Articles with the “Rosh Hashanah” tag

Rosh Hashanah: The Sounds of the Shofar Explored

Rosh Hashanah: The Sounds of the Shofar Explored

The shofar is the midwife of the new year. Into its piercing cry we squeeze all our heartfelt prayers, all our tears, our very souls.

Zachreinu: Cosmic Remembrance

Zachreinu: Cosmic Remembrance

In the world of kedusha, which signifies full integration, there is no forgetfulness.


Insights into the Prayers of Yom Kippur

Yaale Tachenuneinu — Reflective Light

The usual acrostic pattern of the Piyutim (the special songs of the High Holidays) follows the Aleph Beit, beginning with the first letter aleph and following the established order. But here we find the order reversed, and there is a reason why.

There are two forms of light: 1) or yashar or direct light, and 2) or chozer or reflective light. The normal Aleph Beit order symbolizes the normal progression of direct linear light. But the reflective light emerges out of the darkness as even more powerful than the direct light, much like a mirror may reflect the rays of the sun light more intensely than the ray of sun itself.

Teshuvah is or chozer, reflective light that emerges from a darkness. And thus here, on Yom Kippur, with its focus on teshuvah, the order of this piyut is reversed.

We may sometimes feel like the last letter of the alphabet, but we should never despair since light can emerge even from the lowest of places, and sometimes that light is that much more bright.

The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy

The Talmud teaches that when Moshe despaired after the people had sinned with the Golden Calf, believing that their transgression was so damaging the no repair would be possible, God revealed to him and taught him the”Thirteen Attributes of Mercy,” as follows:

“GOD, GOD, Almighty, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in loving-kindness and truth, remembering kindness for thousands [of generations], forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and erasing the guilt [of those who repent].”

God also told Moshe that whenever the people of Israel seek forgiveness in the future, they should recite the “Thirteen Attributes,” and they will be forgiven.

What do these “Thirteen Attributes” mean?

1 & 2) “GOD, GOD”—God is with us when we walk the right path, before we transgress, before we deviate from the Divine plan. But God is also there for us, and after we have strayed. God is there to extend an extra hand and help us find our way back to God.

3) “Almighty”—This name of God represents supernal kindness, a compassion beyond limitation. God’s initial desire to create the universe—and offer something to an “other”—has its source in this name.

4) “Compassionate”—God shows compassion even to those who are being punished, even to those whose negative actions caused a negative reaction, so that the consequences should not be so severe.

5) “Gracious”—God helps those who need the extra strength to overcome their negative temptations.

6) “Slow to anger”—God is patient with us, giving us the time to come to the right state of awareness and return.

7) “Abundant in loving-kindness”—God shows kindness even to those who have no merit whatsoever.

8) “[Abundant in] Truth”—Positive actions cause positive reactions and God ensures that this spiritual principle does not waver.

9) “Remembering kindness for thousands [of generations]“—Good deeds reverberate throughout generations and can bring benefit to our descendants.

10) “Forgiving iniquity”—God not only forgives but actually lifts up the sinner who embarks on a path of teshuvah.

11) “[Forgiving] transgression”—God does the same for those who have willfully transgressed, but now wish to amend their ways.

12) “[Forgiving] Sin”—He forgives and lifts up those who return from the ways of apathy and carelessness.

13) “Erasing the guilt”—Ultimately, we are given the power to go back in time and erase the negative activity as if it has never occurred. We can completely obliterate it from our consciousness and from reality. God erases it, and, through a teshuvah of love, allows our liabilities to be transformed into merits—vice becomes virtue.

Al Chet—Transcendent Confession

As we recite the Al Chet prayer, listing the terrible sins it contains, a question comes to mind: Are we truly so negative?

“Just as we ought to know our shortcomings, we should also know our value.” Just as it is important for us to acknowledge where we have failed in order that we can take responsibility and seek to amend our behavior, so, too, it is important that we don’t belittle ourselves by assuming responsibility for something we haven’t done. A person who keeps on knocking himself or herself down will not have the strength to get up, and this is especially true if there is, in fact, no reason to be down in the first place.

Of course, on a subtle level, most people, it could be argued, are guilty of every sin listed in some shape or form. For example, most people have “taken the blood” of another person by embarrassing someone. Likewise, most people have “committed idolatry” by expressing anger. But, even if this is true, what about the truly holy ones who have not committed these sins in any shape or form?

