What is the geography of the High Holidays?

Every Jewish life-cycle ritual-birth, marriage, and death, Shabbat and the Jewish holidays-is organized to give expression to three aspects of Jewish experience: the Jew as individual, the Jew as member of a family, and the Jew as a member of the Jewish nation.  In our increasingly self-absorbed culture (Dare we forget that it was Steven Jobs who said that everything ought to begin with the first person pronoun 'i'?) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have become particularly attractive because the themes of the day lend themselves to self-scrutiny and self-improvement.  This is surely good.  However, this year calls for a little restoration of the balances between these three: the individual, the family, and the Jewish nation. 

What is the geography of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?  The geography of Passover is of course Egypt.  The geography of Shavuot is the wilderness of Mt. Sinai.  The geography of Sukkot are various deserts in the forty year trek to the Promised Land.  But where do Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur take place?  We don't often take note of that.

Each of the denominations has a special additional Musaf-service on Rosh Hashanah. It has three sections: Malkhuyot - Sovereignty, Zikhronot - Remembrances, Shofrot (plural form of shofar). Each of these three sections takes place on a mountain. The theme of Malkhuyot is God's sovereignty, which will be established for all in a familiar place. As the prophet Ovadiah says: "And the redeemed will ascend to Mount Zion to judge the Mountain of Esau; and sovereignty will be God's. 

This is the Mount Zion of the Messianic era, of redeemed history. That mountain in Jerusalem today that sits just outside the walls of the Old City and is called Mount Zion should not be confused with the real Mount Zion. Mount Zion is one of several names given to the Temple Mount. This notion of Mount Zion as a place to which all nations will come in the end of days is from Isaiah:

And it will be in the end of days … The mountain of God's house will stand established firm above all other mountains…many people shall come forth and say 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the House of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways…  For Torah shall come forth from Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem. Thus, he will judge among the nations and arbitrate amongst many peoples, and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, neither shall they learn
war anymore. 

The second section is Zikhronot, Remembrances. It culminates in a prayer asking God to remember us in favor and in goodness, and to remember us for compassion. We ask God to remember the oath that He swore to Abraham on another mountain, Moriah. Moriah is also Mount Zion, as it says:

"Then Solomon began to build the house of the lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah."   (II Chronicles 3:1)

On Mount Moriah, God made a promise to Abraham; that Abraham and Sarah would be the parents of a great nation that would be given the gift of the Land of Israel, and that this nation would be His people. God challenged Abraham to demonstrate ultimate commitment by offering Isaac to Him. Here in the second section of the Musaf service, we ask God to remember the oath that he swore to Abraham on Mount Moriah. Mount Zion is Mount Moriah. 

The third section of the Musaf service is Shofrot. It begins with a declaration:  

Oh God, You were revealed in your glory cloud to your sacred people…  From the Heavens above you made your voice heard… as you our King revealed yourself on Mount Sinai to the sound of the Shofar. 

Shofrot begins with that first case in the Torah in which the Shofar is sounded. Shofrot begins at the dawn of the history of the Jewish people; their first primary experience as a people takes place at Sinai. Shofrot ends in a prayer:

Oh God, and God of our ancestors, sound the great Shofar for our freedom, and raise the banner that will gather in our exiles. Gather in…our people that are scattered amongst the nations of the world…bring us to Zion, Your city, to Jerusalem, the place of Your sacred house. 

Shofrot celebrates this experience with a verse from Isaiah:  

And it will be on that day that a great Shofar will be sounded. Then will come those who are lost…will bow down to God on the holy mountain in Jerusalem. 

The geography of Rosh Hashanah is two mountains at different times in Jewish history: Mount Sinai and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. There are four events that take place on these two mountains. One mountain has three names: Mount Moriah, Mount Zion, and the Temple Mount. This is the one mountain on which, at the very dawn of our history, Abraham made ready to offer Isaac. It is Moriah. 

The second mountain is Mount Sinai, where Israel received the Torah. The four events on the two mountains can be outlined in sequence as they are found in the prayer as follows:

 Poupko Chart for holidays

When the Shofar is sounded at each of these three sections we are meant to see ourselves upon these two mountains from the beginning to the fulfillment of Jewish history. This is the season of mountain climbing. 

Yom Kippur has geography. Yom Kippur takes place on a mountain. The mountain is the same, Mount Moriah, Mount Zion. Unlike the geography of Rosh Hashanah, which is focused on mountain events that take place at the very beginning and end of Jewish history, the mountain of Yom Kippur takes place in Jewish history, in Jewish life. We live our lives on Yom Kippur's mountain. 

How did one go up to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, on all days and especially on Yom Kippur? In a straight line, so that one could stand in the Temple courtyard and hear the High Priest utter but one word, the Name of the One God, in whose image all humanity is created. 

It is this that Jerusalem bequeathed to the world. In unity with the One God, that people who come, year in and year out, soiled with their sins, are cleansed as they reunite with God, and begin normal daily life all over again right there on the mountain in the heart of Jerusalem, which is in the heart of Israel, to which all Jewish eyes and hearts are ever focused.   

Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is rabbinic scholar of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Connect with us

Sign up for our weekly newsletter featuring issues and events in the Jewish world.