Tag Archives: Yom Kippur

The Kapparot Ceremony with Money

Liturgy and cruelty-free guide to the traditional expiation ceremony

It seems like every year I have a discussion with several people about kapparot – the ceremony commonly understood as an expiation of sins. Most commonly with a chicken, which to many of us makes this ceremony seems like a sharp reminder of the old days of Temple animal sacrifice.

Kapparot Ceremony WoodcutAt this time, I don’t really think I need to fully explore the history or debate the ethics of this practice. As that is well written about. Nor would it even be helpful for me to join in the complaining about this tradition, which is not going away. Instead I feel that I must do something more practical, and provide the tools that people need for the most compassionate alternative. Instead of deriding a custom, I alternatively choose to help redeem and elevate it for us.

I am not at all unfamiliar with the practice. I have been around the fervently Orthodox and Haredi long enough to understand it, see it and to not judge people for their minhag. However, I have never myself felt comfortable with performing the ritual with chickens. Nor have I ever felt the need to perform it with a bird. No one has ever tried to compel me or my peers. As our tradition does offer well-known alternatives: either the use of a fish or money, in place of a white chicken. In this piece we will explore the use of money for this ritual.

The guide at the bottom of this page presents the traditional text of the kapparot ceremony with the proper wording necessary for using money in the ritual. For the ease of user the text is presented in Hebrew and translated into English, with transliteration of the key words of the ceremony. No more guessing what to say, and which words to replace! It also comes along with clear instructions and a guide to the kavannah (the inner intention, the meditation) of the ritual.

* Consider our Tradition: *

Kapparot is a deep-seated custom for many. It dates back to the period of the Geonim – the period of Jewish geniuses stretching from the late-sixth to the early eleventh-century of the common era, in Babylon. Often explained to us as being originally based up a tradition of the Persians Jews, today in the west it is most commonly associated with Chassidic and Haredi Judaism. As it is said to be a tradition encouraged by the ARI z”l, it is commonly observed among the followers of kabbalistic mysticism in both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities.

According to the traditional custom, one takes a white chicken – a rooster for a man, a hen for a woman, and at least one of each gender bird for a pregnant woman. During the ritual the bird is swung three (3) cycles over the head. The bird is then ritually slaughtered, and the blood of the animal is covered over with dirt as a solemn and rare mitzvah using the bracha (“Baruchal kisui hadam be’afar). Covered over as a sign of reverence, commanded by Torah. (Leviticus 17:13)

This ritual brings on shock and awe in the most unnerving fashion. And that is what it’s designed to do. To remind people of the frailty of life, of how mortal we are. And reminding us how sin can lead to our untimely death.

What kapparot is not, it is not an easy way to unload our sins. It is not a short-cut to atonement, as our rabbis remind us. It is a sobering reminder, of the specter of sin and death in our lives. But true atonement is achieved through t’shuvah – sincere repentance; with prayer and fasting, with mitzvot and good deeds. (see Isaiah ch. 1) This act is a dramatic reminder of our need to do t’shuvah, and a way of engaging a person in G’milut Chasadim – acts of loving-kindness – before Yom Kippur.

Following the custom, one is to prepare the bird and give it to the poor of the community. In this act, also alleviating need among those within the community, providing charitable meals during this sacred season.

However, over time as people began to centrally urbanize, it became much less possible for many communities to sustain this tradition with chickens; getting so many live and appropriate birds was not always possible. And furthermore, rushing to perform so many of these kosher slaughters before the holiday often left a lot of problems with improper attention being paid to shechitah to proper kosher slaughtering practices. For this reason many communities began to use money in place of the birds. Money which could be given to the poor to fulfill this mitzvah.

More and more people today have begun to use money. Indeed many people, because of reasons of sensitivity or personal ethics, have begun to use money in place of chickens. To focus on the bright side of tzedakah, as opposed to the carnality of slaughter.

But some might say, how does this connect us to old tradition? How can this bring us remembrance of mortality? Why should we use money instead?

And we can even ask, what additional and greater benefit is it to perform kapparot by this method? It is because such an act as this is one of G’milut Chasadim – one of loving-kindness, an act which is said to be superior to even the tzedakah (charity) itself:

Our Rabbis taught: In three respects is Gmilut Chasadim – acts of Loving-kindness – are greater than tzedakah – charity. Charity can be done only with one’s money, but Gmilut Chasadim can be done with one’s person [through acts] and with one’s money. Charity can be given only to the poor, Gmilut Chasadim both to the rich and the poor. Charity can be given to the living only, Gmilut Chasadim can be done both to the living and to the dead. [e.g. burying the dead, attending a funeral, etc.]

