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Celebrating the High Holidays during the pandemic

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When the novel coronavirus swept across the globe in the weeks before Passover, there was a frenzied panic as we prepared to celebrate the holiday alone, physically distant from our extended family and friends.

Six months later, a lot has changed. Many of us have begun to venture out (with masks, of course), and some synagogues have reopened (in a limited fashion). Yet, for millions, the situation is essentially the same, as they patiently bide their time before they will once again mingle with others.

At the Elmont Jewish Center, at 500 Elmont Rd., we will hold our High Holiday Services on Sept 19 and 20, beginning at 10 a.m., with strict adherence to the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance.  Our services are user-friendly, and we welcome all those who have been recently tested or have antibodies. Please also wear your mask — it is a requirement in our synagogue.

Why Rosh Hashanah is important

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah actually means “Head of the Year.” Just like the head controls the body, our actions on Rosh Hashanah have a tremendous impact on the rest of the year.

As we read in the Rosh Hashanah prayers, each year on this day “all inhabitants of the world pass before God like a flock of sheep,” and it is decreed in the heavenly court “who shall live, and who shall die ... who shall be impoverished and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise.”

It is a day of prayer, a time to ask the Almighty to grant us a year of peace, prosperity and blessing. But it is also a joyous day when we proclaim God is the King of the Universe.

The observances

The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, on both days of the holiday (unless the first day in Shabbat, in which case we blow the shofar only on the second day).

The first 30 blasts of the shofar are blown following the Torah reading during morning services, and as many as 70 additional are blown during, and immediately after, the Musaf service, adding up to 100 blasts over the course of the Rosh Hashanah morning services.

For someone who cannot come to synagogue, the shofar may be heard the rest of the day. If you cannot make it out of your home, please contact your closest Chabad center to see about arranging a “house call.”

The blowing of the shofar represents the trumpet blast that is sounded at a king’s coronation. Its plaintive cry also serves as a call to repentance. The shofar itself recalls the Binding of Isaac, an event that occurred on Rosh Hashanah in which a ram took Isaac’s place as an offering to God.

Much of the day is spent in synagogue, where we pray that God grant all of His creations a sweet new year. The evening and afternoon prayers are similar to the prayers said on a regular holiday. However, the morning services are significantly longer.

The holiday prayer book—called a machzor—contains all the prayers and Torah readings for the entire day. The most significant addition is the shofar blowing ceremony. However, there are also other important elements of the prayer service that are unique to Rosh Hashanah.

For example, the Torah is read on both mornings of Rosh Hashanah. On the first day, we read about Isaac’s birth and the subsequent banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. It is followed by a haftarah reading about the birth of Samuel the Prophet. Both readings contain the theme of prayers for children being answered, and both of these births took place on Rosh Hashanah.

On the second morning, we read about Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. As mentioned above, the shofar blowing recalls the ram, which figures prominently in this story as a powerful display of Abraham’s devotion to God that has characterized His children ever since. The haftarah, meanwhile, tells of God’s eternal love for His people.

The cantor’s repetition of the Amidah (Silent Prayer) is peppered with piyyutim, poetic prayers that express our prayerful wishes for the year and other themes of the day. For certain selections, those deemed especially powerful, the ark is opened. Many of these additions are meant to be said responsively, as a joint effort between the prayer leader and the congregation.

Even without the added piyyutim, the Rosh Hashanah Musaf prayer is significantly longer than it is the rest of the year because its single middle blessing is divided into three additional blessings, each focusing on another one of the holiday’s main themes: God’s kingship, our wish that He “remember” us for the good, and the shofar. Each blessing contains a collage of Biblical verses that express its theme, and is then followed by a round of shofar blowing.

The season of the High Holidays is a time for an epic journey for the soul, and Rosh Hashanah is where it all begins. The holy day of Yom Kippur, when we gather in synagogue for 25 hours of fasting, prayer and inspiration, is just a week later. The days in between, known as the 10 Days of Repentance, are an especially propitious time for returning to God.

We at the Elmont Jewish Center look forward to greeting you personally. With best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

Rabbi Chaim Blachman is the spiritual leader of the Elmont Jewish Center.