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Explanation of the Observances That Mark the Seven Weeks Leading to Rosh Hashanah 

07/15/2022 03:36:38 PM

Jul15

by Cantor Jacob Niemi

Within the Jewish calendar we find a variety of “cycles,” periods of time that have layers of meaning and opportunities for spiritual growth and reflection associated with them. The two largest cycles in our calendar are the one that culminates in Shavuot in the late spring and the one that culminates with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the early fall (arguably extending through Sukkot and Simchat Torah). In the second of these cycles, three major observances frame the seven weeks leading to Rosh Hashanah. 

Tishah B’Av

The first of these observances, Tishah B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, marks a spiritual low point in our year, when we recall a variety of tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, including the destruction of the First Temple (circa 586 BCE), the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), the expulsion of the Jews from England (1290 CE), the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (circa 1490 CE), the beginning of World War I in 1914, and the beginning of operations at the Treblinka death camp and the start of deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. 

This fast day, on which we read from the book of Lamentations, teaches us about the importance of making space for grief and brokenness. Yet even by its end, there is already a suggestion of the possibility of rebuilding and renewal. In the final service on Tishah B’Av afternoon, the Torah reading includes verses about forgiveness that are included in the High Holy Day liturgy. When chanting those verses, the Torah reader customarily switches to the melodies used when chanting Torah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Rosh Chodesh Elul

The second major milestone in this seven-week period is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the month of Elul. While the few rituals for this day are similar to those marking the beginning of other months in the Jewish calendar, the day does introduce certain customs that continue throughout the month, the most notable of which may be the sounding of the shofar. The shofar, a ram’s horn that is sounded during Rosh Hashanah services, every day during Elul (with some communities excluding Shabbat), and at the end of Yom Kippur, reminds many people of a crying voice. 

Hearing the shofar’s call reminds us to look inward and to engage in the spiritual process of cheshbon hanefesh (literally “accounting of the soul”), as we take stock of the last year and think about ways that we might want to improve ourselves, our lives, and our relationships in the year to come. 

S’lichot

The third major moment preceding Rosh Hashanah is S’lichot, a service of penitential prayers that occurs in many Jewish communities on the Saturday evening immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah (or, if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday or a Tuesday, the Saturday evening the week before). Many Jewish communities continue to recite S’lichot prayers in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Sephardi and Mizrachi Jewish communities observe S’lichot on the second of the month of Elul and continue reciting these prayers throughout the month. Regardless of when it occurs, this ritual combines prayers connected to the liturgy of Yom Kippur with additional poetic writings and meditations, as well as a beautiful focus and midrashic expansion on the 13 attributes of God’s mercy. 

In addition to introducing prayers and melodies that are carried throughout the High Holy Days, it is also customary to use S’lichot as an opportunity to change the mantles on the Torah scrolls to those specifically designed for the holiday season (often white). This is thought to be in reference to the prophet Isaiah (1:18): “If your offenses be like scarlet, like snow shall they turn white. If they be red as dyed cloth, they shall become like pure wool.”

August 17, 2022 20 Av 5782