Another question that might be asked: Is this the right time to be confessing our sins? Can it be that on this holiest of holy days, in a holy place, among holy people, there’s nothing better to talk about than this? Were we not supposed to have examined our behavior, confessed our sins, and expressed our regrets in the month of Elul, which preceded Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?

The theme of Yom Kippur is utter transcendence. The great twelfth century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides (Rambam) writes that Yom Kippur is a day when it is a mitzvah to “rest” from eating, drinking, and other physical endeavors—it is not a day when we refrain from food, but a day when we rest from it, when we transcend our physical selves. Indeed, everything we do or do not do on Yom Kippur is meant to mimic angelic behavior. Angels, as completely spiritual beings, have no physical needs or limitations.

These limitations are considered the opposite of angelic. Indeed, the Hebrew word for Satan (hasatan), which describes the satanic/ego consciousness, has the numerical value of 364. From this we learn that on 364 of 365 days of the year, we may struggle with our constricted, ego-oriented self, but on one day—on Yom Kippur—we are given the power to completely transcend these limitations and be angelic.

Considering this, it is even more troubling that we should speak of such terrible sins, while we are, or aspire to be, in this lofty, angelic state.

And yet Al Chet—this recitation of sins—fits precisely with the theme of transcendence.

Note that the language in the Al Chet is not singular but plural—”we” are guilty of these sins, not “I.” The use of the plural “we” is the ultimate expression of personal-ego transcendence. We are able to transcend our focus on “I” and connect to the collective soul of Israel—to the “we.”

When we recite the Al Chet and ask forgiveness, it is not—at least hopefully not most times—for our personal transgressions that we ask, but for the transgression of all members of our community. We share in the pain of others and feel their lack as our own. When we do so, we express the pinnacle of transcendence, reaching the place deep within where we are rooted in Divine oneness, where we are all one.

During the course of reciting the Al Chet, we follow the order of the alphabet to rectify this world, which was and is continually created through Divine speech—the Holy Aleph Beit—in which are contained all the sounds and vibrations of creation.

Selach Lanu, Mechal Lanu, Kaper Lanu

Every negative act, not only effects us negatively but has cosmic influence—repercussions that are felt throughout all worlds. When we commit by omission or commission a negative deed, we blemish the Divine light apportioned to existence, distorting, as well as reducing the divine energy immanent within creation. To replenishing what our actions has taken away requires reaching the divine energy that encompasses and is transcended of creation.

This encompassing surrounding infinite light is hinted at by the circular letter samech, which also points to our essential request in the Selichos penitential prayers: Selach lanu-”Pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.” The first letters of “Pardon us, forgive us, atone for us” comprise the phonetic spelling of the word samech. Pardon us for closing our eyes to the divine presence, for not honoring the Divine presence. Forgive us for not humbly fulfilling our obligations and Atone for our insensitivity to our Beloved, for blemishing our deep-rooted mutual love through a lack of awareness. And therefore, pardon, forgive, atone for us through the energy of samech, the infinite surrounding light.

Reading the Torah

On Yom Kippur, the Torah reading is divided into six sections or aliyot. During the week, the Torah is read with three aliyot, but on special weekdays a fourth aliyah is added, on holidays a fifth, and on Yom Kippur a sixth. In addition to the simple reason that we increase the aliyot in keeping with the holiness of the day, there is a symbolic reason as well:

Yom Kippur is called in the Torah: Shabbat Shabbaton. Just as Shabbat inspires an elevation of the six days that precede it, so on a more comprehensive level, Yom Kippur elevates the entire year. ‘Six’ represents the world of the ordinary (the world was created in six days); ‘seven’ represents the crowning of creation, the element of transcendence that completes creation. Yom Kippur comes along and completes the past, elevating the world of ‘six’ and embracing it within the reality of ‘seven.’

The Torah reading speaks of the aftermath of the death of Aharon’s two sons. There are various explanations of why they perished. The Kabbalah says that they died in ecstasy, in spiritual rapture. In their great desire to be at one with their Divine source, they literally transcended the physical world and expired. This is called ratzui bli shuv, “desire to transcend without a return.”

On Yom Kippur, we are like angels, operating in a transcendent consciousness devoid of materialism, and we need to remind ourselves that the ultimate purpose of our transcendence is in the return. Our moments of physical transcendence are not ends in themselves, rather they are a means to greater strength and clarity, so that once we return, we can be involved with our earthly reality below and yet remain above.

Haftorah for Shacharit

During the morning service we read from the Book of Yeshayahu (Isaiah), which contains one of the greatest of all prophetic calls for teshuvah. The prophet reminds us during our Yom Kippur fast that fasting without any ethical conduct is meaningless.

