What to do when services feel really long?
Many people experience High Holy Days services as being long, so if you happen to be feeling that way, you’re not alone. The evening services are sometimes fairly short, but the daytime services in some synagogues are offered in multi-hour segments covering most of the day, with a break or two in the middle.
If you are looking for shorter blocks of time to attend, look over the synagogue’s online or printed materials describing the High Holy Days services for specific parts of the services that most interest you.
If you feel it’s time for you to leave a service that is in progress, it’s OK. Just try to mosey on out as quietly as you can so that others can continue to participate with minimal distraction. If a speaker is in the middle of giving a talk or a reading, it’s considered more polite to quietly slip out just before or after their remarks.
If you want to experience the major “highlights” of High Holy Days services without attending a lot of the longer daytime services, here are some specific segments of the services that you might want to select from based on your interests:
Attend the evening services for the first day of Rosh Hashanah and for Yom Kippur. The evening service for Yom Kippur has its own special name, “Kol Nidre,” and some of the music specific to this service is haunting and beautiful.
If you want to hear the thoughts of other community members and rabbis, find out when the main sermons are being given, and center your attendance around those moments.
If hearing the shofar in synagogue is especially important to you and/or any kids you may have, ask the synagogue office for approximate times that the shofar services will be taking place.
The final hour or two of services for the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, have a special feel to them. These services are called Ne-illah, and they usually start somewhere around 5 or 6 pm, depending on when sunset will be. They end with a final major blast of the shofar. One thing to keep in mind: The last hour of services on Yom Kippur includes a lot of standing for long periods of time. It’s OK for kids to sit if they get tired, and for adults to sit if standing is painful.
What if I feel uncomfortable with some of the prayers?
You’re not alone. Judaism is a very old religion, and a lot of the prayers and metaphors of the High Holy Days reflect the ways people felt comfortable talking about God and faith many centuries ago. The High Holy Days in particular have many prayers that use the image of God as a great King on a heavenly throne, sitting in judgment of all living beings, and decreeing what their fate will be in the year to come. There are also specific readings from the Hebrew Bible that were assigned to these holidays about 2,000 years ago, and some of these texts clash severely with modern liberal values.
Some High Holy Days prayer books alter the English translation of problematic language to reflect a more contemporary values set, or they include commentaries on the prayers acknowledging the tensions or offering alternative readings. Here’s one way to look at it: The High Holy Days are a bit like an opera. They’re full of amazing music and dramatic words, they’re long and they’re emotionally powerful. But they can also feel very culturally distant from 21st Century modern Western values. If you find yourself uncomfortable with something that’s read or sung during these services, just know that there’s a good chance many others in attendance, including the rabbi, are feeling a similar discomfort, and that the language may be altered over time. And remember: Judaism is a tradition that values questioning and even wrestling with its own texts and traditions.
Is there a dress code?
The culture around how people dress to High Holy Days services varies a lot from synagogue to synagogue. The easiest way to know the norms at a particular congregation is to call them and ask. When in doubt, go for something resembling business attire.
There’s a humorous and very helpful overview of many of the topics we just covered in this section over at Religion News Service’s online feature, “The ’Splainer.”
What if I don’t know the words to the songs and prayers, or when to stand or sit?
Don’t worry—lots of Jewish people who’ve been to these services before also don’t know!
A lot of prayerbooks for the High Holy Days have transliteration (Hebrew words phonetically spelled out in English) alongside the key Hebrew passages that are being sung. Everyone is welcome to sing along as best they’re able, or to simply listen without singing. Humming along or singing “la la la” along with the Hebrew songs the congregation is singing is also totally acceptable.
If you find that some of the longer periods of standing is making you physically uncomfortable, or if you have a physical condition that requires you to manage things like sitting or standing, please know that you’re free to sit or stand as you need.
We have more questions. Who can we talk to?
In addition to your local clergy, friends or other nearby trusted resources, we have staff here at 18Doors who are more than happy to take a little time to hear your specific questions or challenges. We’re not counselors, but several of us are rabbis and experts on these questions and concerns. If you’d like to email or talk with someone at 18Doors, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.