Every year right around this time, sincere and well-meaning gentiles (hereinafter referred to as the goyim) want to wish their Jewish friends (hereinafter referred to as the Yehudim) wonderful holidays. That nice kind of apples and honey sentiment works well for Rosh Hashanah (New Year), but falls flat in the face of the solemnity of Yom Kippur. I’m here to give you a little insight into how the whole thing works and why “Happy Yom Kippur!” doesn’t seem to get it.
So, how does one greet a Jew on this, the holiest day of the year?
I’m getting there. First, we need to take a look at the meaning of the holy day. Oops, let me digress a second about holy days. I once mentioned to an ex-girlfriend, who happened to be a public schoolteacher, that the Jewish High Holy Days were approaching. I’ll call her June, because our affair was as short-lived as the life of a June bug.
“It is not inclusive to call such days holy days,” she admonished. “We have to call them Jewish holidays.” Yeah, so much for our public schools. You could bet that if they were faced with the same dilemma over a Muslim holy day as opposed to a Judeo-Christian ritual, it would be accommodated with much apology and fawning.
Needless to say, June didn’t last long with me after that. She wasn’t Jewish, but that didn’t matter in the slightest to me. (It might have mattered to my grandmother, but she was dead at the time with no hope of subsequent recovery). It was June’s stupid-ass, unquestioned compliance with the political correctness dictum handed down to her from the mount that did it. It is one thing—and completely understandable—that she adhere to the prescribed doctrinaire of her work milieu, no matter how ridiculously homogenizing such things are, but to even suggest that I shouldn’t use the term “holy day” in my own house enraged me in 2004 and it still pisses me off eight years later. I guess I should have asked her for forgiveness for my getting pissed off at her, if I were to have properly obeyed the Talmud.
And, thus it was that June became a fling of the past during the 2004 High Holy Days. Besides, football season was upon us, and I wouldn’t have much time for her, dreaded non-football fan that she was!
(I’m thinking now about the fact that most of my girlfriends during my long, storied, never married life, have been shiksas — which is Yiddish for non-Jewish babes (aka Goyische chicks). I think there have been only two if recollection serves me correctly: Harriet (1975-1976) and Leslie (1976-1977). On the other hand, if I were to try to remember all the names of the shiksas, I’m certain that I would miss quite a few—not because they weren’t memorable but because there were relatively many as compared to the maedels. Moreover, if I am defying my grandma in walking on the wild side, so be it.)
Girlfriend digression aside, Jews are taught to be kind, generous, and righteous—especially during the period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. If you want a favor from a Jew, waiting for this time of year might be a good way to ensure getting it. Those of us who are seriously religious give more readily to charity, conscientiously refrain from demeaning gossip, and provide help for others who need it during the period known as Aseret Y’mei Teshuva (The Ten Days of Repentance).
The High Holy Days are a time of solemnity and perhaps, for overcompensating for schmucky behavior during the rest of the year in order that one may be positively inscribed in the Book of Life. (That book of life is a figurative thing, as God doesn’t need to write down what He knows. He’s omniscient and He’s immune from Alzheimer’s. He’s like that guy on Person of Interest — He sees everything at all times.) The period of the High Holy Days can be characterized by a prayer that goes something like this:
“On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall leave this world, and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die, who shall live out the limit of his days and who shall not, who shall perish by fire and who by water… who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented… But penitence, prayer, and good deeds can annul the severity of the decree.” (Emphasis mine, not God’s.)
So, then, Yom Kippur rolls around and we’re assigned our fate. This is not intended to be a sad day, as many seem to think it is. The holiest day of the year is anything but the saddest. (Modern day Jews can save the sadness for Yom Hashoah, the day of remembrance of the holocaust.)
One big myth is that if we sit in shul praying all day, atoning for our sins, they will be washed away. After all, it is the Day of Atonement, which has given Jewish comedians something upon which to base their self-deprecating humor for time immemorial: “Atone for my sins? Oy, in one day? I’m still working on my sins from 1974!”
On Yom Kippur, we are taught to request forgiveness from those we have offended, and we must do so abjectly and sincerely. There’s even a specification for how many times we must ask. If after three such requests for forgiveness—assuming that they are sincere—the aggrieved party still holds the grudge, that person, not the original offender, is then regarded as the cruel one.