We need to keep in mind that our fasting is not mere affliction of the body, but a means to transcend our body—to transcend our ego-oriented existence and tap into the deepest resources of our soul. We do this in order to discard any negativity that holds us back from being one with God, and by extension one with our authentic self.

Yizkor — Remembrance

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a custom developed to raise the memory of our lofty ancestors so that their merit should stand by us now and for our offspring in the future.

Every holiday when the Torah portion speaks of offering charity (tzedakah), those who no longer have parents say Yizkor and resolve to offer tzedakah in the memory of their beloved ones.

Yom Kippur is known in Hebrew as Yom Kippurim, the plural form indicating that it is a day of spiritual atonement both for the living and for those that have passed on. Thus on Yom Kippur, we also invoke the memory of our ancestors for a dual purpose: 1) that we can be sustained because of their holy memory, and 2) that through our positive actions, we inspire an elevation of their souls if such might be needed above.

Everything that exists on a physical level corresponds to what exists on the spiritual level—physical is a reflection of the meta-physical. When two people are related on a physical plane it is because they share the same root in the source of souls in a supernal sphere.

This means that although our actions can impact the entire world, those that are most affected by what we do are the souls most closely connected to our own soul. Thus, when children in this world give charity in honor and merit of their departed parents, this action can affect the ascension of the parents’ souls above.

In our world, there are choices; in the next world, there are only the effects. Free choice, the power to elect a new reality, to forge a new content/context, exists only in this manifestation. Since this is so, only in our world can people truly grow, expand and develop. There is always room for change and space to leap into new and unexplored realities. For this reason, any movement in the world of souls is dependent on the actions we take or actions we refrain from taking in this life. What level of integration our soul has with its source, or with what measure of intensity the personal light of our soul merges with the source of light, is contingent on what we do and refrain from doing in our present life.

This is so because the physical world below is founded on chesed (“loving-kindness”), and in the world of chesed, there are always second chances. This is not so in the spiritual world above, which is founded on gevurah/din (“strict justice”). There, everything is absolute and unconditional.

And yet, since our souls are closely rooted in the world above with our ancestors’ souls, our actions below can and do stir movement above. When we do something noble in the memory of our loved ones, not only are we ennobling ourselves, but we are essentially causing an elevation of their souls, an elevation that would otherwise not be available for them.

We fill their void, allowing for their soul’s ascent into the upper worlds, and by doing so fill the emptiness and void that their passing has left us. Yet, repeating the words of Yizkor alone is not sufficient. We need to be totally committed with strong resolve to do good, give to charity—in their name and for their benefit—and then certainly, the effects will be felt by them spiritually and by us spiritually, mentally and even physically.

Avodah — In the place of the High Priest

During Temple times, it was Kohen Gadol (the “High Priest”) who performed the essential service on Yom Kippur. Today, with the Temple in ruins, we are taught “its ruin is its repair,” meaning that the illness contains the cure. The fact that we don’t have the Kohen Gadol means that we must all become priests. By reading about the service of Yom Kippur, we not only recall the details but evoke the same energy so that our prayers stand in the place of the Temple offerings.

The Ten Martyrs

The story of the ten martyrs tells of a sadistic Roman ruler who questioned ten Jewish sages: “What should happen to a man if he is found kidnapping one of his brothers from among the children of Israel and selling him into slavery?” They instantly answered him, “That kidnapper shall die.” He then informed them that the Jewish people have yet to pay for the sin of the sale of Yosef by the ten sons of Yaakov, and that he means to correct this oversight. The story then describes in very graphic language the savage execution of the ten sages.

It should be pointed out that, in actuality, they did not die at the same time, although they all perished at the hands of the Romans. For example, Rabbi Yishmael, the High Priest, died at the end of the second Temple period, while Rabbi Akiva was murdered after the Bar Kochba revolt, some 60 years after the destruction of the Temple.

Therefore, we know that this recitation is not merely trying to relay historical facts, but a greater spiritual truth. It is not by chance that the numerical value of the Hebrew names of the ten sons of Yaakov equals 2858, which is the same as the Hebrew names of the ten martyrs. According to the Kabbalah, nothing is mere coincidence; everything is Divinely orchestrated, and when two words or concepts are related numerically, this is an outer indication that they are intricately related on a deeper level. Clearly, this numerical correlation is not what links them together, rather they share a deeper commonality, and the numerical correlation is an outer reflection of that commonality.

