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The “DAYS of AWE” - YamThe days of Awe A4 downloadim Nora'im

The days following Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year) are called the Yamim Nora'im, Days of Awe. These ten days begin on the 1st of Tishri and end on the most “awesome” day of all, Yom Kippur, the 10th day of the month of Tishri.

The Days of Awe

During the Days of Awe God is envisioned as seated on the Throne of Judgment with the “Book of Life” in which is recorded the destiny of all. The Book of Psalms alludes to the Book of Life, “…let them have no share of your benevolence; may they be erased from the book of life, and not be inscribed with the righteous” (Ps. 60:28-29). The Mishnah advises “Know what is above thee—a seeing eye and a hearing ear and all thy deeds written in a book” (Avot 2:1).

The Book of Life is, of course, a figurative book but the notion that one’s actions in life affect one’s status in the presence of God still holds. The Jewish tradition recognizes that our behavior affects our relationship in two major spheres—in of our relationship with others, and in our relationship with God. The Season of Repentance is 40 days in all and extends from the 1st day of the month of Elul (30 days) till the 10th day of Tishri (Yom Kippur.) It is on the 1st of the Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah, that God is conceptualized as writing the Divine judgment in the Book of Life: Who shall live and who shall die, who will have a good life and who will suffer in the year to come.

Repentance, Prayer and Charity Annul the Severe Degree
U'teshuvah, u'tefillah u'tzedakah maavirin et roah hagezerah

Tradition holds that God’s judgment remains unsealed till Yom Kippur. The intervening days are ten days in which to repent and reverse the Divine judgment (Rosh Hashanah 16b). In the Aseret Y'mei Teshuvah (The Ten Days of Repentance) people can take action to change the outcome of the future. The Jewish prayer Unetaneh Tokef embodies a dictum that that explicates God’s compassion and mercy for those who repent.

Repentance, Prayer and Charity Annul the Severe Decree...
U’teshuvah, u’tefillah u’tzedakah maavirin et roah hagezerah

This dictum rests upon the changes which result through teshuvah. The severe “decree” might be ameliorated, it suggests, through sincere repentance, prayer and charity. This idea is deeply entrenched in Jewish penitential spirituality...

R. Judan said in R. Leazar's name: Three things nullify a decree, and these are they: Prayer and charity and repentance, and the three are enumerated in one verse:
If My people, upon whom My Name is called, shall humble themselves, and pray... (2 Chron. 7:14)—here you have prayer;
...And seek My face...—alludes to charity, as you read, 'I shall behold Thy face in righteousness' (Ps. 17:15),
...And turn from their evil ways... (2 Chron. 7:14)—denotes repentance;
after that, Then will I forgive their sin (2 Chron. 7:14)

(Genesis Rabbah 44:12).

The Days of Awe provide a window of time in which to repent sins and omissions and seek forgiveness from those who are sinned against. It is also a time to examine one’s conscience with regard to transgression against God, and to walk the paths of teshuvah/return to God.

The powerful teaching contained in the Days of Awe is that human beings have the power given by “free will” to embrace a righteous life. The rabbis of the Talmud (Berechot 33b) noted that “everything is in the hands of God, except the fear of God” Rabbi Hanina taught, “The fear of the LORD is his treasure” (Isa. 33:6). Fear of the LORD is the treasure which informs freedom of choice. Many orthodox prayer books have written the following words in smaller type above the words of the traditional dictum above. Sincere repentance requires fasting, crying out in a loud voice in prayer, and practical contributions to charity.

tzom (fast) kol (voice) mammon (money)
u’teshuvah u’tefillah u’tzedakah

While at the peshat [simple] level to do teshuvah is to repent and seek forgiveness, the Talmud lists teshuvah as one of the seven things that existed before God created the world, hinting at a much broader concept—repentance is timeless, indeed, a foundation of the world (Rav. Kook. Orat haTshuva). Midrash suggests that the first human being to do teshuvah was Adam. When Adam realized the magnitude of his sin he sort to be reconciled with God—to re-establish the intimacy and trust that his actions had fractured. Out of teshuvah comes, in this story, not a re-establishment of original innocence but a new relationship—one that emerges from the struggle with the inner self. While teshuvah is a life giving action and ensures that we are inscribed in the Book of Life, there is here the realization that we are redeemed by our sin.

