High Holidays (Sefas Emes)

[sukka in very bright light, generated at DALL-E]

The commentaries in the Sefas Emes to the High Holidays comprise different component parts in a single composition. They are the last major word of the fifth and final volume of the commentary (on Deuteronomy). In that position, they effectively constitute the last major word of both the holiday cycle (which starts with Hanukah in volume one, the commentary to Genesis) and the last major word of the entire commentary. Summing up and sealing the entire commentary, the last and final words of the Sefas Emes are the I or Anochi of God and the human neshamah, the nullification or bitul of the self before God, the renewal of the life-force or ḥiyyut, the raising up of the living human soul or nefesh, the aspect of Abraham, ḥesed, and joy over din and judgment, purity and protection against the Other Side, the life of the world to come. Hidden in the world and revealed especially on sabbaths and festivals, the inner ḥiyyut or life-force is rendered holy and separated from physical things. Note should be made that the notion of self-nullification of the self before God is paradoxical. Multi-dimensional and not abject, there is little by way of ethical self-reflection or begging before God for forgiveness. Characteristic is the aspect of joy and kindness, the utter and spiritual confidence of the Sefas Emes.


On an intimate note, the Sefas Emes introduces the month of Elul with reference to the Song of Songs, ani l’dodi v’dodi li (“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”). The month of Elul, a month of reflection, is to know that the man of Israel [sic] was created to serve his master and that there is he no other reality and need in the world. Israel awakens in teshuvah and merits by their actions the power to awaken the time of the will of Heaven. God is reconciled to Israel at the start of the month, on rosh chodesh Elul.

Rosh Hashanah

Not repentance, the focus in the Sefas Emes on Rosh Hashanah is life; not ordinary life, of course, but life clarified and purged, life purified without the waste and dross of materiality and physicality. One should not request things in this world on Rosh Hashanah; one should only want to serve God. Containing all creation, the human being is a microcosm, a little world or olam katan. The essence of the human is the living nefesh, which is the divine portion from above that is renewed on Rosh Hashanah. As it enters into the world during the year, the life force or iyyut turns from the spiritual to the corporeal, transforms and splits into different directions. Rosh Hashanah stands out in the year as the source of new iyyut, spiritual and without physical image or tziur. Perfecting creation, the nullification or bitul before God awakens and animates all creation.

The shofar sound of Rosh Hashana in the Sefas Emes relates to breath, the drawing out of life by subjugating voice and speech to Heaven. Of the three different soundings of the shofar, the tekiah blast is voice without speech, one complete single voice, gathering and connecting, which is the aspect of Abraham or love (esed). Teruah and shevarim are different kinds of shofar blasts. These are staccato voices that spread out and separate, constituting speech as it breaks and splits into different and separate movements. Pleasing God, the teruah is the tempting of God with God’s own attribute of judgment (midat ha’din). This is the confidence of the Sefas Emes. Rosh Hashana is joy and jubilee, inscribed (arut) and free (erut) from the Angel of Death and the Evil Inclination. Rosh Hashana repairs the Tree of Knowledge (din). The shofar blasts awaken covenant, mercy, renewal, Kingdom of Heaven.

The shofar raising the prayers of Israel on Rosh Hashana animates both the anochi or “I” of God revealed to Israel at Sinai and the soul or neshamah of the human person, the extra soul which is the essence of the human image (tzelem). The Sefas Emes is confident that the sound of the shofar and prayer has the power to move God from the throne of judgment to the throne or mercy and esed. Israel crowns the King by accepting the Kingdom. But Israel cannot sing praise psalms or Hallel when the Book of Life and Death is open. The human neshamah is like God and judges the body on Rosh Hashana, while Abraham who does the will of God at a single moment, at the binding of Isaac, merits that esed overpowers gevurah or the power and force of God. On Rosh Hashana, the animated nefesh draws all life to creation, and the person connects all creation to the life of life, i.e. to the Tree of Life.