In our fragmented world, we perceive differentiated time and space; from our linear perspective, the past is gone, the future has yet to come, and all that exists is the fleeting present. But there is a deeper and higher view in the universe—of absolute unity and oneness—in which there is no differentiated time and space, no past, present or future, no beginning, middle or end. In that reality, everything exists in the eternal present.

The world of souls functions in that non-linear, unfragmented reality. Reincarnation—where some souls incarnate once again into this world in order to rectify past mistakes and retroactively affect souls that manifested here years ago—can only be understood from a perspective of a non-linear reality. Thus, the ten sons of Yaakov, who sold their brother Yosef into slavery, were later reincarnated as the ten martyrs in order to make a tikun—to rectify their past deed and elevate their souls.

Generally, reincarnation means that the entire soul that existed in one body descends into another for the purpose of rectifying or completing past life experiences. But the type of incarnation described in the ten martyrs’ story is different—more accurately it should be called not reincarnation but impregnation (ibbur).

During the course of one’s life, a person may become impregnated with an additional soul for a short period of time. The impregnated soul does not come to substitute for the present soul, rather it is like a guest within the host soul, achieving what it needs to and then it departs. Sometimes this soul impregnates the body in order to assist the host soul; at other times it does so for its own purpose—to live once again through certain physical experiences and as a result achieve a sought-after elevation.

Of course, the ten sons of Yaakov did teshuvah during their life for the sale of Yosef, as the Torah indicates, yet a slight blemish was still in place on their souls. And so they entered the bodies of these ten sages who were then martyred.

While it is true that the ten sons of Yaakov plotted to do harm to their brother, ultimately, as Yosef himself stated, their deeds served the Creator’s plan. “Although you intended to harm me, God intended it for the good, in order to accomplish… that a vast people be kept alive.” (See the Book of Genesis 50:20.) Indeed, if Yosef had not become the vizier of Egypt, his family would have succumbed to hunger. There are multi-dimensions to everything that occurs in life. Sometimes, what seems negative and destructive from a surface perspective is really positive or the source of something constructive.

In the context of Yom Kippur, once we reach a higher level of teshuvah—teshuvah from love—our past misdeeds are transformed into merits. What seemed previously totally negative and unredeemable, now, in its new context, is viewed in a positive light. The fault becomes the seed for virtue, transforming an obstacle into a rung of a ladder that allows us to climb to a higher place.

The Death of Rabbi Akiva

When Rabbi Akiva was taken out to be executed, it was the time to recite the Shema. He told his disciples, “All my days I have wondered about this verse of the Shema, ‘[love God] with all your soul,’ which I take to mean ‘even if He takes your soul.’ I asked myself, ‘When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this?’ And now I have the opportunity!” While they were raking his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven; he prolonged the last word of the Shema—echad, meaning “one”—until he expired. And then a heavenly voice could be heard proclaiming: “Happy are you Akiva that your soul has departed with oneness.”

Everything that occurs in life occurs on two levels: the physical outer level, and the metaphysical inner level. From the outside, it may look like the gentle and holy sage, Rabbi Akiva, was murdered by savage beasts, and yet, the heavenly voice proclaimed that Rabbi Akiva departed this earthly realm of existence in a state of ecstasy and oneness. While they were ravaging his body, he was simultaneously entering a lofty meditative state and saying the Shema, declaring God’s oneness.

The goal of Torah is to teach us to integrate the body and the soul—because, while we yearn to transcend the body, we cannot accomplish the soul’s true purpose without it. Rabbi Akiva used the suffering of his body to lift off into complete transcendence. He thus achieved oneness with God. And in this pure state of bliss, his lofty soul left his body.

Shema Kolienu

Our brains, our power, our art are all from God. Even when we decide—and it is our own decision—to do good and to restrain ourselves from the opposite, we are only playing our part in a cosmic script for which we were formed.

But we can call out to the Infinite Light and ask forgiveness. That is not in the script. When we do teshuvah—when we return to God—we return to a spiritual place where we unite with God’s oneness.

So, when we cry out, “listen to our voice,” perhaps we mean that God should disregard what we are saying, for our intention and focus might not be good, but simply listen to whom is speaking. This is the power of teshuvah, revealing the internal bond between our deepest selves and the Infinite Source of all light.

Reading the Torah for Minchah

“Spirituality” is not always synonymous with “Godliness.” In fact, sometimes the more “spiritual” a person becomes, the more open and receptive he or she becomes to adultery. There is an openness and receptiveness in spirituality which can lead a person to believe that everything should be open, and there should be free interchange on all levels of human interaction.

