The laws of Rosh Hashanah.
1. The Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year is of course the time of judgment. However, the Jewish “Judgment Day” brings us completely different associations than that to non-Jews. Remembering Rosh Hashanah, we think about the lofty ideas of these days. Even the melodies of prayers in the synagogues cause a person tremendous desire to repent, come back to the ways of the Creator. This is the feeling of a king’s son who left the palace and after wandering for many years wants to come back. How far off did we stray? This should not have happened… The Creator loves us so much… We say in our prayers: “Until the day of death You are still waiting for every person …” – He is waiting for our repentance so much. The Creator in His infinite mercy chose these ten days a year so that we can sum up all of our deeds and correct everything that was not done right. During these days it is possible to feel how the Creator is bringing us back. If we use these days correctly, it is possible to rise very high. One Slovak non-Jew, after conversion to Judaism said how he was especially affected by seeing the Jews during the days of repentance: “These were absolutely different people not the ones I used to do business with throughout the year – these were angels”.
2. Rosh Hashanah is first of all a holiday. Therefore, the usual laws of a holiday apply to these days. Besides that it is prohibited to do the work forbidden on Yom Tov, it is necessary to make this day a celebration – to eat two meals, to put on beautiful clothes (some people put on Kitel – a special white cloth but others put it on only on Yom Kippur). It is customary to eat during the evening meals certain kinds of food as a good sign, showing that we believe that we will be justified during the forthcoming judgment. Thus, for example, we dip the challah in honey (according to Sephardic custom we also dip it in the salt as during other meals). The Sidurim bring various other symbolic foods eaten on this night.
3. The Torah commands us to hear the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah. The detailed laws of kosher blowing are quite complicated and are beyond the scope of this book. In general, we should keep in mind before the blasts start that we want to fulfill a mitzvah of Torah and afterwards we should listen carefully and not talk. The shofar is blows after Torah reading and again during the Musaf prayer. It is customary to hear 100 blasts altogether throughout the prayers.
4. According to the law, the women are not obligated to hear the shofar, but the custom of all Jewish women is to hear at least the minimal number of thirty blasts. In most places special blowing of the shofar is held during the afternoon at the time when it is convenient even for those women who take care of little children. If Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbos, the shofar is not blown and is considered muktza.
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16) teaches us that on Rosh Hashanah the Creator judges all people, but the verdict is not sealed until Yom Kippur. The Talmud further explains that the righteous people are already sealed on Rosh Hashanah for life, and the sinners – for death. The verdict of average people remains "suspended" until Yom Kippur and depends on their repentance during these ten days.
One of the first questions asked by almost everyone is why do so many obviously bad people live happily till old age. On the other hand, many righteous people die young, which implies that they must have been written for death.
Actually this question is as old as the world. It is mentioned in the written Torah and in the Talmud many times that the reward and punishment in this world are not always dependent on righteousness. Sometimes the Creator grants the wicked good life to compensate for any possible good they have done, but in the future world they will be destroyed (see Devarim 7:10). Also sometimes the righteous person suffers in this world for those possible wrongdoings he had committed. His affliction thus atones for his misdeeds and after death he receives the full reward for all the good he has done (see Talmud Kiddushin 39b).
Besides this, it is necessary to consider also that the reward and punishment of each person is determined according to all the ‘gilgulim’ of this soul. It sometimes happens that in one life the person sins, and in the next 'gilgul' he receives the punishments for these sins. Thus, we cannot fully understand why one person suffers while another prospers (See Pirke Avos 4:15).
How should we then explain the statement of the Talmud about the righteous people who are written for life, and the sinners – for death. The Vilna Gaon writes (in his commentary to the Zohar, end of Bamidbar and in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch, the end of paragraph 582) that by "life" and "death", the situation in the future world is meant. The matter is that though each of our actions is not forgotten and we will have to answer for all our deeds, there is a total sum of all of what we have done. Mitzvahs, like floats, pull us upward, and the sins pull us downwards. One’s deeds shroud his spiritual essence like clothes, and the total result of all actions can be positive, negative or zero. On Rosh Hashanah the gates of Gan Eden (paradise) and Gehinom (hell) are open, and the spirituality of each person pulls him to where he belongs depending on his conduct. The righteous person is pulled to Gan Eden where he is sealed for eternal life, and the sinner is found in Gehinom and is sealed for death. Concerning the average people, their verdict is postponed till Yom Kippur.
All of the aforementioned concerns the life in the future world. On the other hand, regarding the life in this world for the next year, the Vilna Gaon writes that everyone is judged and is written on Rosh Hashanah. However, by means of repentance and doing mitzvahs it is often possible to change this verdict since the sealing does not happen until Yom Kippur. We therefore bless each other on Rosh Hashanah: "May you be inscribed for a good year".
The laws of Yom Kippur.
1. On the day before Yom Kippur, there is a mitzvah to eat well. (Besides the fact that it will help us fasting, there are deep Kabbalistic reasons for this as is described in the writings of Arizal).
2. Any work that is prohibited on Shabbos is forbidden on Yom Kippur as well. Besides this, it is forbidden to eat or drink, wash or smear oils and creams, wear leather shoes and have marital relations. We will now discuss each of these prohibitions separately.
3. The Torah forbids eating or drinking on Yom Kippur in any amount. However, the person does not get Kares – spiritual incision, unless he eats as much food as the size of an average date within about nine minutes or drinks a full cheek of liquid. For this reason, a person for whom fasting is dangerous is usually fed in small quantities every nine minutes or so. Obviously, if even this is not enough, he can be fed normally, when there is life danger according to the doctor’s decision.
4. We don’t wash even hands and face on Yom Kippur. However, after sleeping or going to the bathroom we are allowed to wash our fingers three times. We don’t use any lotions or soaps on Yom Kippur. Note that solid soaps and creams cannot be used on a regular Shabbos or Yom Tov as well, however liquid soaps are permitted but not on Yom Kippur.
5. According to the majority opinion the prohibition against wearing shoes applies only to leather shoes. For this reason most Jews wear rubber shoes on Yom Kippur. However, there is also a strict opinion according to which all shoes are forbidden and only wearing socks is permitted. Note, that some people take off their rubber shoes at least during the prayers.
6. On Yom Kippur the husband and the wife behave like when she is Nidah. They sleep on separate beds at a distance from each other and don’t touch one another.
7. On Yom Kippur we pray five times. The last prayer is called Neilah – the closing of the Heavenly gates. This is our last chance for return. Obviously it is possible to return to the Creator at any time, but on Yom Kippur we are given special strength to do this and one can rectify his misdeeds to a much greater extent.
8. After Yom Kippur, Havdallah is made, but not the same way as after a regular Shabbos – we don’t make a brocha on the nicely smelling spices. The fire needed for Havdallah has to be lit from before Yom Kippur, for this purpose we light a long candle before the holiday.