THE TEN DAYS OF AWE
From the book "Festivals of the Jewish Year" by Theodor H.
Gaster, written in 1952/53.
(Remember you are reading the theology and practice of Judaism,
some things correct and many things wrong and pure traditions,
from the blinded world - Keith Hunt).
DAYS OF PENITENCE
It is a common human instinct to want to begin the new year
with a clean start, and men have had the custom of devoting a few
preliminary days to a general purification and, more especially,
to the performance of rites designed to remove evil and blight.
Our own practice of "spring cleaning" is one survival of
this usage, for in ancient times the year began in spring.
(God begins His religious festival year in the spring with
Passover. The secular and agricultural year of the Lord did begin
in the fall with the fall Festivals - Keith Hunt)
Another is our word "February" for this derives from the
Latin "februatio," the technical name for the general scour-
uring and cleansing which took place for a full month before the
beginning of the Roman year.
In Morocco, the new year month of Muharram is still marked
by special restrictions; and the custom is also well attested
among primitive peoples. In Cambodia, for example, the first
seven days of the year are a period of solemn austerity, during
which no business may be transacted, and all litigation must be
suspended. Similarly, in the Malay Peninsula, special taboos are
imposed for three days before the reaping of the rice crop; while
the Natchez of Mississippi fast for three days, and the Mao of
Manipur observe a four-day "lent" before the harvest.
There is, moreover, another factor which contributes to the
idea that the days immediately preceding the new year are somehow
"abnormal," and that is that among peoples who reckon time by the
moon, eleven or twelve days are inserted between one formal year
and the next in order to harmonize the lunar and solar calendars.
These days are naturally regarded as being "outside time," and
are therefore marked by a suspension, or deliberate inversion, of
normal activities. A survival of them may be seen in the European
"Twelve Days" between the winter solstice (December 25) and the
Old New Year (January 6), a pagan institution which was later
Christianized with special reference to the alleged birthday of
Jesus on the one hand and to the Feast of Epiphany on the other.
The Jewish counterpart of this is the ten-day New Year and
ends on Yom Kippur. Judaism, however, has refined and
spiritualized the institution; for the ten days are dedicated not
to outer but to inner cleansing - i.e., to the regeneration of
the souls of men. They are regarded as a kind of annual
"retreat," and although they do not rank as formal holy days,
they are distinguished by an abstention from all pleasures and
amusements and by concentrated self-scrutiny and introspection.
In Jewish teaching, however, penitence is more than mere
negative regret; it is positive reform. The Hebrew word so
rendered means properly "return," and what is involved is an
active return of the aberrant human soul to th highway of the
Torah, the route mapped out by God.
Jewish tradition has its own fanciful way of expressing the
significance of the Ten Days of Penitence. On New Year, it is
said, God opens three books. The first contains the names of the
virtuous and pious, who are inscribed forthwith for life and
blessing during the ensuing twelve months. The second contains
the names of the irremediably wicked and impious; these are
inscribed forthwith for death and disaster. In the third,
however, are written the names of the "betwixt-and-betweens";
these are given a chance to determine their own fate, for the
record is not sealed until twilight on Yom Kippur.