Reading this Torah portion (from the Book of Leviticus), which details with forbidden sexual relationships, ensures that such a mistake will not occur. Clearly, this reading is also necessary since many people struggle with such temptations, and those that have fallen are reminded to do teshuvah.

In addition, by reading this Torah portion, we are pleading to our Creator and saying, “Just as you have demanded of us that we do not “reveal the shame” (the literal translation of illicit relationships), so too we ask that You not reveal our shame—the shame of our mishaps and deviations—and bestow upon us all your blessings in the new year.”

Haftorah of Mincha: Yonah & the Fish

During the Minchah service, we read the Book of Yonah, which tells the story of the Prophet Yonah who was designated by God to bring the city of Nineveh to teshuvah, but who resisted the assignment.

The great city of Nineveh, a big Assyrian city with a population of over 120, 000 people, was notoriously corrupt. Yet God decided to give its citizens a chance to mend their ways, and He sent Yonah to warn them of the dire consequence of their negative actions. But, feeling overwhelmed by his Divine mission, Yonah chose to run away instead.

Often, we human beings choose to act this way or that, and then later invent reasons for our actions, which are not the real root cause of our behavior. The Talmudic sages tell us that Yonah reasoned that if, in fact, the people of Nineveh would change their ways, they would be spared, and then they would declare that his prophetic vision was false to begin with, or that Divine judgment does not exist. He also reasoned that if they succeeded in mending their ways, this would reflect negatively on the people of Israel, who were constantly being reprimanded for their negative behavior, and who had not mended their ways.

So Yonah fled. He boarded a ship only to find himself in a middle of a tremendous storm. Aboard the ship, everyone prayed intensely while Yonah slept. When they caught on that he was to blame for the savage sea, he told them to throw him into the water in order to save the ship. And so they did.

Once overboard, Yonah was swallowed whole by an enormous fish. Still alive inside, he prayed to God. In response, the fish spit him out. Thus chastised, Yonah went to Nineveh, preaching as he was directed by God. Nineveh heard him and repented.

A literal reading of the story teaches us many things—about the human tendency to flee our innate responsibility, a tendency which we dress up with justifications and rationalizations, and about the power of transformation and teshuvah, a power that can radically change our reality.

But everything in the Torah has at least four levels of meaning: 1) pshat, “simple/literal”; 2) remez, “allegorical/symbolic”; 3) drash, “implied/interpretive”; 4) sod, “secret/mystical.” Each level of meaning is not intended to supplement or exclude the others, rather it includes and supports the others.

In terms of the story of Yonah, while there was a real prophet named Yonah, his name (which means “dove” in Hebrew) suggests that we are also speaking here about the soul—which the dove represents—our deepest sense of self. In the Song of Songs, the dove is the image used to describe the loving and loyal lover, who is madly in love with her beloved (i.e., God).

Our love for God is our soul reality, and the soul is who we truly are. As the soul descends into this world, it becomes embodied and enclothed within a “ship,” a metaphor for the body, which carries the soul on the journey of life.

In a harmonious existence, the body and soul are joined as one—this is what it means to exist as a fully functioning human being. But the body and soul not functioning together are likened to a blind and a lame person. The soul on its own is lame—it sees where it needs to go, but it lacks the tools (the limbs of the body) to get there. The body on its own is blind—it may be able to go where it wants but (without the sight of the soul) has no inkling where. In short, the soul empowers us to see, but it is the body that actually gets us there. The body moves about, but it is the indwelling hidden spirit that directs the movement. Together, in harmony, they join and can become the best of friends.

Our task is to journey onward in life, to steer our ship to the city, and transform our surroundings. We choose the seas upon which we sail—they can be waters of Torah or waters of commerce and desire.

And then there are those doves among us that direct our ship deeper into the sea, away from the city, from our environment of responsibility. This includes those who run away from responsibility by immersing themselves further in the Torah, at the expense of assisting their fellows, and it also includes those who become fully engrossed in their own aggrandizement.

Of course, the city is not an appealing place. Nineveh represents a society gone astray, a civilization gone off course, a place where the dove/soul finds it difficult to live; it refuses to go there. Yet, God decrees to Yonah/dove that saving this city is its mission.

Those of us who shy away from responsibility—from building and helping our fellow man along the path of truth—do so until we run into rough water and encounter a tragedy. Sadly, it seems that tragedy brings us closer to the truth of our reality, to introspection and self-evaluation, even more so than a joyful experience, which generally merely reinforces arrogance. A tragedy tends to break down our ego’s resistance to the experience of truth.

