photo by Len Radin, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 6: Sound the shofar and wish your neighbor L’shanah tovah: “For a good year!” It’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year—and it’s also the start of the High Holidays.

For two days, Jews around the world attend services, seek forgiveness and joyfully enter the annual High Holy Days. Sometimes called the Days of Awe, this period culminates in Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement, which starts at sunset on Wednesday, September 15 this year.

What are the High Holidays? Sometimes referred to as “High Holidays,” or “High Holy Days,” this is Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and, often, the days in between the two holidays. One description of this period says, in essence, that G_d opens the books of judgment as the new year begins and finally, on Yom Kippur, the judgment for the year is “sealed.”

NEWS 2021: In light of the continued pandemic, many ask: Is it safe to attend Rosh Hashanah services this year? In this article, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency explores that question.

apple juice, apples, rosh hashanah

Photo courtesy of Max Pixel


For Rosh Hashanah, honey and apples are the most famous holiday foods in the United States; other foods, including dates and pomegranates, have ancient associations with the New Year and still are enjoyed in Jewish communities around the world. The honey-and-apples symbol, often seen on holiday cards and other Rosh Hashanah media, is a reminder of the joy in welcoming a “sweet” new year.

Literally “head of the year,” Rosh Hashanah was never referred to by name in the Bible. Instead, references in Leviticus were made to Yom Teruah, “the day of the sounding of the shofar.” In the synagogue, 100 notes are blown each day of the New Year festivities; some refer to this noise as a “call to repentance.” Traditionally, Jewish teaching associates Rosh Hashanah with the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve.

A lesser-known Jewish tradition related to Rosh Hashanah is tashlikh, or “casting off.” After filling their pockets—most often with small bits of bread—devotees walk to flowing water and empty their pockets, thereby symbolically “casting off” the sins of the old year.

Sweet recipes: Looking to bake up something sweet and scrumptious this Rosh Hashanah? Check out Chabad.org, AllRecipes, Epicurious, Food Network and Martha Stewart.

‘Trying Extra, Extra Hard to Get Along’

Every year, since its founding, ReadTheSpirit magazine has covered the Jewish High Holy Days. Central themes are taking stock of the previous year, reconciling broken relationships, asking forgiveness and preparing for a better new year. We asked Jewish scholar and contributing writer Joe Lewis to write about his reflections. Joe writes …

I’ve been reading one of the complicated medieval acrostic poems added to the “additional” liturgy for Yom Kippur. Many people know that Jewish tradition involves three daily liturgical units, with an extra one on special days such as holy days. The extra liturgical unit recalls the special sacrifices of a holy day in the time of the Temple.

On Yom Kippur, the extra liturgy includes several extra poems—extra extras.

One of the longest and most complicated of these recalls the special sacrifices of Yom Kippur as outlined in the Mishnah, the early compilation of Jewish law and tradition. Even if he knew his duties well, the High Priest had to take a week-long refresher course and practice, practice, practice for the rituals of this day, with its immersions and changes of clothing and the tricky balancing of a pan of glowing coals in one hand and a ladle of incense in the other. Don’t try this at home!

What you can do at home is, like me, refresh your understanding of the ingeniously elliptical Hebrew poetry.

You might think I’m one of those people who’d like to see the Temple rebuilt. In its time, it was a world-wide tourist destination and well worth a visit; and none of us knows how its rituals might stir modern skeptical religious natures. Some think its time will come again, soon. Others, though, consider all references to the sacrificial system—even the “additional” liturgy through which it is recalled—outdated, even distasteful or downright primitive. I’m neither of those.

For me, the Temple ritual symbolizes a way of connecting with the divine. I can mourn its loss, and like any mourner can dwell on every memory I can recover, without wishing for its return. What’s more, the loss of the Temple ritual is a valuable symbol in itself. Unlike the many tragic sufferings forced on the Jewish people throughout our long history, it’s one tragedy that (our sages taught) we brought upon ourselves through causeless hatred.

The weeks leading up to Yom Kippur are a time to make peace for offenses between people; then we can seek God’s forgiveness for our sins with hearts free of bitterness. Dwelling on the loss of our ancient form of prayer should remind us that unless we make peace—with our neighbor whose lawn sign offends us, with our more distant neighbors whose neighborhood we find unfamiliar and consider enviable or unsafe, with neighboring peoples whose intentions we fear and mistrust—we can lose all that we cherish.

There’s no better time to try extra, extra hard to get along with others!