Shabbat Teshuva

Anochi– the shofar of Sinai awakens the heart to teshuvah (the voice of my beloved knocks; kol dodi dofek). On the ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the gate of teshuvah is revealed in this world, the world of action, the soul or neshamah now repairing actions and body. Shabbat helps teshuva or return, a memorial of the Exodus, of the day when all is Shabbat, by removing the screen that separates God and the human. On Shabbat, there are no requests for bodily needs, just the needs of the neshamah. The teshuvah of truth and Jacob is the faith that God is in the human being, that God is in exile with Israel. Shabbat raises the human nefesh to God from within the prison of the body. In this way, the root of teshuvah is a return to cleaving to the root that sin cannot damage. Even with sin, a divine part remains in Israel, raising the nefesh to God while still in the body.

Yom Kippur

There is nothing about the confession and forgiveness of sin, little to almost nothing by way of the reconciliation between persons. The very short commentary (!) is mostly about purity and holiness, about removing the garb of physicality from the garb of holiness on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is total nullification before God, and a great day of joy. Negative mitzvot keep the demonic Other Side or Sitra Ara from drawing near and dispersing holiness.On Yom Kippur, Sitra Ara does not rule. The nullification or bitul of self is like immersing in mikveh; inwardness is clarified and with no garment now; the end of judgment or misphat is esed or kindness. Mending the sins between “man” and “man,” between the person and God, Israel becomes one unity on Yom Kippur. With no food or drink, the animate spirits or nefashot of Israel unify, while spirit or rua raises the nefesh of Israel to its supernal portion, the Holy of Holies, the special place and supernal root over nature. Each year, there is a bit more forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. But one cannot cleave to this joy as one should while still in this world. Like they were before that sin, Israel are, on Yom Kippur, again like angels. Yom Kippur is the world to come, a sign that the future is holy and that Israel will return to the original Sinai rung, nourished not by food and drink but by Shekhinah.  


After Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the human person-Israel is pure but cannot yet find illumination and holiness in the world. Most people don’t engage Torah full time. But the High Holidays set up a pattern which makes it hard to leave Torah or forget Torah when dealing with other matters. Yom Kippur is the aspect of din or judgment which merits esed or the aspect of kindness on Sukkot, extending the life force or iyyut that is renewed on Rosh Hashanah into the year. Sukkot is life in the world; and Torah is the essence of life. For its part, the world needs sukkah protection. For their part, Israel is consecrated to God as special possession after Egypt, the perfect point in midst of the world of creation. After Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the demonic Other Side or Sitra Ara chases after Israel, but the sukkah protects the community by gathering together all the souls of Israel. On Sukkot, God honors Israel above the nations. The four species manifest the nullification of the self for Klal Israel, the souls of Israel uniting on the festival to be one with God; their taste and smell rise before God. With reference to Temple rites, the joy of the collective gathering of Israel draws living waters. On Sukkot, Israel are guests in God’s house where they are given the desire of their hearts. Sukkot is world friendly and universal. The sukkah is the cloud of glory in whose shade Israel sits.

Shemini Atzeret

The comments regarding Shemini Atzeret in the Sefas Emes are tucked into the section on Sukkot. As Sukkot belongs to this world, Shemini Atzeret, the eight day of assembly that follows after the seven-day festival of Sukkot, is life of the world to come. Shemini Atzeret is the purpose of Sukkot. Shemini Atzeret is the life of world to come (actually or mamash). Whereas the festival of Sukkot includes all nations, all people, Shemini Atzeret is special only for Israel. Sukkot is the aspect of prayer, whereas Shemini Atzeret is the aspect of Torah. Shavuot is the aspect of Written Torah, whereas Shemini Atzeret is the aspect of Oral Torah. A miraculous thing, Israel adds to Torah like the eighth day adds to the seven-day festival. On Shemini Atzeret and Shavuot, the essence of Torah-life is revealed. That essence is the revelation itself and cleaving to God not in this world.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
This entry was posted in uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply