Let’s face it. Many people go to synagogue on the High Holidays because they have to. A feeling of poorly understood and unappreciated obligation can pervade this time of year. But it doesn’t have to. You can put yourself or your children in the spirit and in the know with help from this by-no-means-comprehensive list of titles that elucidate the prayers and customs of the holiday.
For Young Children:
“My First Book of Jewish Holidays”
by Shmuel Blitz, illustrated by Tova Katz, (Artscroll Mesorah, 2004)
“My First Book,” which is beautifully illustrated, explains the historical significance of the holidays (i.e., the world was created on Rosh Hashanah, as well as the laws). In addition to their regular text, the pages have “Did you know?” boxes. It is not a storybook, but it is written clearly and its pictures are mesmerizing.
“Rosh Hashanah With Bina, Benny, and Chaggai Hayonah”
by Yaffa Ganz
(Artscroll Mesorah, 1990)
“Rosh Hashanah With Bina, Benny, and Chaggai Hayonah” is one in a series of books about Jewish holidays, in which two young children and their talking dove go on a learning mission. In this pleasantly illustrated book, children can learn about holiday customs, such as dipping an apple into honey, and different names of Rosh Hashanah. For example, Yom Hakeseh is called the Day of Concealment, because the moon is concealed on that day — just a sliver in the sky. And metaphorically, the outcome of the new year, too, is concealed from us.
“Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit” by Shimon Apisdorf
(Leviathan Press, 1997)
The “Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit” is aimed at those who
would really rather be elsewhere during the services — sound like any teenager you know? The book gives tips about how to make the service meaningful, without being bogged down with effort. (Sample tip: “Five minutes of prayer said with understanding [and] feeling … means far more than five hours of lip service.”)
It also offers cute factoids about Rosh Hashana, presenting an easy and fun-to-read overview of the prayer service and Torah readings.
Don’t be fooled by its simplicity — “Survival Kit” does not shy away from the weightier matters; it offers compelling expositions on teshuva (repentance) and personal development.
For College Students:
“60 Days, a Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays”
by Rabbi Simon Jacobson
(Kiyum Press, 2003)
In “60 Days,” Jacobson looks at the months of Elul (the Hebrew month preceding the High Holidays) and Tishrei (the Hebrew month in which the High Holidays occur) as a period for self-improvement. Basing many of his teaching on Kabbalah, Jacobson goes through each day of the two months, explaining the historical significance of the day well beyond the obvious holidays. For example, the 18th of Elul is the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism.
But he also describes exercises to enable the reader to use the 60 days for introspection. Jacobson wants us to be our better selves, and to use that improvement for an enhanced relationship with God.
For the Prayerfully Challenged:
“Pathway to Prayer: A Translation and Explanation of All the Amidah Prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur”
by Rabbi Meir Birnbaum
(Artscroll Mesorah, 1997)
Even for those familiar with the daily prayers, the Rosh Hashanah service can seem formidable. It is long, different and should ideally be infused with enough kavannah (concentration and devotion) to change the destiny of the upcoming year for the better.
In “Pathway to Prayer,” Birnbaum explains the prayers line by line — often word by word. He is not merely content with translating. Rather, he explains what the thought process should be when each word is said. For example, in the musaf prayer, the repeatedly used word. “Hagadol [the Great One], referring to God, really means God who is great “in exercising the attribute of kindness.”
“A Guide to Jewish Prayer”
by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
(Schocken Books, 2000)
“A Guide to Jewish Prayer” provides great background reading for those interested in the history and development of prayer in Judaism. The chapter on Days of Awe, as the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known, provides a brief overview of the holiday and the origins of the prayers that developed in conjunction with it.
This book will not necessarily help you navigate a machzor (special prayer book for the holidays), but it does outline what we will be saying on Rosh Hashanah (i.e., which prayer comes after which, when the shofar is blown, etc.) as well as explanations and customs of shofar blowing. Steinsaltz also explains differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic nusachs (the order of the prayers).
For Meaning Searchers:
“Days of Awe: Sfas Emes, Ideas and Insights of the Sfas Emes on the High Holy Days”
by Rabbi Yosef Stern
(Artscroll Mesorah, 1996)
The Sfas Emes, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Alter of Ger, became leader of the great Gerer Chasidic dynasty in Poland in 1870, when he was only 23. Under his guidance, Ger became one of the biggest Chasidic groups in Poland.
In this volume, Stern distills the Sfas Emes’ Chasidic teachings into illuminating essays on topics such as “The Omission of Hallel on Rosh Hashanah” to the “Symbolism and Significance” of Shofar blowing.
“This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared — The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation”
by Alan Lew
(Little Brown and Company, 2003)
“This Is Real” follows no ordinary Rosh Hashanah book path, because it encompasses so many different elements. Part memoir, part Zen mediation, part rumination on life in general, interspersed with Torah readings, Jewish teachings and Zen parables (Lew considers himself a Buddhist rabbi), this is a book that describes a soul’s journey from Tisha B’Av through Yom Kippur, as it “heads home.”
Lew sees the High Holidays as a metaphor for life itself, and he wants us to experience “oneness with everything.” Rosh Hashanah is a time that we can “experience the truth of our lives.”
Though the title is ominous, the book is ultimately uplifting, about a person’s power to transform sadness to joy.
For General Background:
“Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days”
by Shmuel Yosef Agnon
This is a collection of writings on the Days of Awe culled from traditional sources, such as the Torah, Talmud and Zohar. Agnon lets the writings speak for themselves, but he compiles them in a way that tells the history of the holidays.
In the section on Rosh Hashanah, he starts with the commandment from Leviticus to observe Rosh Hashanah (“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns”).
He then moves on to descriptions from Ezra in Chronicles of the Jewish people bringing sacrifices on Rosh Hashanah, and then quotes from the Mishna and Talmud about what Rosh Hashanah means.
The book is a fascinating compilation, perfect for those who want to understand the meaning of the holiday from original sources.
For Contemporary Approaches:
“Celebrating the Jewish Holidays: Poems, Stories, Essays.”
edited by Steven J. Rubin
(Brandeis University Press, 2003)
“Celebrating the Jewish Holidays” is not a book for those who simply want laws or traditions laid out for them. Rather it’s for those seeking creative or artistic musings on the holidays.
Gathering verse from poets as diverse as Solomon Ibn Gabirol (an 11th-century Jewish Spanish scholar) and Emma Lazarus, the poems convey a range of experience, from the spiritually awesome to the skeptically modern. The stories and memoirs are evocative. Eli Weisel tells of Rosh Hashanah in the concentration camp, others of Rosh Hashanah in the shtetl.
“The Jewish Way, Living the Holidays”
By Rabbi Irving Greenberg
(Simon and Schuster, 1988)
In “The Jewish Way,” Greenberg explains the holidays as “the quintessential Jewish religious expression, because the main teachings of Judaism are incorporated in their messages.”
In his essay on Rosh Hashanah, he explains that it is a somber time when we must confront our own mortality, since one’s life “is placed on balance scales.” In addition, Greenberg gives a summary of the prayers and customs of Rosh Hashanah.