***The Ten Days of Penitence are NOT formally prescribed in
the Bible, but the institution of Yom Kippur on the tenth of the
month, and the analogy of the primitive usages which we have
already cited, would suggest that the real agricultural new year,
at the Feast of Ingathering, was preceded, from very early times,
by such a period of austerity and purgation. Moreover, it is not
without significance that the corresponding New Year ceremonies
of the Babylonians in fact lasted for ten days, the "visiting
deities" leaving the city and returning to their native shrines
on the eleveth of the month.*** (my emphasis)
(OH, read that paragraph again ... slowly ... Did you get it? The
writer admits this 10 days of awe or "penitence" is NOT
prescribed in the Bible. The Lord NEVER ANYWHERE told Israel to
have 10 days of "penitence" between the feast of Trumpets and
the feast of Atonement. You can find NO SUCH practice or custom
in the Bible! Where did the Jews get it from? The writer tells
you ... from the practice of the Babylonians! Yes, during the 70
year captivity of Judah in Babylon, they picked up certain
customs from them, and added them to their religion, which in
time became "traditions" and Jesus did not mince words when it
came to Jewish traditions over the commandments of God (see Mark
7). The prescribed days of penitence from God are the "days of
unleavened bread" seven in total, in the spring time (see Exodus
12 and 13). The fall Festivals of the Lord are to be up-beat and
joyous, with the possible part down-beat for the feast of
Atonement. But even then the down beat has a joyous tone, for it
is the time pictured not only of individual at-one-ment with God,
but also the time of the at-one-ment of the world with God, when
the fall Festivals have their fruition in Christ, on His return
to earth to reign over all nations and bring all people to
worship the true God, in spirit and in truth.
The Jewish custom of "ten days of awe" are nowhere prescribed in
the Bible - Keith Hunt)
At the present day, the principal outward observance of the
period is the recital of special supplicatory psalms and prayers
every morning at dawn. These are known as Selihoth, "prayers for
forgiveness," or (less commonly) as Bakashoth, "petitions." 7
The form of these services is by no means uniform everywhere, for
in every country where Jews lived - perhaps even in every
community - the basic nucleus of quotations from Scripture was
tricked out by the poetic compositions of local virtuosi. Some of
these date back as far as the seventh century; others are much
later and allude, in their entreaties for divine pardon, to the
sufferings endured by the House
7 In the Sephardic, or Spanish and Portuguese tradition, Selihoth
are recited also throughout the preceding month (except on
sabbaths), and the ram's horn (shofar) is sounded daily.
Moreover, more pious Ashkenazim, or German-Polish Jews, commence
the recital four days before New Year, the reason being that they
observe a half-day fast throughout the penitential period and
wish to compensate for the fact that the law does not permit them
to fast on the two days of that festival, on the intervening
sabbath and on the day immediately preceding Yom Kippur.
of Israel at the time of the Crusades. Despite the variety of
form, however, certain motifs are constant. The grace of God is
always besouht by virtue of His express assurance to Moses that
He is a "Lord merciful and gracious . . . forgiving iniquit,
transgression and sin, and ready to acquit the guilty" (Exod.
34:5-7,9) 8 The repetition of these words, as a prelude to the
formal confession of sins, is, in fact, a statutory element of
the service in all of its many recensions. The words form the
climax to an ancient hymn in which God is portrayed as a
benevolent king ready at all times to overlook and
forgive the rebelliousness of his subjects: 9
O King, Whose throne is mercy,
And love is all His way,
Who overlooks His people's sins
And makes them pass away,
Who sheds His pardon freely
On them that err and stray;
Who on all flesh and spirit
His charity bestows,
And claims not from His subjects
The debt which each one owes;
Lord God, Thou didst reveal to us
Thy virtues three and ten
When that Thy servant told them o'er, 10
8 This, by an inspired exegetical twist, is how the ancient
Jewish sages interpreted the words usually rendered: ". . . and
He will not by any means acquit the guilty." (It is probably
correct, for the Hebrew word 'lo' rendered "not," may be regarded
in this verse as a later distortion of the archaic 'lu' meaning
9 El Melech yosheb. Pool, New Year, p.18.
10 The English Bible represents the "thirteen attributes" as
having been declared by God to Moses, when He passed before him.
The Hebrew text, however would permit the interpretation that it
was Moses who thus addressed the Pretence; and this view can
claim added support from the fact that such ecstatic
proclamations of the Divine qualities are, indeed, theearliest
form of semitic prayer, surviving in the familiar formula of
Islam: "God is great, God is merciful." etc.
The meekest of all men.