תנו רבנן: בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה, צדקה בממונו, גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו. צדקה לעניים, גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים. צדקה לחיים, גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים.

תלמוד בבלי, סוכה מט

Talmud Bavli, Sukkah 49b

I ask this year, and going forward, that many more of you choose to start their acts of G’milut Chasadim with true chesed – with pure kindness and mercy, and use money as kapparot. Showing kindness towards living animals, and giving as an act of kindness towards our fellow-man.


The following documents are fully Open Source and free for redistribution, reproduction and editing. As a working and living project, I encourage people to make suggestions on how to improve this text. I also encourage you to personalize this text for you or your community’s needs. You may download the text here in either Open Office of PDF format:

Download: Kapparot Ceremony with Money (PDF)

Editable Document: Kapparot Ceremony with Money (ODT, Open Office format)

This is a project of Hardcore Mesorah, in cooperation with the Open Siddur Project’. I am the original transcriber of this liturgy “Seder Kapparot with Money” and translator/author of its accompanying instructional text. I am licensing the liturgical transcriptions and translations within it under the Creative Commons Zero License, and the instructions with the Creative Commons By Attribution license. Attribution may be given as ‘Contributors to the Open Siddur Project’, with the transcriber/translators name Shmuel Gonzales included in the contributors list.” September 2014 – Tishrei 5775 (First Release)

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Parshat Ki-Tissa (5774)

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Galbanum: Why include this vile fragrance?

Photo credit: Flickr, Lizzy Lane Farm

Photo credit: Flickr, Lizzy Lane Farm

This week we are going to explore Torah through our sense of smell. We are also going to discuss the different types of scents; good and bad, sweet and sour, pleasant and bitter. We will discuss the way that fragrance can inspire people’s moods. We will also discuss how at other times in our tradition a scent can be used as an example of certain type personality.

In this parsha we get beyond just the details of the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and now we get into the practical measures to make it a working reality. In last weeks parsha we had presented for us the instructions for making the Ketoret – the Temple Incense (see Exodus chapters 25 and 35). Now in the same vein, this week our parsha is discussing the making of the Shemen Meshechat – the fragrant Anointing Oil (שמן המשחה) which was needed for the inauguration. This parsha will also detail how the incense and oil are to be used.

Both of these discussions are very similar. They are both sacred compounds which were made of herbs, spices and resins; made into exclusive blend which could only be used for ritual purposes. They were also made of much of the same herbal products.

In Hebrew the term for herbs and fragrant spices is samim (סמים). A sam (סם) is any type of spice, be it used as a fragrance or as a medication. For this reason the word sam also means a drug or a narcotic. As we know, drugs and medications are often the exact same compound, it’s just a matter of whether or not people are using them properly, and to what concentration. (see similar topic for Parshat Re’eh 2012)

Actually, making perfumed and medication are quite similar in process. The active and fragrant ingredients, which are held in the essential oils of herbs and spices, can be released and collected. These oils from the herbs (samim) can be infused into regular oil (shemen). In this case, olive oil (shemen zayit). (Although it is also common for jojoba to be used as a carrier as well, see “Mystical Aromatherapy: The Divine Gift of Fragrance”)

This is the process which we read of in this weeks parsha:

“And you shall take for yourself top-quality spices: 500 [shekels] of pure myrrh; of fragrant cinnamon, half as much, 250; and of fragrant cane, 250;

And of cassia, 500, after the weight of the sanctuary; and a hin of olive oil.

You shall make it a holy anointing oil, a perfumed compounded after the art of the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.”

וְאַתָּה קַחלְךָ, בְּשָׂמִים רֹאשׁ, מָרדְּרוֹר חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת, וְקִנְּמָןבֶּשֶׂם מַחֲצִיתוֹ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִם; וּקְנֵהבֹשֶׂם, חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתָיִ.

וְקִדָּה, חֲמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ; וְשֶׁמֶן זַיִת, הִין.

וְעָשִׂיתָ אֹתוֹ, שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַתקֹדֶשׁרֹקַח מִרְקַחַת, מַעֲשֵׂה רֹקֵחַ; שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַתקֹדֶשׁ, יִהְיֶה.

Exodus 30:23-25

In the commentary by Rashi for these verses, we are reminded of the dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehudah regarding the way in which the fragrant anointing oil was made. There are two common method that could have been used to make such a perfumed substance. (also see the source, Talmud Bavli, Keritot 5a-6b)

The first being the boiling of the spices in oil, thus releasing the scent directly into the oil and then straining out the spices. This process I understand well, it is a process that people like myself commonly use for extraction of the medicinal substances from natural products like cannabis (As you know, I have been battling a life threatening illness. See a demonstration of medical marijuana extraction into fats in this video, “How To Make Cannabis Butter, Cooking With Marijuana). This is the method suggested by Rabbi Meir.