Yom Kippur is the only fast day mentioned in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses). The sacred privilege of fasting for twenty-five hours is one big reason why Yom Kippur is regarded by many—both of the faith and sympathetic outsiders—as anything but a happy day. But what could be happier than asking for—and receiving—forgiveness for one’s sins?
Aside from not eating, we’re not supposed to drink even water, bathe, have sex, wear leather shoes or engage in any kind of frivolity. Some hold that these dicta are designed to minimize the distractions from the work at hand—atonement—while other scholarly traditionalists have a diversity of opinions about the need for all the restrictive symbolism. But the net result is that all these things hammer down the notion in many minds that Yom Kippur is a sad day.
This is a sports blog, so far be it from this Turkey not to bring in a sports connection. We bow our heads toward Cooperstown, and let us pray. Hall of Fame left-hander Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers famously refused to pitch in a crucial game because it was scheduled on Yom Kippur. Over the years, this has led to the conclusion that Koufax was a deeply religious Jew. However, myth and reality diverge. One thing is for certain. Based on the time of year Yom Kippur makes its appearance, if a Major League Baseball team is involved in a pennant race, any game during this period is important. Here’s a vignette about Koufax and Yom Kippur from biographer Jane Leavy:
“On October 6, 1965, Koufax was inscribed forever into the Book of Life as the Jew who refused to pitch on Yom Kippur. Bruce Lustig, who would grow up to be the senior rabbi at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C., was seven years old and attending services in Tennessee with his parents that day. He took a transistor radio with him, the wire running up the inside of his starched white shirt. When the rabbi called upon the congregants to stand and pray, the earpiece came loose and the voice of Vin Scully crackled through the sanctuary. His mother walloped him with her purse and banished him to the synagogue library, where the television was tuned to NBC’s coverage of the game. Live and in color, when live and in color was something to brag about.
“The Dodgers lost but Koufax won. In that moment, he became known as much for what he refused to do than for what he did on the mound. By refusing to pitch, Koufax defined himself as a man of principle who placed faith above craft. He became inextricably linked with the American Jewish experience. “
Baseballistic digression notwithstanding, and returning to the Yom Kippur fast, lest you anti-circumcision, anti-vaccination, whining baby boomer, latter day neo-hippie trippy types start worrying about the chilllllllldren, kids under nine are prohibited from fasting. Please note the word prohibited. Older children are allowed to eat, but are encouraged to eat much less than usual until they reach the ages of 12 for girls and 13 for boys, at which point they are considered physically and religiously mature enough to take the heat. Pregnant women can eat, too, as their bodies dictate. We don’t make fetuses fast. Sick people and old people do not have to fast if fasting would be life threatening. So, lest ye doubters out there think that we’re putting religion above preservation of life, we’re not. Never were. Wouldn’t be prudent. Nope.
With all the emphasis on life and death matters, why is it that the Talmud regards Yom Kippur as a happy day? How happy can it be when I and my favorite shiksa cannot drop into Hurricane Wings for a couple of burgers and brews? Vell, I’ll tellya. At the end of the Yom Kippur service, which by the way is the longest formal prayer service of the year, the pearly gates begin to close, prayer becomes more intense, and the general spirit of the crowd is, “Let me in—include me when the time comes!” The modern-day Jewish historian and Scholar Rabbi Joseph Telushkin explains the Talmudic characterization as a happy day thus:
“Because at its end, people experience a great catharsis. If they have observed the holiday properly, they have made peace with everyone they know, and with God. By the time the fast ends, many people therefore feel a deep sense of serenity.”
We can now return to the basic premise of this more serious than usual blog post: What do you say to a Jew to greet him or her on Yom Kippur? My feeling is that a simple “Shalom” or “Peace”, accompanied by a firm, sincere handshake, is appropriate. The traditional, official, accepted greeting, as pointed out by BigAl in the comments below, is G’mar Chatimah Tovah or “May you be sealed in the book of life.” However, that might be too difficult for many of you to remember, and besides, I do not wish to be sealed into a book!
In two hours, I can eat again. I hope they don’t feed me Purina Turkey Chow.