Remember then the solemn pledge
Which in that utterance lay;
Remember then Thy holy word
Upon this holy day
And the LORD came down in the cloud, and stood with him there,
and he called on the name of the LORD. And the LORD passed before
him, and he cried: The LORD, the LORD, merciful and gracious,
long-suffering and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, keeping
mercy unto them of the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity,
transgression and sin, and ready to acquit the guilty. [Exod.
An equally constant element is the listing of occasions
(drawn mainly from Scripture) in which God is said to have
answered the prayers of His servants in moments of seeming
desperation. This serves at once to remind God of the merit of
Israel's forebears, and Israel of the mercy of God. A versified
version of this litany, attributed to the illustrious Hai Gaon,
head of the academy of Pumbedita (939-1038 C.E.), is chanted by
Sephardic Jews at the beginning of the synagogal service on the
eve of Yom Kippur. Though scarcely distinguished by poetic
inspiration, it possesses especial interest as being, apparently,
the earliest example of rhyme in Hebrew literature: 11
O hear my voice, Who hearest prayer,
Who hearest voices everywhere,
Whose works are great, Whose deeds are rare,
Unsearchable, beyond compare;
Whose wisdom and eternity
And might surpass all things that be.
11 Shema' Koli. Pool, Day of Atonement, p.23.
A God of mercy, God of grace
Benign and good, He doth efface
Our every human faltering
As it were but a trivial thing;
By Whom all things were duly wrought
The which the patriarchs had sought;
Who Joseph from the pit set free,
From charnel house to high degree;
Who heard His people's anguished cry
And rescued them from slavery;
Who split the sea, His folk to save,
And drowned their foemen in the wave;
Who answered Moses' anguished plea
By showing glories yet to be; 12
Who, when Aaron waved incense,
Stayed the desert pestilence; 13
Who, when Phineas did slays 14
The guilty, did the plague allay;
Who Joshua and Eli heard,
And Hannah and her mumbled word; 15
Who Samuel to success did rear,
And saved the mother nigh to bear;
Saved Solomon from all alarms,
And David when he sang the psalms;
Who for Elijah sent the flame,
To put the priests of Baal to shame;
Who did not spurn Elisha's cry, 16
Nor Hezekiah, near to die; 17
Who answered Jonah in the main
And brought him forth to land again;
Who saved the three intrepid men, 18
And Daniel from the lions' den;
12 Exod. 33:12 ff.
13 Nun. 16:17 ff.
14 Num. 25:1-8; Ps. 106:30.
15 1 Sam. 1:9 ff.
16 II Kings 6:17 ff.
17 Isa. 38.
18 viz, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; Dan. 3:12-20
Who answered Esther, Mordecai,
And turned their grief to revelry; l9
Who answered Ezra, that great scribe,
And all the Maccabean tribe;
Who answered Honi with His grace
When he his magic ring did trace
And called upon His holy name,
Standing in that ring of flame; 20
Who answers every pious prayer,
Whereso, whenso men repair;
Who answers ships upon the main,
And them that toss on beds of pain,
And them that stray through desert ground,
And them whose hands and feet are bound;
Who answers all who call and cry
And come to seek His clemency.
The lowliest of the low, I pray,
Take my every sin away;
Give me length of days to see,
Thou Who hearest every plea,
Give me all my heart's desire;
Be my prayer as altar-fire;
Be my prayer before Thine eyes
As the ancient sacrifice.
Hear my voice, Who hearest prayer,
Who hearest voices everywhere!
At the same time, though the piety of his remote ancestors
provides the Jew with a special claim upon the consideration of
God, it does not necessarily counterbalance his own and his
contemporaries' obvious defec-
19 Esther 9:22.
20 Honi (Onias), known as the "circle-drawer," was a famous
teacher of the first century C.E. He was credited with having
once induced God to send rain in a time of drought, by drawing a
circle, standing in the center of it, and praying; Talmud,
tion from that high standard, and therefore does not eliminate
the need of penitence and regeneration. As one of the most famous
of the "supplications" expresses it: 21
All they that kept the faith are passed away,
By their own virtue girded for Life's fray;
Champions they were that stayed the crumbling wall,
Diverted doom when it was nigh to fall;
Encircling ramparts, when that trouble came,
Fortress and bastion; they allayed the flame
God's wrath had kindled; for their sake the Lord
Held back His anger. Though no single word
Issued from out their lips, in silence they
Knew in the language of the heart to pray.