The second option is actual perfuming, in which you merely capture the scent of the spices alone through contact and exposure (thank you Rabbi Juan Mejia for enlightening me on this!). This is something new to me, but interesting to learn. In the old days perfume was most commonly made by taking fresh spices, flowers and hydrated barks and placing them directly into oil. (see this method explained “Making Essential Oils at Home”) Yet another method of perfuming still relies on contact transfer as well. It is when the herbs are placed in water to release the oils, olive oil would then be floated over the surface to capture the essential oils and fragrances of the spices, the mixed oils would then be skimmed from the mixture or distilled off; the water in the mixture is very slowly boiled off, leaving only the fragrant substance. This latter method is suggested by Rabbi Yehudah.

I find this topic fascinating, because it a good demonstration of how much knowledge we have lost in the consumer age. In days gone by, people readily knew how to made extracts and perfumes, but in the lack of practice the details are not understood by most of us today.

I’m not going to take on that debate at this time, as we don’t really know the final answer to the question of which method was used anyhow. Both methods compromise a certain precondition, either the purity (clarity) or the need to be throughly mixed. What we do know is that what ever method used had to get the essence of 75 pounds of spices into a hin of oil; about a gallon of oil. Either method is quite difficult and requiring great care, considering in most cases even anything over a 1% solution of cinnamon alone could burn the skin!

The creation of this composition, for now will have to remain a mystery. We are further told that we are not allowed to recreate this formula of anointing oil. We cannot experiment with it to find out. It is sacred, and should not be poured directly on to human flesh (al basar adam lo yisach, see verse 32). Do we mean it should not be poured, just rubbed on to a person? The next verse seems to clarify by suggesting we cannot place this on foreign, non-priest, (al zar, see verse 33); it can only be used for anointing the priests.

This is what we appear to observe concerning the oil, which was to be placed directly on to Aharon and his sons to sanctify them for their priestly service.

Now it is most obvious to many of us why it is so important that this anointing oil be fragranced, as in our tradition spices are of great significance. Spices are said to awaken the soul, and enlighten the eye. For this reason we use spices during Havdalah – to end Shabbat we inhale the spices deeply to reawaken our souls for the week of labor ahead. The pleasantness of spices moves us in a way that is inspiring.

But what about spices that don’t smell so good? In fact, many medicinal herbs do not smell nice. Notice it is their horrible smell which also makes them unpalatable, just too awful to want to be tasted. Things which are too bad to drink or even smell on their own.

Actually in our parsha, we are faced with just that. This discussion is also in close chronologically with the Talmud as well. This topic arises surrounding the equally sacred Ketoret incense.

And Hashem said to Moses:

Take for yourself spices;

balsam sap,


and galbanum;

spices and pure frankincense;

They shall be of equal weight

And you shall make it into incense,

a compound

according to the art of the perfumer,

well blended, pure, holy.”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe

| kach-lecha samim

| nataf

| ushchelet

| vechelbenah

| samim ulevonah zakah

| bad bevad yihyeh

| Ve’asita otah ktoret

| rokach

| ma’aseh roke’ach

| memulach tahor kodesh

Exodus 30:34-35

In the production of the Ketoret, there are eleven spices that are used to create that blended compound. The spices and mixtures were prepared by grinding them down very fine, and then mixing them together by spatula blending. Turning over and over, utill mixed.

All the ingredients seem to make sense except for the galbanum. That is one of the substances that we understand the least, but which is the most discussed among the curious. There is a reason why we want to understand this, as our rabbis are also of the opinion that small amounts of all of the ketoret spices are placed into the anointing oil as well. Galbanum would have naturally have been one of the ingredients.

Today modern science sheds some light on the origins and possible usefulness of this herbal ingredient.

First off, we know that this that chalbena/galbanum comes for the east, deeper into Asia. Native to Iran and then spread through the regions of Afghanistan, it subsequently was brought west to Syria and Canaan. It likewise spread into India and China, who have the finest specimens we favor for medicine to this day. This plant has a bamboo-like cane stalk, and is commonly called “the giant fennel.”