Perhaps this awareness overwhelms and wrecks havoc with our internal paradigm, and believing that we lack the strength to change, we may gives up. We are like Yonah, who tells the sailors to throw him overboard. Of course, no sooner does he hit water than he is swallowed by a big fish.

The word for “fish” in Hebrew, dag, is related to da’aga, which means “worry.” Before the last strand of light is eclipsed, as we sink into oblivion, a Divine worry awakens within us—this is the soul still pulsating within our body, reminding us that there is still hope to realize our potential.

The Divine worry nags us, goads us, to return to our responsibilities and not give up. And in the belly of our worries and existential anxieties, a small glimmer of light emerges, and we find ourselves projected onto land once again.

Ultimately, like Yonah, we get back the city, and our arrival there inspires others to do teshuvah.

Neilah— Closing the Gates

In the context of prayer, Yom Kippur stands out among all other days and holidays.

On an ordinary weekday, we say three prayers: morning (Shachrit), afternoon (Minchah) and night (Maariv), corresponding to the three time zones of prayer that were initiated by the three patriarchs: Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, respectively. These time zones correlated in Temple times to the daily offerings. On Shabbat and on the holidays, there was extra offering known as the Musaf (“extra”), and today we say a fourth Musaf prayer on the Shabbat and on the holidays.

But on Yom Kippur, an extraordinary fifth prayer is added: Neilah “Closing of the Gates.” This either refers to the closing of the Temple gates at the end of the day or this alludes to the closing of the gates of heaven, as the day is coming to a close.

On the two days of Rosh Hashanah (considered a single “extended day”), we pray eight times; on Yom Kippur we pray five times. But, according to a mystical principle, each of Yom Kippur’s five prayers comprises ten, for a total of 50. Altogether the prayers of the Days of Awe number 58 (which is the numerical value of the Hebrew word chen meaning “grace.” These 58 prayers are meant to elicit God’s grace for the renewal of creation on Rosh Hashanah and to forgive iniquity on Yom Kippur. “The poor use entreaties,” says King Shlomo in his Proverbs (18:23), for chen represents the most beloved aspect of prayer.

According to Kabbalah, each of these prayers has the power to access a different level of soul, as follows:

Level of Soul Prayer
5 Yechidah (Unique One) Neilah (Locking of the Gates)
4 Chayah (Living One) Musaf (Extra)
3 Neshama (Breath of Life) Minchah (Afternoon)
2 Ruach (Spirit) Shachrit (Morning)
1 Nefesh (Life Force) Maariv (Evening)
  • The nefesh is the lowest and densest level of the soul, the part of the soul that most clearly interfaces with the physical. It is the nefesh that ensures survival and impels the body to nourish and protect itself. For the most part, the nefesh represents functional consciousness.
  • The ruach manifests as emotional consciousness. It gives us the spiritual ability to rise above immediate existential needs and appreciate matters of emotional value. Music and all the fine arts are expressions of ruach, albeit in its lowest form.
  • The neshama is the soul level of our intellectual ability. It gives us the power to rise above ourselves and elect our own destiny by exercising our freedom of choice. It helps us see beyond ourselves and catch a glimpse of transcendence.
  • The chayah is the level of our dearest will, our want to be one with our source in God. With this level of soul, we not only have an awareness of transcendence but, in fact, do transcend.
  • The yechidah is the highest, deepest, most profound level of soul—it represents uniqueness, oneness. It is the part of us that does not seek oneness, but is one with the Ultimate One.

Neilah gives us the chance to reach this the fifth level of soul, yechidah. As the sun is setting and the heavenly gates are slowly closing, we are faced with a moment of truth, and we respond by a full awakening of the deepest level of our soul.

As we recite the fifth and last prayer, we enter the deepest chamber above, and we move heaven to arouse Divine blessings for Ketivah Vechatima Tova, so that we are “written and sealed for good”—physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

During the course of Yom Kippur we rip our hearts asunder, we open up completely, for this is what real teshuvah is all about, exposing ourselves, facing ourselves honestly. And so, as the day comes to a close, we recite this lofty neilah, which also means closing up, as in a closing-up prayer, putting everything that was spilled out back, and reintegrating and becoming whole again.

