HIGH HOLIDAYS - Laws & Customs

Elul, the last month of the old year, is hallowed by tradition as a period of preparation for the new.  Rabbinic legend has it that Moses went up on to the mount to receive the second tablets of stone on the first day of this month and stayed there for forty days and forty nights until Yom Kippur, when he brought down the Torah to his people. During these forty days, Jewish tradition enjoins a special watchfulness and a special attention to the ideals of penitence, prayer and charity; albeit that the pursuit of these ideals is not to be limited to one period of the year.

As a reminder of the solemnity of these days, the Shofar is sounded in the Synagogue at the end of the morning service (in some congregations at the evening service too), with the exception of the day before Rosh Hashanah when the Shofar is not sounded in order to make a clear distinction between the optional and the obligatory sounding.  

As the days of Elul go by and Rosh Hashanah draws near, the mood of supplication becomes intensified.  From the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah, or the Sunday before that, if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday, special penitential prayers known as Slichot (from a root means ‘to pardon’) are recited early in the morning before the statutory services.  In addition to the days before Rosh Hashanah, Slichot are recited on the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  During the bloodstained days of religious persecution in the Middle Ages, the liturgical poets of Israel offered their laments to God, pleading for His mercies.  The compositions of these men were collected and now form the major portion of the Slichot prayers.  Some of the Slichot are earlier than the seventh century.  The famous Prayer Book of Amram Gaon (d. 874) contains a number of Slichot.  Slichot were composed in Italy, the Rhineland and France, in particular, and examples of the work of the liturgical poets residing in these lands are to be found in the present-day collection.  The day before Rosh Hashanah is know as Zechor Brith (‘Remember the Covenant’) after a prayer beginning with these words recalling the sacrifice of Isaac and the promise made to Abraham.

It is a custom to visit the graves of parents during the month of Elul.  This originated in the belief that the righteous dead intercede for the living before the throne of God. There are, however, obvious dangers to true religion in the notion of speaking to the dead while offering prayers.  Consequently, many great Jewish teachers warn against any kind of direct prayer to the departed; the custom being observed rather as an act of filial piety in the remembrance of lives worthily lived.
It is customary to greet one’s friends on the first night of Rosh Hashanah with the greeting:  ‘May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a good year.’  The Hebrew forms of the greeting, according to the number and sex of the persons addressed, are given in the Festival Prayer Book (R. 24).  Tradition has it that after the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the greeting should be changed to ‘gemar haimah tobhah’:  ‘May you be sealed (in the Book of Life) for good.’

The prophet Micah speaks of God casting the sins of Israel into the depths of the sea:  ‘He will again have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; and Thou wilt cast (Ve-Tashlich) all their sins into the depths of the sea.’  (Micah vii:19)  On the basis of this verse, the custom arose for Jews to go to a river on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah (on the second after if the first day falls on the Sabbath) there to recite this and other verses and various penitential hymns and prayers.