What is it used for? More often than not, in literature it is used for burning, such as for making torches in classic Greek literature. It also most commonly used externally as a natural remedy. Whereas many items are applied to the skin, galbanum can also be used as an inhalant and a fumigant as well. It’s external uses are said to cure many things, but namely for releasing muscle spasms. It has also known to be used as a remedy for epilepsy, hysteria and giddiness, among other things. It is also useful as an insect repellent, when utilized as a fumigant (through smoke; interestingly that is one of the few observations about the Ketoret and Temple in our tradition, there were no presence of flying insects)

Galbanum can also be used internally, to treat a cough and asthma. When mixed with other compounds like myrrh it can be used as antidote for poison, with honey it can be used as a laxative and deobstruent. It’s apparently very good for the stomach, liver and spleen. Although today, much of the knowledge necessary for medicinal use is lost in it’s countries of origin. (see Encyclopædia Iranica: Galbanum)

However, today people still make extracts of galbanum and place them on neck, temples and on spasming muscles.

The problem with using galbanum is that it is terribly hard to use, since it smells so terrible. It‘s odor is described simply as “intense green,” by most people. A green and almost piny fragrance. However, raw and in its purer form, people merely describe it as smelling like turpentine.

There is no way around it, process it all you want, the stuff is awful. So why is it that we are asked to use something so foul and bitter smelling in the incense, and thus in turn also include it in the anointing oil?

Rashi brings up this point as well in his commentary regarding the smell of chalbana/galbanum. Rashi says:

And galbanum: A spice with a vile odor, called galbane [in Old French], galbanum. The Scripture counted it among the ingredients of the incense [in order] to teach us that we should not look with disapproval at including Jewish sinners with us when we assemble for fasting or prayer. [The Torah instructs us] that they should be counted with us. [from Ker. 6b]”

וחלבנה: בשם שריחו רע וקורין לו גלבנא, ומנאה הכתוב בין סמני הקטורת, ללמדנו, שלא יקל בעינינו לצרף עמנו באגודת תעניותינו ותפלותינו את פושעי ישראל שיהיו נמנין עמנו:

Rashi to Genesis 30:34

Here Rashi brings us back to the Talmud, to the same sections we were previously discussing. And in this commentary we have it reaffirmed for us, we are all in agreement that this substance smelled “ra,” it was a bad and dare we say “evil” smelling substance. It smells nasty, that’s what ra means. It doesn’t get much more descriptive than that.

And this is why we most often discuss galbanum, people want to know why this vile smelling ingredient needs to be included. Our rabbis, since as far back as any of us can remember, have taught that the reason we include the chalbana is because the mixture would be incomplete without it, it just wouldn’t smell right. The rabbis not just make the point that it needs to be mixed in with other substances to be acceptable. But that the other spices of the Ketoret would themselves not smell right unless this bitter ingredient was included in the mix. This re’ach ra – this evil smell.

You know more often than not when I talk to people about going to synagogue or joining in a Jewish event, I often have people tell me that they don’t belong. Few will tell me that they are just too much of a sinner. But that’s what many suggest. Instead many people instead suggest that they are just too bitter of a person to fit into a community. There is no place for them, they aren’t needed.

Our tradition would suggest that even if it were true, that one could claim that either themselves or some other Jew is just too bitter, in fact too sinful of a person to be part of the Jewish community; that is the very reason why that person needs to be included.

Just like mixing incense or perfumes, a really good fragrance is not just one type of smell. It’s nice, but that will never do. In a good mix, in a proper blend we have several smells mixed together, each complimenting each other. On their own they are lovely, but together they can be something amazing.

It’s no different when it comes to community, the personalities can often temper and compliment each other. It is good that we be in the mix with other Jewish people, even us sharp personalities like myself. Other people can help take the edge off us. Our friends and loved ones bringing balance to us.

But even more so, we need to all recognize that we as a community are incomplete if we don’t have some of those more intense and strong personalities that most people would rather avoid. Even those bitter persons. We need to have some of their sharpness and distinctive intensity, they accentuate us. They are needed to bring balance and wholeness to us all.

The Talmud, which Rashi is paraphrasing here in his commentary, actually takes it one step further. We are taught that we are not to look down on the person who comes to be included in the prayers of the Jewish people. When they come on holy and auspicious days like Yom Kippur, we don’t belittle them. Think about it, what point is a day of fasting and repentance if the sinners where not included? We need their prayers to be part of ours in order for our supplications to be complete.

The great Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”l clarifies on this for us, by taking us down a mystical route. So I quote the master:

The incense consisted of ten spices or perfumes with good fragrances, and an eleventh spice, Chelbenah-galbanum, with a vile odor… which alludes to the elevation of evil back into the realm of the holy.