Like as a father's heart, the heart of God
Moved for their sake, and He withheld the rod.
Now, for our sins, all these from us are ta'en;
Our sins have put them from us and our stain.
Passed to their rest are they, but we - but we
Remain to bear the grief and agony.
Stalwarts who healed the breach, repaired the wall,
They all are perished, faded are they all;
Vanished are they whose virtue moved His grace,
While we go wandering from place to place,
Yet find no healing, till, with weary feet,
Zealous at last His mercy to entreat,
We come unto the turning of the road,
And in His house lay down our heavy load.
Sometimes the poems play dexterously upon selected verses of
the psalms. Thus, in a tenth-century composition by Solomon ben
Judah ha-Babli, 22 the familiar words, "The voice of the Lord
cleaveth 23 flames of fire" (Ps. 29:7) are developed into the
21 Anshe emunah abadu. Pool, New Year, p.21.
22 Eyn mi yikra be-sedek.
23 Actually, we now know that the Hebrew word formerly rendered
"cleaveth" (or "heweth out") really means "flashes forth," as it
is indeed translated in the Revised Standard Version.
Thy voice, O Lord, doth cleave out tongues of flame
To purge our dross, remold our stubborn frame.
Similarly, the assurance that "With Thee is the fountain of
life; in Thy light do we see light" (Ps. 36:9) becomes the basis
of the entreaty:
Fountain of life, all life doth well from Thee;
Lighten our eyes; Lord, hearken to our plea!
Nowhere, however, has the spirit of the penitential days
found finer expression than in the verses of the celebrated
medieval poet, Moses ibn Ezra (ca. 1070-1138), where the soul is
portrayed as a weary, overburdened wanderer coming suddenly and
unexpectedly, at this season, within view of the hostelry of God:
Not in the casual caravanserai,
But where Thy doors stand open, thither, Lord,
I turn to seek my rest; when I draw nigh,
Do Thou give welcome with a kindly word.
Lo, I am bowed beneath the heavy load
Of stubbornness, and I am gone astray;
Perverseness is the guide upon the road,
And Sin it is that speeds me on my way.
A vagrant weary and forespent am I,
Whom Mischief beckons onward all the day
And drives, and lo, his promise is a lie,
For nightfall brings no rest, but new affray.
Lord, wake me from the dreams of this long night;
Wake Thou my tired spirit, and fulfill
The dream of Thy redemption. Let the light
Of morning shine from yonder clouded hill.
24 Mi-beth melent. Pool, New Year, pp.58 ff.
Pious Jews fast until noon during the Days of Penitence. An
exception is made, however, on the intervening sabbath and on the
day immediately preceding Yom Kippur.
The intervening sabbath is known as Sabbath "Shubah." Shubah
is a Hebrew word meaning "return," and the name is derived from
the opening of the Prophetic Lesson (Hos. 14:1-10) selected for
that occasion, viz.,
Return, O Israel, until the LORD thy God;
For thou hast stumbled in thine iniquity.
Take with you words,
And return unto the LORD;
Say unto Him: "Forgive all iniquity!"
At the end of this lesson it is customary also to repeat the
words of the prophet Micah (7:19-20), in which, as always in
Jewish teaching, the mercy of God is portrayed as a fulfillment
of His Covenantal obligations, more especially as a reward for
the piety and fidelity of the ancient patriarchs:
He will again have compassion upon us
Will tread our iniquities under foot;
Yea, Thou wilt cast all our 25 sins into the depths of the sea,
Keeping faith with Jacob,
Trust with Abraham,
As Thou didst pledge to our fathers
From days of old 26
25 The English Bible, following the traditional Hebrew text,
reads "their sins," but this is simply a scribal error, duly
corrected in all of the ancient versions.
