September 20, 2017
The Two Holiest Days . . . Combined!
This coming Shabbat is also Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. When these two holiest days of the Jewish year coincide, it presents an enormous complication for the Jewish calendar. You may not have noticed, but Yom Kippur is NEVER on a Friday or on a Sunday. It makes sense, of course . . . how can you prepare for a big Shabbat dinner (a mitzvah – commandment) on Yom Kippur? And likewise, how can you prepare for Yom Kippur Eve, eat a final meal, etc., when it’s Shabbat? But . . . if the months are fixed, how can you be sure that Yom Kippur is never on a Friday or Sunday? The answer is, that the Hebrew months aren’t totally fixed. In a leap year, which happens 7 times in every 19 year cycle, we add an extra month! And . . . each Hebrew month is either 29 or 30 days; but, two months Heshvan and Kislev shift from year to year being one or the other. That way, the calendar can add a day or two in order to shift the days of the week so Yom Kippur will never be a Friday or Sunday. (Actually – the way it’s calculated is a little more complicated than that, but the end result is that it sets the day of the week for Yom Kippur.)
One of the most powerful prayers of the High Holiday season, is repeated both on the days of Rosh HaShanah and on Yom Kippur: Unetaneh Tokef – The first line is complicated to translate: It is about relating the power of the holiness of the holiday. This Medieval Piut (Poem) in many ways encapsulates the importance of living a value driven life in the face of the unknown events which might befall us in the coming year:
On Rosh Hashana it will be written, and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed
Who will live and who will die?
. . . Who by water and who by fire?
Who by sword, who by beast?
. . . But Repentance, Prayer and Righteousness will avert the severe decree!
Singer Songwriter Leonard Cohen managed to capture the theme in his 1988 performance of this central High Holiday Prayer in a classic rendition assisted by jazz legend Sonny Rollins: