These sayings and legends pertaining to the High Holidays are taken from a large and representative collection to be published this month by Schocken Books under the title Days of Awe, edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. This volume is an abridged version of S. Y. Agnon’s massive Hebrew work, Yamin Noraim. It is translated into English by Rabbi Maurice T. Galpert, revised and completed by Jacob Sloan.
In his preface, Mr. Agnon, one of the most distinguished Hebrew writers of our age, writes: “For the benefit of those who wish to be informed of the matters of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the Days Between, I have assembled some sayings from the Torah and from the Prophets and from the Writings, from the Talmud Babylonian and Palestinian, from the halachic Midrash and the aggadic Midrash, and from the Zohar and from other books written by our Early Rabbis and Latter Rabbis, of blessed memory . . . .
“To make this book palatable to all, I have abridged lengthy passages and at times altered the style of the Rabbis; for those holy authors, their generation being fit and all men eager to hear words of Torah, had not the time to improve their style. Yet, although I have not kept to the style, I have kept their meaning very well indeed . . . .”
These selections, for which full citations are given in the forthcoming volume, are published with the permission of Schocken Books.
Said Rabbi Kruspedai, in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for the wholly righteous, one for the wholly wicked, and one for the intermediates. The wholly righteous are at once inscribed and sealed in the book of life; the wholly wicked are at once inscribed and sealed in the book of death; and the intermediates are held suspended from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they are found worthy, they are inscribed for life; if found unworthy, they are inscribed for death.
It is out of kindness toward his creatures that the Lord remembers them and reviews their deeds year after year on Rosh Hashanah, that their sins may not grow too numerous, and there may be room for forgiveness, and, being few, he may forgive them. For, if he were not to remember them for a long time, their sins would multiply to such an extent as to doom the world, God forbid. So this revered day assures the world of survival. For this reason it is fit that we celebrate the Rosh Hashanah as a festive day; but since it is a Day of Judgment for all living things, it is also fit that we observe Rosh Hashanah with greater fear and awe than all the other festive days.
It is written in the sacred books:
The thirty days before Rosh Hashanah, the great Judgment Day when man is permitted to turn in Teshuvah—to what are they comparable? To the thirty days of grace which a Court grants a debtor in which to pay his debts and be freed of his creditors.
Rabbi Meshullam Isaachar ha-Levi Hurwitz of Stanislav [19th cent.], before beginning to recite the prayer, “Hear Our Voice,” during the penitential prayers of “Remember the Covenant” [on the eve of Rosh Hashanah] opened the Ark with tears and supplications and related:
A certain king had an only son, tender and delicately reared from childhood. And his father loved him and raised him and reared him in the ways of righteousness, and led him to the bridal canopy; and all he wished was to see his son going in the straight way. “And he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes” (Isa. 5:2). The good qualities that his father planted in his son he exchanged for ugly, and he went after the stubbornness of his evil heart, deserted the wife of his youth and clung to a foreign wife. His father the king seeing his erring deeds, his heart turned to hate his son, and he banished him from his house and from his palace, and sent him to another land far from his country.
The son wandered for many years from village to village and from city to city. His clothes became tom and tattered. His face changed, until it was not to be recognized that he was the son of a king. When many days had passed and he had had his fill of wandering, he remembered his father the king, and his palace, and began to think about his condition, and why his father became stronger day by day. He made up his mind to return to the house of his father, and to return in complete repentance.
And when he came before his father the king, he cried and begged his mercy, and fell at his feet, and asked to be forgiven for the sin that he had sinned. But his father did not recognize him, because his face had changed greatly. Then he began to scream bitterly, “Father, father, if you do not recognize my face, you must remember my voice, for my voice has not changed.” Then his father recognized him, and had pity on him, and gathered him into his house.
Then the rabbi said:
So is it with us. We are sons to the Lord, our God, the King above all kings. The Holy One, blessed be he, loved us and desired us, and exalted us above every folk, and led us to the bridal canopy, and gave us his sacred Torah that corrects a man, that he may go in the straight way of righteousness; but we have turned aside from the highway he leveled before us, we have departed from his goodly commandments, and have been banished far from our land, and our iniquities have turned away these things, so that our face has been changed and our comeliness has turned in us into corruption.
And now with the coming of the Sacred Days we are regretful of our deeds, and are returning to our Father that is in heaven, and cry to him, ‘Hear our voice! If you do not recognize our appearance, you must recognize our voice, for we are your children; spare and have compassion on us, and receive, with compassion and willingly, this our prayer.’
The reason for the blowing of the ram’s-born [on Rosh Hashanah] was revealed to me in a dream: It is as though two friends, or a father and son, who do not wish that what the one writes to the other should be known to others, were to have a secret language, known to no one but themselves. So it is on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment; it was not the will of the Omnipresent that the Accuser should know of our pleas. Therefore He made up a language for us, that is the ram’s-bom which is only understood by Him.
Once the Baal Shem Tov [8th cent.] commanded Rabbi Zev Kitzes to learn the secret meanings behind the blasts of the ram’s-horn, because Rabbi Zev was to be his caller on Rosh Hashanah. So Rabbi Zev learned the secret meanings and wrote them down on a slip of paper to look at during the service, and laid the slip of paper in his bosom. When the time came for the blowing of the ram’s-horn, he began to search everywhere for the slip of paper, but it was gone; and he did not know on what meanings to concentrate. He was greatly saddened. Broken-hearted, he wept bitter tears, and called the blasts of the ram’s-horn, without concentrating on the secret meanings behind them.
Afterward, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: “Lo, in the habitation of the king are to be found many rooms and apartments, and there are different keys for every lock; but the master key of all is the ax, with which it is possible to open all the locks on all the gates. So it is with the ram’s-horn: the secret meanings are the keys; every gate has another meaning, but the master key is the broken heart. When a man truthfully breaks his heart before God, he can enter into all the gates of the apartments of the King, above all kings the Holy One, blessed be he.”
“For You remember all the forgotten things, and there is no forgetting before your throne of honor.” At first the poet says, “remember all the forgotten things”; from which one would gather that there is forgetting before God; and afterward he says, “;and there is no forgetting before your throne of glory”;; from which one would gather that there is no forgetting before Him. How is this possible?
These words refer to commandments and transgressions. If a man has committed a transgression and forgotten it, and has not done Teshuvah, the Holy One, blessed be he, remembers it. If a man has observed a commandment, and does not mention it, the Holy One, blessed be he, remembers it. If a man has committed a transgression, and applies the Writ, “My sin is ever before me”; (Ps. 51:5) to himself, the Holy One, blessed be he, lets it pass from his presence and forgets it. If a man has observed a commandment and praises himself for it, the Holy One, blessed be he, forgets it.
That is the meaning of the saying that God remembers all the forgotten things, that is to say, he remembers what men forget. “;And there is no forgetting before your throne of glory”; God forgets what men remember.
Seek ye the Lord while He may be found” J(Isa. 55:6). Said Rabbah bar Abuha: “He may be found” during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
It is a widespread custom from the earliest days, from the time of our saintly rabbi [Judah ha-Nasi, 2nd cent.] on, that, beginning with the months of Nisan and Tishri, no cases are tried and no trials are held, so that no man may bring suit against his brother and friend—except for those matters which the Court cannot dismiss, because of their great urgency.
Nor does any man take an oath in the Court until after Yom Kippur for fear of bringing down the punishment of God upon the world because of swearing.
But Rabbi Mordecai Jaffe [16th-17th cent.] wrote:
It seems to me that it is very much better to judge and give decision in human affairs, that there may be peace among men on Yom Kippur. For another reason: Lo, our sages of blessed memory, have said (Deut. Rabbah V.5 ): “Where there is justice, there is no judgment; and where there is no justice, there is judgment. That is to say, if we do justice on earth below, there is no judgment in heaven above; but if there is no justice below, there is judgment above.” This being true, if we do not judge below, lo, the quality of divine justice will be directed toward us, God forbid! Therefore, it seems to me that it is better to judge below and to silence the judgment above.
The pious Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel of Apt [8-19 th cent.] used to say: If it was in my power, I would do away with all the afflictions, except for the afflictions on the bitter day, which is the Ninth of Av—for who could eat on that day?—and the afflictions on the holy and awesome day, Yom Kippur; who needs to eat on that day?
. . . The Reader chants Kol Nidre in the chant handed down by our fathers from past generations. They begin the prayer while it is still daylight, and continue into the night. They all chant Kol Nidre three times. The Reader begins softly, and arises his voice higher the second time, and even higher the third, chanting Kol Nidre with trembling and fear and devotion, while the congregation say it with him in a whisper.
The first time the Reader chants Kol Nidre he ought to chant in a very low voice, like a man who is amazed at entering the palace of the king to ask a favor, and is afraid of coming close to the king; and so the Reader speaks softly, like one asking for something. The second time he ought to raise his voice a little higher than the first time. The third time he ought to raise his voice higher and higher, like a man who is at home and accustomed to being a member of the king’s household.
The reason why it is the custom to chant Kol Nidre on the night of Yom Kippur is because Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness and Teshuvah, and it is necessary for a man to purify himself of his iniquities . . . . If a man has made a vow during the year and remembers his vow, he must fulfil it; and if he does not fulfil it, Yom Kippur does not make atonement for him. For so we have learned: “Those who are liable for sin-offerings and unconditional guilt-offerings must bring them, even if Yom Kippur intervenes, after Yom Kippur. Those who are liable for suspended guilt-offerings are exempt” (Mishnah Keritot VI.4 ). This teaches us that Yom Kippur does not make atonement for the sin-offering and the unconditional guilt-offering; and vows are like sin-offerings. It is necessary to fulfil the vows if they are remembered, for a man is under obligation to fulfil a vow from the time he makes it, for Yom Kippur does not make atonement for vows. For this reason, the Geonim of the academies instituted the practice of saying Kol Nidre on the night of Yom Kippur, for remembered vows are fulfilled and the vower is exempt, but what if he does not remember them? What is he to do then, that he may be atoned and be pure on Yom Kippur? So the Geonim instituted the practice of making public annulment of vows that were not remembered. [Rashi]
The commentators undertook to comprehend how confession and regretfulness could help the person who is doing Teshuvah, for the law is that a speech cannot void an act. The sinner is guilty of many evil actions, so how can confession, which is a form of speech, help him? But our rabbis, of blessed memory, said that the Holy One, blessed be he, makes a new creature of the man who does Teshuvah (Pesikta Rabbati), and the result is that his speech of confession is the cause of a powerful and great act of creation, and of course all his evil actions are voided.
On Yom Kippur the night is the same as the day. For during all the days of the year the gates of compassion are open during the day; during the night they are shut. But on Yom Kippur, the night is the same as the day; for the gates of understanding are open from nightfall on, and the night is the same as the day, to our benefit.
This was the prayer of the High Priest when he left the Sanctuary in peace on Yom Kippur: “May it be your will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that no exile shall come upon us, neither on this day nor in this year. And if exile is to come upon us on this day or in this year, may we be exiled to a place of Torah. May it be your will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that no dearth come upon us, neither on this day nor in this year. And if dearth come upon us, on this day or in this year, let it be as the result of our fulfillment of your commandments. May it be your will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that this year be a year when prices are low, a year of plenty, a year of commerce, a year of rain and warm weather and dew, and that your people Israel may not need one another’s help. Do not heed the prayers of wayfarers . . . . And [I pray] for your people Israel, that they do not rise to rule over one another.”
For the people of the Valley of Sharon he would pray: “May it be your will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that their houses may not become their graves.”
When the Afternoon Prayer is finished, the Closing Prayer is prayed. This is a prayer which was added to the other prayers on the holy day in order to awaken God’s compassion during the time of the closing of the gates. What the closing of the gates means is explained in the Palestinian Talmud: “Rab says: It means the closing of the gates of heaven. And Rabbi Yohanan says: The closing of the gates of the Temple” (Berakhot IV. ). And now that our Temple is in ruins, and the habitation of our glory is taken, we direct our hearts to heaven, praying that before the gates of the heavenly Temple are closed, prayers may enter on high and be accepted with compassion and favor.