Following the idea of the ten fragrant spices and the single unpleasant one, the Talmud (Keritot 6b) states: ‘Every communal fast that does not include sinners of Israel is not a fast.’ This is derived from the fact that the incense included Chelbenah-galbanum. Just as the Chelbenah was necessary to give the other spices exactly the right fragrance, a congregation is not complete without someone who has also fallen and who must re-elevate himself through repentance. In particular, when a difficult punishment has been decreed against Israel because of some evil deed, this very evil must be taken and elevated. Thus, the idea of transforming evil by elevating it back to its source in holiness is intimated in the incense. It is for this reason also that a communal fast must include ‘the sinners of Israel.'”

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “Innerspace” p. 87

Are you bitter? Then you have a place with us! Are you an unpleasant person? The Jewish community needs you! Are you a sinner? Then we need you to be part of this as well. Maybe you feel like the 11th ingredient, the odd-man-out; but you aren’t useless, you are part of our essential make-up. We are incomplete without you. You are part of the blend that makes the Jewish people so unique and so intense. Your distinctiveness is needed to help elevate the spiritual and communal experience of the rest of us!

Do-It-Yourself Project Suggestion:

Want to experiment with some of what we have learned today about the production of oils and perfumes? As we have discussed, there are several ways of transferring fragrances into oil. If you can make iced tea, you can make perfumed oils. Learn how to make Lavender Scented Oil today from the video below.

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Neilah: Closing the Gates of Repentance

Reflections on Forgiveness from the Yom Kippur Amidah


Like most people, I am also battling my body and my will during this fast day of Yom haKippurim. It is a long day, being one of the few full day-long fasts in our calendar. This is especially rare this year, as this very solemn day of rest is also paired with the weekly Sabbath day of rest. Normally we do not fasts on Shabbat. However as our tradition considers this day of atonement a thing of pure joy, the regular festive meals are suspended as we feast on some deep prayers and reflections.

And during this holiday we certainly have many helpings of prayers. This holiday of Yom haKippurim – the day of atonements – we recite our central prayer duty, the Amidah no less that five times (Ma’ariv, Shacharit, Mussaf, Minchah, and Neilah).

I am sitting here considering the words of the final prayer, the Neilah – the closing of the gates of teshuvah (repentance) and heaven. I would like us to explore the concept of atonement, through the aid of this prayer and the scriptural context from which it is drawn.

The liturgy reads as follows:

“Our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, forgive us our wrongdoings, on this Shabbat day and on this Day of Atonements, on this day of pardoning of sin, on this day of assembly; wipe away and remove our transgressions and sins from before Your eyes, as it is stated: ‘I, just I, am He who wipes away your transgressions. For My own sake, I will not recall.’ (Isaiah 43:25)”

אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו מחול לעונותינו ביום השבת הזה וביום הכפרים הזה ביום סליחת העון הזה ביום מקרא קדש הזה מחה והעבר פשעינו וחטאתינו מנגד עיניך כאמור: אנכי אנכי הוא מחה פשעיך למעני וחטאתיך לא אזכר:

Fifth Amidah, Neilah for Yom Kippur

Here we are asking G-d, for the last time, to forgive our avonoteinu – our wrongdoings. To wipe away our p’shaeinu v’chatoteinu – our transgressions and our sins. This prayer is an important one to me, because neilah is always a tearjerker. It has full urgency, as it is our last chance to repent. We don’t want to get left outside of the gates of repentance. But at the same time it comes with all the exhilaration of accomplishment for those who engage it. All the senses are firing at once.

I would like us to look at the basics of why we go through this process at all. We will find the answer provided for us straightaway, here during the height of the High Holy Days, during the pinnacle of our celebration here in the Neilah prayer. There is one simple point that drives this holiday. We do all this simply because G-d wants to forgive us. We aren’t trying to necessarily convince G-d to forgive us, its has more to do with us getting in-line with the spirit of atonement and the theme of forgiveness for ourselves.

One of the reasons that this holiday is so hard to explain to outsiders is that the world often has a very different message about atonement, as does the common culture. In most religions its it is most often about who you go through to get redemption, or more precisely who does it for you. Who is this leader that either commands G-d’s recognition of his pardon, or who is the man who sacrifices himself to pay off your moral dept. How can we repent without such a person? When we say we are atoning the big question is, “Who is going to forgive you? Who atones for you?”

This kind of perplexes us Jews. Because as reasoning people, and knowing the Torah, we understand that the true way to atone is to ask forgiveness from the people that we have sinned against and to remedy the wrong. We have been doing this work of teshuvah (repentance), revisiting the situation and setting it right, for some weeks now. We aren’t atoning by asking G-d to forgive our interpersonal wrongs, nor our lapses in ethics. That we must do for ourselves, with the people affected.