Passover: Virtual seders and gatherings create change in another year for Pesach

passover meal

Photo by ehpien, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET SATURDAY, MARCH 27: Tonight, Jews begin the most widely observed of all Jewish traditions: the seven- or eight-day festival of Pesach, also known as Passover. (Jews in Israel observe seven days; Jews of the Diaspora observe eight). Passover commemorates the ancient Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, which is recalled during an elaborate meal that takes place on the first night of Passover, known as the seder. While the first night of Passover would typically involve gathering for an in-person seder, continuing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions will prevent most families and friends from gathering in-person this year.

Fortunately—as many news sources are pointing out, ahead of the holiday—there is hope! Many who had little to no knowledge of the concept of virtual gathering have, since last year, gained hours of experience on these platforms. In 2020, worldwide pandemic lockdowns were in their infancy as Jews faced a unique Passover; in 2021, many have learned the ins and outs of these get-togethers.

This year, experts recommend assigning Haggadah reading roles ahead of Passover; swapping recipes weeks in advance of the feast, so that meal participants can enjoy the same foods; and coordinating virtual cooking sessions ahead of Pesach, so that culinary endeavors can turn out successfully. (Read more tips from Forbes.) Going a step further, Jewish Exponent suggests cooking dishes that appear bright and vibrant on-camera (recipes are in the article), and pre-arranging foods that won’t require a host or hostess to continue leaving the table.


Matzo. Photo by Rebecca Siegel, courtesy of Flickr

Each Passover, Jews around the world ask the same question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This year, that question will once again be answered in a rare manner, as social distancing restrictions continue. Yet in a positive light, this situation in some ways relates to the first Passover, as was written at Chabad.org: “On the very first Passover, in Ancient Egypt, each family was sequestered in its home. No one was permitted to step outside. Outdoors, a plague swept through the land, but in each Jewish home, there was light and hope.”

While stricter Jewish families may not participate in a virtual Passover seder, many Jews will be gathering in this way, this year.

While vaccinations are providing a sense of hope to many, most in-person gatherings are still discouraged. To prepare for a second Passover “in isolation,” Chabad.org offers a list of pro tips.

Freedom can still be celebrated at Passover in spite of the continuing pandemic, states an article in STL Jewish Light. For a commentary on the deeper meaning of freedom and Passover, check out the story here.

This year, Passover will begin just as Shabbat ends—leaving many in a difficult situation regarding Passover seder preparation. News sources such as Aish.com and Jewish Exponent are recommending preparing as much of the meal as possible ahead of time—with tips on how to do it.

For tips on creating a spring-inspired Passover table, plus access to free printable Passover conversation starters, check out these links: Passover table and conversation starters, from HGTV.com.

In memory of a man who, for more than 40 years, bought millions of dollars of New York’s leavened bread products before Passover—and passed away last month–the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has a tribute article.



Among the events in the biblical story recalled during the seder, Jews give thanks to G_d for “passing over” the homes of those whose doors were marked with lamb’s blood during the biblical Plague of the Firstborn, for helping them to escape safely from Egypt’s army and for eventually leading them to freedom.

Haggadahs are available in a variety of commentary themes, such as this edition, which is commented on by Elie Wiesel. Photo by Edsel Little, courtesy of Flickr

Why is it so important to get rid of leavened products during this time? According to Exodus, as the Israelites left Egypt they moved so quickly that their bread was not able to rise. To this day, unleavened matzo bread is a staple element on seder tables and a symbol of this ancient festival.

As matzo is such an important element of Passover, many Jews are trying to revive the art of homemade matzo. Baking matzo is a challenge; only 18 minutes are allowed between the mixing of flour and water to the finishing of baking. Elaborate measures are taken to ensure the mixture does not rise.


During the day today, Jewish families may observe the Fast of the Firstborn. Tonight, after sunset, Passover will commence. As Passover begins, seders—ritualistic meals with readings, stories, songs and spirited discussion—are held in Jewish households everywhere.

Throughout the holiday period, and in more traditionally observant households, the dishes and baking tools used for the Passover seder are reserved only for this time and have never come into contact with chametz. The Passover seder is an extended meal that often lasts several hours, and is filled with ceremonial prayers, rituals, specific foods and drinks and careful table settings. During the seder, the story of the Exodus is recalled through readings from the Haggadah.

During Passover, the Torah obligation of the Counting of the Omer begins. On the second day of Passover, keeping track of the omer—an ancient unit of measure—marks the days from Passover to Shavuot.