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Rabbi Stiefel's Monthly Article

Some Things Get Lost in Translation

by Rabbi Sharon Stiefel

We are approaching the High Holidays... High Holy Days... Yamim Noraim... Days of Awe.

Each of these names brings different images to mind. High Holidays – are these the holidays that stand above the rest? We speak about high points, highlights, and high school. Most think the term high holidays came from the popular English phrase “high days and holydays.” But nowadays the word "holiday" conjures up gathering together for vacation. Yes, taking off of work is part of the High Holidays but definitely not the whole story. 

Holiday is a contraction of holy day.  When we say High Holy Days it more aptly provides an image of very important sacred time spent in prayer. This seems to get us going in the right direction of separation from the ordinary. The word in Hebrew for sacred is kadosh, often translated as separated or set-aside.  The word holy gets at this distinction but in our common parlance we often think of holy as a word used more frequently in other religions and traditions.

Yamim noraim is the term in Hebrew for the Jewish High Holidays. Literally it means Days of Awe. Noraim has the root yud-reysh-alef. They’re a number of meanings for yirah.  It can mean awe and it can mean fear. And we can see how these two words are both aspects of the High Holidays. The period ahead of us is filled with awe, a sense that we are connected to something beyond ourselves, grateful for creation and filled with appreciation for our world. To coin a phrase Paul Simon uses in a song, “these are the days of miracles and wonder.” 

But fear, yirah’s other meaning, also plays a role in describing the High Holidays. We are being judged for our actions. We are looking deep inside ourselves to weed out imperfections, admit our mistakes, make amends and set ourselves aright in new directions. We feel the weight of this heavy task. These days could be referred to those of “fear and trembling,” to use the name of the philosophical work by Søren Kierkegaard.

Given all these terms, we learn that we are nearing a period of time, the yamim noraim, filled with both awe and fear.  We will be grateful for arriving at this season and the ability to pause and reflect.   We will make amends so that we can live a life more in tune with our core values.  Together we are blessed to have days set aside to be introspective, hopeful, serious and connective to all that is sacred.  

Wishing you and yours meaningful yamim noraim!