Hopefully at this point most of our ethical and moral issues have been dealt with and considered. So why is it so heartfelt for us at this point in the service? Why does it shake us in such a way through to our very core? This is because what we are dealing with now is the issues that are between us and G-d, and between us and ourselves. Often times these prayers of Yom Kippur are heavy with prayers of forgiveness for the wrongs that we have done against ourselves and G-d alone. The things deep inside of us that need to be settled, the places that are tremendously hard to reach and painful to touch. Things that can only be settled on a heart-level.

As we approach this prayer I would hope that we can say it with all joy, because we have remedied our wrong deeds and are ready to stand atoned and forgiven. We should feel overcome by a sense of relief. Why should we stand upright now with a sense of celebration and awe? It is because we can stand forgiven if we chose to make it so today! Who is the guarantor of this pardon that we should acknowledge it?

Our prayer draws from the words of the prophet Isaiah:


I am the One who

blots our your transgressions

for My sake,

and your sins I will not remember.”

אָנֹכִי |

אָנֹכִי הוּא |

מֹחֶה פְשָׁעֶיךָ, |

לְמַעֲנִי: |

וְחַטֹּאתֶיךָ, לֹא אֶזְכֹּר: |

Isaiah 43:25

G-d declares to us that He is the one that forgives our sins, it is He alone. And He does this “l’maani / for My own sake.” Just because He wants to! What of the guilt of our sins? Of our sin’s, He says that He chooses to remember them no more.

The text of the prophet Isaiah from where this is drawn actually gives us a good look into not only why G-d wants to forgiveness us in this way, but also why it is important for us to set a day for atonement aside. This verse can be found in the paragraph of Isaiah 43:22-28.

For a moment G-d calls out to us, like a long-lost parents during the holidays. You can hear the almost distinctive tone of a Jewish mother in the voice of G-d here. You haven’t called on me or even bothered to remember me. You haven’t troubled yourself on account of Me, G-d says. Even more interestingly, He starts out by saying in verse 22 that “v’lo oti karata / you haven’t called out to me,” not even when you needed help. That is so like us, to call out only when we need something, so He mentions that form of outcry first. But here G-d is calling out to people who don’t even have the impulse in them for that. Rashi says instead they called out to idols to help them. That’s how distance the relationship has become for some.

G-d also calls out something remarkable to us. He calls out to the people who haven’t been bothered to offer sacrifice. People who haven’t bothered to offer any offerings up for G-d. What is so astounding about this verse is that even as it accuses the people of not sacrificing or giving offerings, G-d says, “I have not burdened you with grain offerings, nor wearied you with incense offerings.” (v.23) In this verse Rashi take the tone a little more directly for us at this point, saying that G-d indeed has not burdened us, in fact even the grain offerings of the Temple itself only required a mere handful. Of being wearied, Rashi chimes on how quickly we can grow tired of our service before Him. We are too tired to care, even when all He is asking is that we show a pinch of conviction and regard in our daily lives.

In the next verse we see the theme follow in the same tone. We have not bothered G-d with our offerings of money and sweet cane, nor have fat meats for offerings been brought; but the people have instead burdened Him with their sins, and wearied G-d with our many wrongdoing we commit. We just can’t be bothered sometimes, except when it comes to doing wrong.  (v.24)

And it is in this context that G-d takes the higher grounds and says to us, “I, even I erase your transgressions for My sake, and your sins I will not remember.” (v.25) G-d thus offers us His means for atonement and pardon. It is He that initiates and calls us to the table to discuss whom has been wronged in this game of life. He calls “hazikraini,” He is calling out, “Remember Me!” He challenges us, “nisaftah yachad / let us reason together.” G-d asks us to consider ourselves and our role in this universe, and the role G-d and our own will both play in our existence. He calls us to saper, to lay it all out and take a true accounting, so that in the end we can come to a just resolution. He calls to you and me. That you may be, “l’maan titz’dak / that you may be accounted just.” (v.26)

And this is really what the majority of the Yom haKippurim is spent doing. Not just feeling penitent for our wrongs, but also focusing on how to “titz’dak,” how to get right. Even if we are already right with other people, sometimes we aren’t exactly right with ourselves and G-d yet. We hold the weight of guilt and shame hanging our shoulders. The pressure of all kinds of wrongs and moral failures that we are grieved over, for which we still hold ourselves accountable for. But we are asked to give it up, because G-d wants to relieve us of that for His own sake.  Just because He wants to, because He thinks it’s best for you to live a life free and justified in your own being. G-d doesn’t want to remember anymore, and neither should you. These words in neilah are one last chance to deliver this message.

