Columns - 2004

    At your service

    By Doug Brook
    Deep South Jewish Voice Columnist

    As a public service (part of the two hundred hours of community service we've been ordered to perform), this column presents to you the ultimate guide to the High Holy Day services.

    Read this column, and the only time you will be lost at services this year is when (I'm not making this up) you're too late in realizing that when the temple remodeled the bathrooms, they switched the men's and women's.

    Remember, each holiday begins the evening before your secular calendar lists the holiday. As it says in Genesis, chapter one, "And there was evening, and there was morning, let us pray."

    The beginning of the Rosh Hashanah evening service is the most difficult part of the High Holy Day services. Yes, even more than standing an hour through Ne'ilah at the end of Yom Kippur. Why? Because this starts on page one, and you know you have eight hundred pages to go.

    The service then continues as most ordinary evening services. Judging by year-round attendance, most of you have no idea what this would be, and I won't bother getting into it here. Consider it homework for next year.

    The Rosh Hashanah morning service begins like any other (see note above). It would be easy after the evening service and the start of the morning service to be lulled into thinking that it's just another day. The difference? More of you are actually there.

    Okay, we'll skip a bunch of the usual stuff here because if you're at services this early you either already know what's going on or misread the schedule and showed up too early for the sermon. Lots of praising the Big G, being thankful for this and that. Usual stuff.

    Hamelech is the first big sign that you're at a High Holy Day service (aside from you being there in the first place). Hamelech, which translates as "the king", is the initial declaration toward the Almighty (tm).

    Contrary to what most rabbis say, Hamelech was added to the service in the mid-1950s, when congregants at a temple in Memphis reacted to the surprise appearance of Elvis, who was looking for a wedding chapel. The next year, when a much larger group was present and shouted "The King!" again at the same spot in the service, the rabbi followed the teaching of Joseph's brothers, and said "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

    That tale about it being part of the service for hundreds of years is just a cover.

    Then something astonishing happens. We repeat the amidah out loud, instead of just doing the silent devotion and skipping the repetition as many do throughout the year.

    But to make sure the point is driven home, or to ensure nobody wants to do the repetition the rest of the year, about four hundred and twelve extra sections are added to the repetition. This ensures the service lasts as long as possible and that the cantor has leverage in contract renewals. Just as the Great Sage once peppered his students with questions like, "where else do you have to go on the High Holy Days?"

    Amid the repetition of the amidah, we engage in the repetition of declarations of all our sins. We confess and repent. Many times. Enough times so that we cover each instance separately, it seems. If you did something more times than there's confessionals, forget about that Book of Life inscription for next year.

    We confess for things that we didn't even do, but someone else in the room might have and we don't want them embarassed by being the only ones confessing to it.

    Actually, lots of people want them embarassed. Gives us something to whisper about during the Torah reading. And the haftarah. And the repetition of the amidah, the silent amidah, and the confessionals during which we confess to, among other things, talking during services.

    Of course, for some of us, the confessional involves nothing more than saying, "we have sinned against you by not sinning nearly enough this year as to make this confessional worth your time. We'll try harder next year. Meanwhile, though, I don't want to keep distracting you from Leibowitz over there in the fifth pew. Have you heard about him, his company's missing three hundred thousand dollars, and the monkey?"

    After the amidah, we have the Torah reading. It's shorter than a regular week (five aliyahs instead of seven), but enough stuff is added to the Torah service that it balances out. By balances out, we mean, it's much longer. And this doesn't count the sermon, which is done around now, depending on whether your temple has two services and the Rabbi is getting his exercise by shlepping to yours first or second.

    Then there's the sounding of the shofar, if it's not Shabbat. The kids love this one. The shofar was originally sounded to wake up the congregation after the Torah reading and sermon.

    In modern times, once we've heard the Torah reading, sermon, and sound of the shofar, we then hear the sound of the chauffeur. Or rather, we hear the sound of eighty percent of the congregation leaving at once to meet theirs outside.

    We then do Musaf, which technically is an "additional service" during which sacrifices were offered in ancient times. On Rosh Hashanah, we honor this tradition by sacrificing lunch and staying here repeating pretty much exactly what we said before the Torah service all over again. This shows we really meant it. Another amidah. With repetition. More confessionals, though often in this fifth or sixth hour of the service, people are worn down enough to confess to a few more sins than they did earlier. Including confessing to pointing out poor Leibowitz over there, even if you did leave out the part about the pending Grand Jury.

    On Erev Yom Kippur ("Yom Kippur Eve", for the goyim), everyone wears a tallis at services. This is unusual, but originated from people staying all night and day at services. Already exhausted from over-repentance and under-indulgence, many would forget to put it on in the morning. They also make good blankets.

    Everyone wears white. This tradition hearkens back to a year long ago, when Yom Kippur began on a Friday night, which happened to be the same night of the series premiere of Miami Vice. In honor of that event, and in blatant disregard for style, white is worn by all.

    Yom Kippur's day service is really similar in structure to all the stuff from Rosh Hashanah. It's just longer, more desperate at the eleventh (or twenty-sixth) hour, longer, you're there with no food or water, longer, and less brief.

    Of course, in the afternoon, you get to hear the book of Jonah in its entirety, and it's a whale of a story.

    The last hour or so is spent on Ne'ilah, Hebrew for "Jewish water torture." You have to go through one more hour (or more, depending on when the rabbi believes sunset might be). You have to stand the whole time, and you're just finishing your twenty-sixth hour without water. This truly separates the men from the mannequins in the eyes of the Big G.

    Doug Brook is a technical publications program manager in Silicon Valley. No Jews were harmed in the writing of this column. No such guarantee is made for the reading of this column. For more information, past columns, other writing, and other current events, visit his website at

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.