On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.
The prayer known as Unetanah Tokef sets forth themes of judgment and redemption that frame the “days of awe,” the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Translated from Hebrew as “We shall ascribe holiness to this day,” the prayer is recited (more commonly in Ashkenazic than Sephardic congregations) on the Jewish New Year and 10 days later on the Day of Atonement.
In between, the faithful believe, God opens the books and enters the names of those who will live and who will die, though what is written can be altered before the books close by acts of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah (repentance, prayer and charity).
“The Unetanah Tokef prayer is the most powerful and challenging of all the prayers we recite on the Holy Days,” said Rabbi Peter Berg, senior rabbi at The Temple. “Do I really believe that God will choose to spare me from, and others will die by, fire, famine, or COVID-19?”
Indeed, among its enumeration of how some may die, the Unetanah Tokef includes: Who by plague.
Those words – possibly dating to the 6th century C.E. based on fragments found in the Cairo genizah – have taken on added significance in the midst of a pandemic that has contributed to deaths and hospitalizations within Atlanta’s Jewish community and remains a threat to public health.
The start of year 5781 of the Jewish calendar, at sunset Friday, Sept. 18, will usher in High Holy Days worship reconfigured because of COVID-19. How the Jews of Atlanta observe will be framed by the principle of pikuach nefesh (saving a life), by which the preservation of a human life supplants any other considerations, as stated in the Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
To ensure the health of the community, synagogues across the Atlanta area are managing what Congregation Bet Haverim, in the Reconstructionist movement, called an “unprecedentedly complicated” planning process in an email to congregants.
“We are not alone in these considerations. Every synagogue in Atlanta and around the world is dealing with these issues,” said Scott Allen, executive director at Congregation Or Hadash.
Five weeks before Rosh Hashanah, as this article is published, planning for the High Holy Days remains a work in progress at many congregations. Numerous congregations have sent questionnaires to their members, to gauge interest in participating in worship and other rituals associated with the High Holy Days. “We are aware that these plans may need to change and that the medical and governmental guidelines remain in flux. Nevertheless, these responses will help us formulate a plan that best serves our entire membership,” a notice sent by Congregation Beth Jacob read.
No matter the solutions that individual congregations employ, “This is going to be a very different High Holy Days, which may one day lead to their own version of ‘Mah Nishtanah,’ how different these holidays are from every other holidays,” said Rabbi Mark Zimmerman of Congregation Beth Shalom.
Where sanctuaries usually are filled during the High Holy Days, the only voices to be inside the walls at many non-Orthodox congregations this year will be those of a rabbi, a cantor, and possibly a handful of people participating in the service. The various forms of technology that Atlanta synagogues have employed since mid-March to transmit services, classes and other programs will provide High Holy Days worship for the vast majority of their congregants.
Religious law bars Orthodox congregations from employing such technology for worship services, so the logistics of in-person services becomes a greater challenge. Even where a fraction of a congregation may gather, social distancing will leave empty spaces in otherwise filled pews.
Rabbis, from multiple movements within Judaism, said that the essential elements will be retained, but other, familiar pieces of the program may be forgone.
“There are a number of poems which we usually sing and for many people those songs are the high holidays. We will have to eliminate them to focus on essential prayers only,” said Rabbi Binyomin Friedman of Congregation Ariel, where a slimmed-down Orthodox service indoors may run three hours and abbreviated worship in a tent outside perhaps half that long.
Rabbi Yossi New said that at Congregation Beth Tefillah, an Orthodox congregation affiliated with Chabad of Georgia, the probable offerings would be a full service indoors, with social distancing and masks required, or an abbreviated outdoor service. “We’re going to offer a full service, all the essential parts. I shouldn’t say this, but we can cut out the rabbi’s sermon, which is discretionary,” New said, with a chuckle. Some songs and discretionary prayers also will be trimmed.
Beth Tefillah also hopes to arrange visits to people in the neighborhood of the shul who are unable or unwilling to attend in person, including blowing the shofar. The latter becomes especially important as “a significant portion of our membership have indicated that they probably will not come to any kind of service” because of COVID-19 concerns, New said.
While Beth Tefillah cannot use technology to feed a traditional service, New plans to offer an informal online service in advance of the High Holy Days, combining a primer on how to navigate the prayer book with inspirational teachings.
The length of a service is no less important for non-Orthodox congregations that will offer services to virtual congregations, in homes across the Atlanta area and beyond. “A very wise person once said the brain can only absorb what the tuchus can endure,” Zimmerman quipped.
While services at his Conservative congregation will be online, Zimmerman said that at Beth Shalom “a very small group of people, probably around 25 to 30, will be spread out in the sanctuary and social hall to take aliyot and Torah readings.”
COVID-19 continues to disrupt Jewish religious practices steeped in tradition.
Think, for example, of the moment just before sunset that heralds the start of Yom Kippur, when the congregation stands to chant “Kol Nidre” and the individual Jew is subsumed into a larger Jewish whole.
What cannot be replicated in the virtual space or where only a fraction of worshippers are allowed to gather is what Rabbi Adam Starr of the Modern Orthodox Congregation Ohr HaTorah called “the sense of the community coming together and the multitudes spending hours on end connecting to one another, connecting to prayer.”