For me these are some of the reasons the prayers of neilah are so beautiful. It drives such a beautiful message home for us: Not only do we need to seek out atonement, but we also need to be willing to accept forgiveness for ourselves.

As we approach neilah I would ask us all to just hold on through one more prayer service. We are almost there, we can see the finish line. Put all your energy into the final stretch of this marathon of teshuvah (repentance). As we come together for this last tefillah and service before Hashem, let us fully embrace this prayer with equal joy and awe. And with confidence, knowing that our heartfelt prayers of repentance and atonement have been heard. We can now let these gates close, our work is done. So raise your voices high, this is just an encore!

“Getting Down During the High Holidays”

“Getting Down During the High Holidays” – Musings of the Season
The Tradition of Ritual Prostration

A couple of weeks ago my friend Brad sent me a lovely article by Rav Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of United Hebrew Synagogue of the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom titled “Holy days are an annual check to mission drift.” On this note I started the new year. 

Jehu son of Omri bowing, on an obelisk from the year 842 BCE

As with most Jewish people, the coming of the High Holidays are profoundly important to me. Thoughts of years past come rushing to the forefront of my mind. There are so many memories to sort through. Each year unique, each memory cherished in their own way.

It is especially so for me, as someone who has returned to observance from secularism; a baal teshuvah. Like many people, it was during the awesomeness of this time of year that I one again found myself and returned home to yiddishkeit (Jewishness). I celebrate this season as my homecoming.

As I began to reminisce I was taken back to a conversation I had over a decade ago with a friend of mine. At the time I was a young secretary working for the Reform movement, who had made friends with a Conservative cantor that also work in the same office. We would often discuss the upcoming liturgy and holidays. One day as we were discussing the uniqueness of the High Holiday liturgy he asked me what I thought was the most profound moment of the services. Without questions I blurted out “the kneeling.” As I related this to him he smirked and we discussed dozens of unique stories we had for ritual prostration.

The story that stuck in my mind at the time was that of me being dragged to High Holiday services at the Kabbalah Centre in Los Angeles during the mid-1990s by my partner at the time. I myself had mostly been educated in an Conservative background, but already heavily leaned to Orthodox tradition and thought since the services were mostly orthodox in approach it would be nice to do something that kept his interest and still respected my sensibilities. The services were beautiful and hamish. All went well until at one point in the service, seeing what was coming next I got up and walked over to the front and facing wall of the hall that had a picture of a chassidic rebbe on it, took it down off the wall, turned it around, then proceeded to take the position of prostration. The dirty looks for my embarrassed partner ended when I got pats on the back from the rabbis and various celebrities for my actions. My cantor friend laughed and said, “but at least you did it!”

Most of you will only get the punchline of this if you understand the tradition… so here it goes…

Of all the positions I can think of, the position of kneeling is one that is the most uncomfortable for the Jew; but not so much a physical discomfort, but an internal discomfort. Unlike other religions, the position of kneeling is uncommon and unfamiliar in Judaism. And even when present, kneeling is not an end in and of itself. It leads to the rare occurrence of prostration.

Only once during the Rosh haShanah liturgy and four times in the Yom Kippur services do Jews follow the formula as described in the Alenu prayer, “v’anachnu korim u’mishatachavim u’modim / but we bend our knee, bown down, and offer praise.”

The tradition of prostration goes back all the way to the Holy Temple itself, when the Divine Name of Havayah – YHVH, the Name of Hashem – was said in the most Holy of Hollies; as the Name was pronounced the people would fall down on their faces, touch their head completely to the ground and say in response, “Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam vaed / blessed is His sovereign Name forever and ever!” (Talmud Bavli Yoma 6b)

After the destruction on the Temple the ritual of prostration was incorporated into the Alenu prayer as early as the third century C.E. Now the Alenu prayer, being so old and well known has had several revisions to it. Not all of them, however, were consensual. Under both Muslim and Christian rule the Alenu prayer was often fiercely attacked as blasphemy because of the lines that preceded the mentioning of kneeling:

He has not made us |

like the nations of the world |

nor caused us to be like the families |

of the earth |

nor has He assigned us a portion like theirs |

nor a lot like that of all their multitudes |

for they bow to vanity and nothingness” |

שֶׁלֹּא עָשַָׂנוּ

כְּגוֹיֵי הָאֲרָצוֹת

וְלֹא שָׂמָנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת


שֶֹׁלּא שָֹם חֶלְקֵנוּ כָּהֶם,

וְגוֹרָלֵנוּ כְּכָל הֲמוֹנָם.

שֶׁהֵם מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהֶבֶל וְלָרִיק

Alenu” prayer, Nusush haAri z”l

Under persecution the key words of bowing to vanity and nothingness disappeared from the liturgy at several times through out history.

