FAIRFIELD — The year is 5774 on the Jewish calendar and there’s reason to celebrate.
The High Holidays kicked off Sept. 4 with Rosh Hashana and continue this week with Yom Kippur and other festivities. The Jewish community will reflect on the past and look to the future during this season of prayer, fellowship and fun.
“It’s a time to reconnect,” said Rabbi Chaim Zaklos of Chabad of Solano County. “It’s when Jewish people around the world reconnect to their Jewishness, recommit themselves to what it means to be Jewish.”
The local Chabad, which offers services at different sites in Vacaville, and Congregation B’nai Israel in Vallejo, Solano County’s only synagogue, hosted several observances last week during the “Jewish New Year.”
Rosh Hashana, which means “Head of the Year” in Hebrew, doesn’t mark a new year on the secular calendar or even the Jewish calendar. Rather, it represents a chance to learn from the past and start fresh.
“(The) ‘new year’ means new opportunity,” the 30-year-old Zaklos said. “. . . We celebrate our new year with prayer and reflection about how we were in the past year and how we can better commit ourselves for the coming year.”
Rosh Hashana started the 10-day period known as the “Days of Awe,” which culminate Saturday with Yom Kippur. Chabad and B’nai Israel observed the holiday at sundown Friday with traditional prayer services tailored for the Day of Atonement.
Judaism is about direction, said Rabbi David White of B’nai Israel, and Yom Kippur offers a time for change.
“We have the opportunity and responsibility to make course corrections in our lives,” he said. Sin, rather than being a stigma, is understanding that humans make mistakes. It’s “an opportunity to learn and grow.”
Prayer and fasting are central to the holiday of Yom Kippur. Observant Jews abstain from eating and drinking as well as working, washing and having sex. Some even object to wearing leather shoes.
“The function is not to torment,” White said. The fast serves as a thread to where spiritual priorities are emphasized over the physical things in life. “(It’s) proving to ourselves that we can change,” he said. “We can change direction, change attitude, be better at who we are – change that energy into the next coming year.”
Although parishioners forgo food and drink, B’nai Israel President Fred Zola said the mood during Yom Kippur is joyous and upbeat.
“It’s not a sad holiday,” Zola said. “We’re happy because God is bringing us love and forgiveness . . . . Even though we may have erred over the years . . . we might have done wrong . . . we can come to Yom Kippur and know that God is bringing us love and forgiveness.”
Saturday’s services at the synagogue will conclude with the blowing of the shofar, a ram’s horn referenced in biblical times. B’nai Israel will invite members of the congregation to bring their own shofars to use in unison for this ritual, Zola said.
“It’s a group thing . . .” said Zola, a Benicia resident who has been a member of B’nai Israel for about 22 years. “It’s quite a sound.”
Afterward, the congregation will “break-the-fast” with a potluck seder, or dinner, he said.
“Everybody’s happy because now they can eat,” Zola said.
Although the “Days of Awe” conclude with Yom Kippur, the festivities continue throughout the month.
There’s an “unfortunate misconception” that there are only two High Holidays, Zaklos said. In fact, there is a month full of holidays, which commence with the most joyous: Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
The day after Yom Kippur, members of both Chabad and B’nai Israel will start building a hut, or sukkah. In biblical times, the Israelites lived in portable structures while wandering the desert for 40 years. To observe Sukkot, observant Jews will eat and sometimes sleep in their own huts to reminisce about the years their people spent in the wilderness after escaping slavery in Egypt.
“The stars were above their heads when they went to sleep, so the sukkah reminds us of (those times),” Zola said.
B’nai Israel’s courtyard sukkah will be constructed of 2-inch by 4-inch wooden slabs and covered with palm fronds. Zola said school-age children will decorate the hut with drawings of fruit to symbolize the harvest season. The synagogue will host a seder in the sukkah on Friday.
At Chabad in Vacaville, a 24-foot by 24-foot sukkah will serve as the setting for a community meal that’s scheduled Wednesday. Zaklos said the sukkah in his backyard will be the largest in the county – and possibly the greater area.
After a week of remembering the tribulations of the tribes of Israel through the slats of a sukkah, many in the Jewish community will observe another biblical holiday: Simchat Torah. Starting at sundown the day after Sukkot ends, Simchat Torah marks the conclusion of the annual Torah-reading cycle.
During the course of a year, Jewish congregations read a section of the Torah during Sabbath services, finishing the readings on Simchat Torah. Meaning “rejoicing the Torah,” the celebration caps the High Holidays with an evening of singing, dancing and mirth.
“(We’re) allowed to drink, and (we’re) even allowed to get drunk because we’re so happy,” Zola said.
Services for Simchat Torah, which is Sept. 25-26 this year, feature the final verses of Deuteronomy and the first verses of Genesis to complete and start the Torah-reading cycle. Also called the Pentateuch, the Torah includes the first five books from the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. After the Torah readings, congregations celebrate with the scroll.
“. . . It’s a big celebration, because we start to roll the Torah back to Chapter One,” Zola said. “We finished the Torah, and we dance around the sanctuary, celebrating that we get to start over.
“Then we go back to Chapter One: God created the world in seven days.”
For more information about Congregation B’nai Israel, call 642-6526. For more information about Chabad of Solano County, call 592-5300.
Reach Adrienne Harris at 427-6956 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/aharrisdr.