26 In some congregations, Joel 2:15-17 is also read, viz.: "Blow
the ram's horn in Zion, proclaim a sacred fast," etc. This is
taken to refer to the impending Yom Kippur.
On the day immediately preceding Yom Kippur, the rigors of
the penitential period are somewhat relaxed, and the emphasis
shifts perceptibly from the inward process of shriving sin to
outward procedures for clearing offenses. On that day, it is a
common practice among "orthodox" Jews to present themselves,
after the morning service, before a duly ordained rabbi or before
an impromptu court of three laymen and to recite a solemn formula
abjuring all personal vows which have been made during the
preceding year and which they now regret. Such abjuration in no
way affects agreements contracted with another person, nor is it
intended to provide an escape from serious pledges made to God.
Renegation of the latter is a sin, and for the former the consent
of the second party is required. The ceremony is intended only to
enable the devout soul, at the end of its penitence, to present
itself before God on Yom Kippur without being burdened by
responsibility for non-fulfillment of such rash and intemperate
vows as a man may make to himself in moments of bravado or
despair. It is, in fact, part of the general process of beginning
the year with a clean slate.
Jewish popular custom knows also of two more primitive
methods of "clearing the slate" before Yom Kippur.
The first, which has long since been discarded in Western
countries, is a ceremony nown as Scourging. Ancient Jewish law
prescribed that certain offenses - especially those for which no
other penalty was laid down - were to be expiated by
flagellation. Accordingly, it used to be the practice among pious
Jews to repair to the synagogue on the day before Yom Kippur and
there submit themselves to a token form of this punishment at the
hands of a specially appointed official. However repugnant this
custom may seem to modern tastes, it should be borne in mind
that, in actual performance, it was not so much a crude punitive
act as a gesture of voluntary humiliation - an essential element
of penitence and atonement.
The other popular ceremony connected with the Penitential
Period was that of Kapparah, or Ransom. This was simply an
attenuated form of the scapegoat ritual prescribed in the Bible
(Lev. 16) as part of the service of Yom Kippur. Before sunrise,
on the preceding day, each family took a cock and a hen. After
reciting appropriate Biblical verses (Ps. 107:10,14, I7-21; Job
33:23-24), the master of the house twirled the cock three times
around his head, meanwhile exclaiming, "This is in exchange for
me; this is instead of me; this is as ransom for me." Each male
member of the family then repeated the gesture in turn, while the
women, led by the mistress of the house, did likewise with the
hen. The two birds were then slaughtered and given to the poor,
or sold on their behalf. The purpose of this rite was, of course,
to transfer all potential evil and blight from human to animal
victims. In general spirit, it may be compared with the procedure
described in the Book of Leviticus (14:1-7,53) for removing the
contagion of leprosy.
Throughout the ages, this custom has been condemned by
leading Jewish authorities as savoring of heathenish
superstition, and it is now virtually extinct in Western
The Judaism of the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles is found from
another section of the aforementioned book by Gaster, and under
this section on this Website.
There is merit in much of the above. Certainly the spirit of mind
in humility and acknowledging sin and always being in a repentant
attitude, is well brought out in the poetry given, as well as the
mercy and grace of God.
All this should be applied in specific feast time, to the Feast
of Unleavened Bread in the spring of the year of the Lord for
religious observance. As before mentioned the "ten days of awe"
as commonly termed today by the Jews, is NOT prescribed in the
Bible, but was taken from the custom of the Babylonians and
adopted and adapted into Jewish religion and hence traditions as
being handed down from generation to generation. The practice is
therefore in contradiction to God's instructions of Deuteronomy