Ironically as these words disappeared in the European liturgy, the tradition of bowing also fell into disuse independently of this liturgical imposition. It has been assumed the reason kneeling fell into disuse was in order to avoid the appearance of following practices of Christians and Muslims.

It would not be until the Chassidic movement, which incorporated the Nusach Sephard into the Ashkenazi tradition, that the full Alenu would be restored and the tradition of prostration would also once again be incorporated into the High Holiday services. But naturally this impact was first limited to the realm of Chassidut and not to Eastern Europe at large.

With the incorporation of prostration into the liturgy it was understood that it would follow the general halachic premises (Jewish laws) regarding prayer; when bowing one should only bow facing the eastern wall towards the Aron haKodesh (Ark of the Torah Scrolls), towards the direction of Jerusalem, and one should not bow facing any object. Legal discourse is rich with statements to avoid even the appearance of bowing towards any object or image. So much so that the tradition for many orthodox is not to even bend down to tie ones shoe; if one needs to tie their shoe, one lifts up on something like a stool or such to tie their shoe.

Through persecution there also became and unwillingness to bow. Our unwillingness grew to be a resistance. As Jews our protest to idolatry begins even before the thought of praying to another god, in that we cannot even take the position necessary to show sincerity. It became ingrained into us to bear an unwillingness to bow to another oppressor, because we bow to no man, just G-d. It grew to be a symbol of confidence before our G-d, and pride as individuals.

As liberal Judaism grew, being an outgrowth of the Eastern European tradition, it did not see necessary to take on the tradition of prostration. Only later would it be discussed and rejected as an unnecessary ritual of Temple origins we no longer follow, and secondly some objected to it as a demeaning position. Kneeling and unnecessary bowing thus in American Judaism became a faux pas to always be avoided.

One of the stories my cantor friend related to me was once being at a service at a distinguished Conservative shul in West Los Angeles, he described the chaos that ensued because two Jewish men from Yemen (where ritual prostration is known daily) fell on their faces flat out on the floor when the Torah was taken from the Ark and passed before them. We both laughed in hysteria because we both knew, without stating it, the type of tongue lashing they would receive. It would go something to the tune of, “We don’t do that, we worship with dignity! When Jews worship we stand. Think about it, our most central prayer is the Amidah, which means to stand!” Though the castigating individuals would be right in principal, they would be wrong in that the position of submission is not forbidden, its just rare and allowed only with cautious use.

I guess for this reason it is so awesome an experience for me when it happens. I have found that every years, the single act of bowing, kneeling and laying my head to the ground comes with great emotion. When everyone, small and great, comes and bows before Hashem. It is done with carefulness, purposefully, one bows exaggeratedly long bearing in mind that they are fulfilling a great and rare mitzvah (commandment). For a moment we step back into a Temple era tradition that is both humbling and uplifting at the same time. We bow to recognize two things; G-d as our King on Rosh haShannah, and our need for sincere repentance on Yom Kippur.

It is reminiscent of the age honored tradition in constitutional monarchies of Kissing Hands. It was the tradition that the Prime Minister at the start of their government would come before the sovereign and they would kneel, to be commanded that upon arising they are to go about the task of opening parliament. Though today there is most likely no kneeling, or actual kissing of hands, this ceremonial first meeting still takes place in the United Kingdom. Tony Blair has stated in the past that he found the tradition to be inspiring, in that it reinforces the concept that one is accountable to someone other than themselves.

I think it is wholly appropriate that at the Jewish New Year we are called as our first act after after offering up our worship to G-d, to bow down and acknowledge Hashem as King, and only then do we get up to go about all our other tasks.

For me it has become a moment of pure reverence, and secretly inside my heart a relieving moment in which I get to show my weakness before an all enabling G-d. My strength is shown not in how fiercely to attention I stand, but by my ability to compose my unruly self and show submission to godliness.

It would do us well as Jews to seek to keep this traditional form of submission to G-d. That once a year we refocus ourselves, with the holiday seasons coming again to remind us of where we are at in our year, and pointing us joyfully towards the blessings of a renewed year. And during this most holy season we not only bring ourselves in line with the seasons, in this call of submission to G-d we are collecting ourselves to make sure our hearts are in line, focused on proliferating the greatness of the Name of Hashem our G-d. It would do us all well to bow down, and not arise until we are sure that our hearts are focused “lifnei melech, malachei hamalchim, hakadosh, baruch hu / towards the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” More than just reminiscing on the past years, lost in memories of where we have been and have far we have come, we should focus on the directions of our hearts.

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