Why Do We Fall for the High Holiday Season?

September, 12 2019
Arts & Culture, Latest

From a young age, we are conditioned to love fall. “As children, we come to associate fall with going back to school, new school supplies, seeing friends,” Kathryn Lively, professor of sociology at Dartmouth College, explains in the Huffington Post. “We still respond to this pattern that we experienced for eighteen years.” As adults, we mimic these delights with fall flavors and holiday traditions, reinforcing our excitement for the season. 

In Jewish communities, fall also brings the most important religious holidays and Jewish customs, chock-full of rituals and recipes that create our own unique associations with the season. The sweet Rosh Hashanah taste of honey recipes, inspired by the tradition of eating apples and honey to symbolize our wishes for a sweet new year, the sounds of the shofar blasts, which act as reminders of our need for repentance, and the citrusy smell of etrogim that fills the synagogue on Sukkot mold us from a young age to connect this time of year to the sensations of the High Holidays. 

For many Jews, these sensory associations create a link between our relationship to fall and the High Holiday season. Pam Silk, associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, TX, says that, in Houston, where the weather remains extremely warm well into the fall months, her congregants perceive the High Holidays differently depending on the date of Rosh Hashanah in the Gregorian calendar. “If it’s really early in September and it’s still blazing hot and feels like summer, people have a harder time feeling prepared,” she explains. “I think that those environmental cues, when the weather feels cooler, especially in a place where the leaves on the trees would start falling and you could perceptibly notice daylight starting to shift a little, I think those are naturally conducive elements to recognizing the passage of time.”

Because so many of Judaism’s major holidays take place in fall, Jews may associate the season with a feeling of significance specific to Jewish communities. Anthropologist Dimitris Xyalatas writes in The Conversation that in addition to the sensory experience of fall—holiday recipes, cooler temperatures, crunching leaves—the ceremony of holidays indicates “that this is no common occasion – it is one full of significance and meaning.” According to Xyalatas, “such sensory exuberance helps create lasting recollections of those occasions and marks them in our memory as special events worth cherishing.” Because of the specific Jewish connection to fall, the weeks leading up to this part of the year stimulate an excitement conditioned over years of linking specific emotions and sensory experiences with our celebration of the High Holidays. 

As Oliver Burkeman, health and wellbeing columnist for the Guardian, writes, associations designating a specific time period as unique serve as temporal landmarks, events or time periods that help structure our sense of time. These markers, such as birthdays, anniversaries and holiday seasons, prevent time from seeming like a never-ending mush, staving away that “where has the past year gone” feeling. According to Silk, Jewish holidays mark time in a similarly constructive manner. “When we’re able to notice time, it has the effect that it feels like we’re slowing it,” she explains. “One great thing about ritual and about living a religious life, whether it’s Judaism or not, is that holidays punctuate time in a masterful way.”

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Arranging our lives according to these landmarks also increases motivation and productivity, according to Burkeman. When we designate the beginnings and ends of temporal stretches, we gain a repeated sense of starting anew, incentivizing us to set personal goals and reach them before the next landmark approaches. Additionally, thinking about our lives in isolated chunks of time prompts self-reflection similar to what many practice when setting New Year’s resolutions. Upcoming Jewish landmarks, such as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are particularly conducive to this mindset of renewal. As the season approaches and the High Holidays near, we are prompted to consider our actions and outline steps to fix what needs amending. 

Marc. D Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City, notes that the High Holidays are merely two of the many temporal landmarks Judaism has to offer. “The Jewish calendar offers us moments of renewal each Shabbat,” he writes. “The genius of Judaism is that it seeks to energize and renew us on a daily basis—not just on calendrical landmarks.”

“That’s what Judaism at the core is really about,” Silk says. “Filling up our days and our weeks and our months and our years with ways to punctuate and notice time so that we are intentional about it. I think that is, in its core, the essence of Jewish life.”

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