Congregations are drawing on expertise from within their memberships, from doctors, nurses and public health experts from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rabbis, staff and lay leaders of Atlanta area synagogues are making the decisions based on not only religious dictates, but also on what they can handle logistically while safeguarding the health of all involved.
“While plans were developed to allow for in-person services, ultimately the life of every congregant, their family, and our community is paramount and necessitates making this difficult decision,” read a letter sent to members of Congregation Ahavath Achim informing them that “a virtual option is the safest and most appropriate course of action for this year.”
The leadership of Ahavath Achim, a Conservative congregation, wrote, “If there is a silver lining, it is that we are fortunate to live in a world where technology exists to connect us together in a way that would have been impossible even a few short years ago.”
Likewise at The Temple, a Reform congregation, “The High Holy Days will be different, but also the same. What changes is our delivery system, what stays the same is the warmth of our community at The Temple, the powerful prayers and themes of the High Holy Days, and the meaningful messages from our clergy team,” Berg said. “Our members will experience familiar music and prayers, but also new experiences designed specifically for this moment in which we live.”
This year will be the first leading High Holy Days worship at Or Hadash for Rabbi Lauren Henderson, successor to the Conservative congregation’s founding rabbis, the husband-and-wife team of Analia Bortz and Mario Karpuj, who recently made aliyah to Israel. While worship at Or Hadash will be primarily virtual, with pre-recorded segments and music woven into the live portions, planning includes small gatherings for Tashlich (the symbolic casting off of sins) and a walk outdoors. “We’re even putting together shofar blowing in different neighborhoods and family time in front of the ark between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Allen said.
In preparation, every member family at Or Hadash received a copy of “This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared,” by Rabbi Alan Lew, and weekly study sessions are planned to prepare for the High Holy Days. “We’re also holding several song circle sessions to learn new music that Rabbi Lauren favors and to acquaint her with some of our favorite melodies as well,” Allen said.
In mid-July, Rabbi Daniel Dorsch at Congregation Etz Chaim explained that “We are in the process of reviewing ways to halachically abbreviate the service appropriately in order not to create a tircha detzibbura, (an undue burden on our families), and to allow them to have a meaningful online experience.” While virtual services remained the plan in August, “We do plan multiple sites throughout our area where we will be conducting Tashlich outdoors as well as shofar blowing,” Dorsch said.
When asked what will be lost because of the changes necessary in this year’s worship at the Conservative congregation, Dorsch answered, “I’d like to reframe your question about loss and talk what we will have gained as a community. It’s simply unthinkable to imagine our lot had this virus appeared 20 or even 30 years ago. Many of us would be completely and totally isolated from the outside world. Thank God, because of modern streaming technology, we have gained the ability to have a High Holy Day experience and to experience a sense of community.”
Similarly, Rabbi Ron Segal, the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, looked to reframe the question. “It seems the answers as to what will be lost are fairly self-evident: the palpable energy of a sanctuary and synagogue filled with a community joined in prayer, learning, and friendship,” said Segal, president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.
“What, if anything, could be gained?” Segal asked. “As our Rosh Hashanah Day, Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur Day services will be pre-recorded, we have an opportunity to approach the liturgy with a more expansive and creative lens. . . . Though we may be confined to our own homes for our Holy Day services this year, the words of Torah and tradition and prayer are not in our sanctuaries – they are in our mouths and hearts to live them.”
No matter the separation between clergy and congregants, the prayers remain central to the High Holy Days — and “in this difficult time, in this challenging year” — including the question Berg asked about the Unetanah Tokef: “Do I really believe that God will choose to spare me from, and others will die by fire, famine, or COVID-19?”
In his view, the Unetanah Tokef stresses individual responsibility. “The first half, when the books are open — chotem yad kol adam bo (the signature of every person is in it) — the entries are in our own hands. It is not until the second half that we read ‘who shall die by fire, who by water, who by plague.’ Some things next year will occur and will be a result of actions we take, and some things, how well we know, will be totally out of our control,” Berg said.
“Sometimes we ignore the first part of the prayer and latch on to the second. The message is that other people make decisions that affect our lives, and this leaves us powerless,” Berg said. “The only way for us to claim control in our lives is to admit that the record is in our own handwriting and that we are responsible for some of it. We are responsible for getting involved and engaging in life-enhancing work.”
- Unetanah Tokef
- rosh hashanah
- Yom Kippur
- High Holy Days
- Rabbi Peter Berg
- The Temple
- Cairo Genizah
- Congregation Bet Haverim
- Congregation Or Hadash
- Scott Allen
- Congregation Beth Jacob
- Congregation Beth Shalom
- Rabbi Mark Zimmerman
- Rabbi Binyomin Friedman
- Congregation Ariel
- Rabbi Yossi New
- Congregation Beth Tefillah
- Chabad of Georgia
- Congregation Ohr HaTorah
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Ahavath Achim Synagogue
- Rabbi Lauren Henderson
- Rabbi Alan Lew
- Rabbi Daniel Dorsch
- congregation etz chaim
- Rabbi Ron Segal
- Temple Sinai
- Central Conference of American Rabbis