Getting Ready for Rosh Hashanah

Prayers to say, vows to renounce.

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Erev Rosh Hashanah

apples and honey

The day before Rosh Hashanah also holds special significance and has its own special customs. In preparation for this sacred holiday the selihot are more extensive and the shofar is not sounded.

In addition, the cover to the reading table, the parokhet (curtain that covers the Torah scrolls), and the dressing of the Torah itself are often changed to white, to represent the motifs of purity and atonement. Other customs include visiting the graves of relatives and loved ones, contributing something significant to charitable causes, and sending greeting cards.

Hatarat Nedarim

On erev Rosh Hashanah, some people choose to perform a ritual of introspection and spiritual mediation called hatarat nedarim, the annulling of vows. The ritual covers only vows made to themselves or to God--not vows made to another person.

In hatarat nedarim an individual asks to be released from vows that may have been said in a heated moment, but were not truly of the heart, and from casual statements that may have been worded as vows, but were not intended as such. This ritual is part of Judaism's system for giving people second chances; but of course not every vow can or will be annulled.

In this case, a person who wishes to be released from vows finds three other people who also wish to be released from vows. One of those people makes a declaration in the presence of the three others, who serve as a beit din (literally, "house of judgment")--a legal court according to Jewish law. After the first person is absolved of these vows by the others, another takes a turn asking for absolution while the remaining three serve as the beit din, and so on with the group.

Whether or not one uses the traditional formula found in some prayer books, it is important to practice hatarat nedarim with people who can be open and honest, as well as thoughtful, in their responses.

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Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Paul Steinberg is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California and is the Head of the Etz Chaim Hebrew School. He previously served as the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at Levine Academy: A Solomon Schechter School in Dallas, Texas.