Shema, Hashem Hu, and the Shofar

We conclude the Neilah with the blowing of the shofar and the thunderous declaration of Shema (“Hear O Israel, GOD is our God, GOD is one”), we then shout out Baruch Shem (“Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever”) three times, and HaShem Hu Elokim (“GOD, He is God!”) seven times.

Having reached this point in prayer, we can loudly declare our firm belief in the absolute oneness of the Creator, and our willingness to live and die by this truth. We have journeyed inwards and upwards, and our unequivocal affirmation of oneness is absolute.

Then, we continue with the angelic praise of Baruch Shem and loudly pronounce it three times, demonstrating that God’s oneness permeates all dimensions of our reality—past, present and future.

HaShem Hu Elokim is a declaration that comes from the Book of Kings (18:39) which relates the confrontation between the Prophet Eliyahu and the 450 priests of the pagan deity Ba’al. To save the Jewish people from their idolatrous influences, Eliyahu had challenged the priests of Ba’al to offer a sacrifice alongside his sacrifice, in order to see which would be accepted first by a fire from heaven. Although the priests prayed and cried to Ba’al all day, their sacrificial bull only lay rotting on its altar. However, when it came Eliyahu’s turn, he uttered only one short prayer and a pillar of fire immediately descended, consuming not only the sacrifice but the altar as well. The people gathered there then loudly proclaimed: HaShem Hu Elokim! HaShem Hu Elokim!

Among the names of God listed in the Torah, the two of this declaration are the most significant. The essential four-letter name of God, the Tetragrammaton—which we are forbidden to pronounce and which we generally render as HaShem (meaning “The Name”) or in prayer as Adonai (most often translated as “Lord”)—stands for God’s transcendence. The name of God, Elokim (which we translate as “Almighty” or “God”), stands for God’s immanence, God’s manifestation as Creator of nature.

The declaration HaShem Hu Elokim testifies there is only Oneness—the Creator’s immanence and transcendence are part of the same. There is absolute unity, and everything in the universe of the many is included in the Creator’s Oneness.

When the Jewish people first uttered this declaration after witnessing Eliyahu’s demonstration, they affirmed this fact, which stands counter to the beliefs of idolatry that present a part as the whole, fragmenting one force and believing it to be “the All.”

HaShem Hu Elokim is a statement of our awareness that there is only One, that all is absolute unity. Such a declaration can only occur at the pinnacle of the Yom Kippur experience.

Blowing of the shofar symbolizes the ascent of the Divine Presence, the Shechinah, that has rested upon us and upon the day, as it says “God ascends with a teruah [sound of the shofar].” The declaration of HaShem Hu Elokim repeated seven times accompanies the Shechinah as it ascends above the “seven heavens,” returning to its source of emanation.

The blowing of the shofar is a sign of confidence—we are showing that we are confident that God has accepted our prayers. It is a Chabad custom to rise up in joyful song at this point. There is a tremendous spiritual relief that sweeps over the community as the prayers of Yom Kippur are coming to a close—we have unburdened ourselves of the negativity that has weighed us down, and we feel good that our prayers were accepted on high.

From a place of personal redemption, we express our yearning for global salvation—a yearning to have our exile come to an end, to return to Yerushalayim where we belong.

Higher Teshuvah

What now?

Have we not already cleaned our slate? So why are we again praying for forgiveness in the Amidah of Maariv following Yom Kippur prayers?

There is a Chassidic saying that, after Yom Kippur, the first thing we need to do is teshuvah. What can that mean?

There is a story told about Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, the 9th century Babylonian sage, that may shed some light. Once he was asked by his students why he was in a constant state of teshuvah. He replied that on one of his many trips, he spent a night at an inn, and the inn-keeper, being a pious individual, treated him very nicely as he did all his guests. The next morning, when the inn-keeper saw a huge crowd gathered at his inn to greet the great sage, he realized who his guest was. Some time later, with a bitter heart, the inn-keeper came to ask forgiveness from Rabbi Saadiah for the way he treated him. “But why are you apologizing?,” the great rabbi asked, “You treated me so nicely.” The inn-keeper replied, “No, I treated you as I would all other guests, but had I known who you were, I would have treated you as was fitting for a man of your stature.”

This experience, Rabbi Saadiah said, caused him to be in a constant state of teshuvah. As he explained, “Everyday that I live, I gain in my knowledge, awareness and understanding, and everyday I realize that compared to my understanding today, there is much more room to grow. Everyday, indeed every moment, calls forth for new measures of return.”

New possibilities—undiscovered spiritual opportunities—are opened to us with every new day lived. A new day can bring greater awareness and understanding, and with the new awareness can come a renewed understanding of our true and deeper potential. We learn how much more we can improve, and how much further we can grow.

If ever there was the perfect time to resolve and accept upon oneself a greater and more profound level of teshuvah, it is now, right after Yom Kippur. And so, at the end of this great day, we immediately begin the process of teshuvah—for teshuvah, as a reflection of life and growth, is continuous and ever evolving, bringing us always to new heights, but now our teshuvah is with love and integration, and spiritual elation.

The Joy of being Freed

When we are forgiven, we feel relief and are overjoyed. Though on a conscious level, we may not know whether we are forgiven or not, but the fact that there is great palpable joy felt in the air as Yom Kippur comes to an end is proof that we have all been forgiven. Deeply our souls sense this cleansing and feel purified and free.

As Yom Kippur comes to a close, a heavenly voice rings out, “Go your way, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already accepted your works.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7.) It is a time of great joy, as our teshuvah has been accepted, and our repairs are complete.

Customarily, we speak about building a sukkah, the booth of the holiday of Sukkot, which is referred to as “the time of Joy.”

The Story of the Unesana Tokef

This powerful prayer is said to have been first published in the 11th century by Rabbi Kolonymus of Meinz, although it was not composed by him but by a Rabbi Amnon.

The story is that Rabbi Amnon was a wealthy sage, who for years had been pressured by the local authorities of Meinz to change his faith. Once, as a stalling tactic, he asked them to give him three days to think about it, only to realize that this created the impression that he might renounce his faith. Brokenhearted at the thought of what he had done, he cried inconsolably, and he could not eat nor drink.

When the rulers discovered that Rabbi Amnon had no intention of converting, they arrested him and punished him by cutting off his hands and feet. Dying from his wounds, he was brought to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, and just before the Kedushah, he asked the congregation to pause; he then recited Unesane Tokef, which begins, “Let us describe the great holiness of this day.” As he ended this prayer, his beautiful and holy soul ascended on high. A few days later, he appeared to Rabbi Kolonymus in a dream and taught him his prayer so that it could be introduced to all congregations.

The Passages recited before the blowing of the Shofar


In this powerful chapter of Psalms, the name of God, Elokim, appears seven times. Elokim is the screen that shields the receiver from the infinite overwhelming light of God, expressed in the essential four-letter name, the Tetragrammaton, which is spelled in Hebrew yud-hei-vav-hei, and which we are forbidden to pronounce. This essential name of God represents the infinite, while Elokim represents the finite, the Divine energy that is clothed within restrictions of time and space. When we recite this name the seven times, we pierce the seven heavens and overcome the seven levels of veils, and from our narrow, constricted, finite place—reflected in the narrow mouthpiece of the shofar—we extend into a wide, vast place of the Infinite light.

Koli Shima

Taking the first letters of these verses, we spell out kra Satan (rip apart Satan).

Satan is nothing more than a concealment of the Divine. It is the power of kelipa, which translates in our own life as uncertainties, doubts, and the inability to see our Divine purpose. In its grasp, we perceive life as random, giving rise to even greater confusion and covering over the Divine life force within us. But when we rip apart the kelipa, we realize what it is a shell. The kelipa is a mirage—when we peel it away, there is nothing there.

The sound of the shofar blasts open a cosmic opening in the restricted place of kelipa, allowing Divine energy to flow into this world and into our lives.

Min Ha’metzar

“From the depths I call out to you, and You answer me with expansiveness.” This is the theme of the shofar—a simple cry from the deepest parts of our soul, penetrating all worlds and inspiring a renewed and expanded desire for God to create and assume kingship.

Shachris: The Four Ladder Movement, Upward and Inward

As we climb the four levels of prayer upward and inward, we come more in touch with our deeper levels of soul, and they become our internal reality.

Le'david Hashem Ori: God as Light & Strength

Le’david Hashem Ori: God as Light & Strength

God will extend a hand and assist us in the process of self-transformation and re-unification.


Songs of Praise

A closer look at the special nature of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah.

Hataras Nedarim/Nullifying Vows: Correcting our speech

Hataras Nedarim/Nullifying Vows: Correcting our speech

Every time we promise and say we will or will not do this or that, we create a form of reality through our words. Therefore when our actions do not match that reality, an emptiness results. Vows uttered but not fulfilled are empty, lacking vessels of fulfillment. And in order to repair this lack—in order to build the necessary vessels— we need to remedy how we speak. We begin by becoming conscious of our words.