The mystical tradition sees teshuvah as part of a cosmic process in which all creation reaches out to God. All creatures are derived from the divine womb and all that is within us reaches out to return to that source. Jewish tradition understands God as rachum (womb). For scripture says, “I am God, I am womb.” (cf. Ex. 34:6) …I am a mother’s womb. Of course in the English translation of the Hebrew we do not ‘hear’ the text in the same way. The Hebrew says “Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum”. The word rachum translated as compassion is the same word as is used for a mother’s womb.

The theme of the Days of Awe is God’s sovereignty.

The rabbis have asked the question: “How can God’s sovereignty be proclaimed when such evil exists in the world.” Deuteronomy 10:17 says,

"For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome..."

“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome…” ...Now the rabbis asked, “How can God be proclaimed All Powerful; All Mighty and the Awesome One when people who commit evil deeds live and succeed and enjoy life.”

Their answer was like this:

In the Book of Deuteronomy God is called the Great, the Mighty and the Awesome (in Hebrew, HaGadol, HaGibor, and HaNorah). These names, according to tradition, were revealed to Moses. Then Jeremiah came and he did not refer to God as the Awesome one (Jer. 32:18). The reason attributed to Jeremiah was the existence of evil: “Aliens are profaning the Temple with great acts of desecration. How then can God be called Awesome?” Hence Jeremiah courageously omitted the name of God, HaNorah, the Awesome One. Then Daniel came (Dan. 9:4) and he omitted God’s name, HaGibor, the Holy One for, according to tradition, he said, “Alien nations are enslaving our nation and carrying us off to captivity.” Where then are God’s mighty deeds? So for the sake of truth he omitted the name of God, HaGibor. [Yoma 69b]

But if God is not Awesome and God is not Mighty, how can God be said to be King, the ruler of the Universe?

Then the sages realized that those who removed God’s titles from respect for the truth were unaware of another truth—God’s great patience. So they restored God’s titles to their former glory. God is God, they said. There is none like God. God is HaGadol, HaGibor, HaNorah. God manifested divine Might in that God suppresses divine anger and extends long suffering to the wicked. God manifests divine Awesomeness, in that God allows the wicked to exist for a time. But the day will come when victory will be announced. On that day God will no longer restrain the divine self but “will cry out like a woman in labor” about to give birth to a new life. (Isa. 42:14)

On Yom Kippur one may approach God in teshuvah for all one’s sins seeking forgiveness for all those sins that are against God. The purpose of the many Days of Awe is that we use the time to reconcile and seek forgiveness from people we have wronged (as far as it is possible to do so). Only then can we come before God on Yom Kippur confessing and seeking forgiveness and, ultimately, atonement and catharsis.

Throughout the Days of Awe people examine their consciences with regard to their behavior. This activity is a prelude to the holiest day of the whole year, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the day in which the penitent stands before God to confess sins and seek forgiveness. On Yom Kippur the metaphorical “Book of Life” will be closed and sealed for another year.

On Rosh HaShanah it is written, “How many shall leave this world and how many shall be born into it, who shall live and who shall die, who shall live out the limit of his days and who shall not, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by beast, who by hunger and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning, who shall rest and who shall wander, who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented, who shall be poor and who shall be rich, who shall be humbled and who shall be exalted. But, repentance, prayer and charity cancel the stern decree.” ~from the solemn prayer service for Yom Kippur)

On Yom Kippur the Book of Life is Sealed. Between the Writing and the Sealing of the Book of Life we have the Opportunity to Change our Destiny

On Yom Kippur the Book of Life is sealed. Between the writing and the Sealing of the Book of Life we have the Opportunity to Change our Destiny.


Birnbaum, P., Encyclopedia of Jewish Concepts (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1998)
Eisenberg, R. L., JPS Guide: Jewish Traditions (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2008)


HaEl, haGadol, haGibor v'haNorah, El Elyon.

The 1st bracha (blessing) of the Shemone Esrei* praises God:
HaEl, haGadol, haGibor v'haNorah, El Elyon...

We praise you, Lord our God and God of our ancestors: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob; great, mighty, and awesome God, God Supreme. Master of all the living, Your ways are ways of love. You remember the faithfulness of our ancestors, and in love bring redemption to their children's children for the sake of Your name.

(Ha'avodah She'ba'lev, Congregation Har-El, Jerusdalem, 1992)

God is...
God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome... God Supreme

The first blessing of the Amidah, known as Magen Avraham (Shield of Abraham,) raises praises to God. R. Jonathan Eibeshutz (c. 1690–1764) taught that one should learn from the daily recitation of this blessing that one should recognise, like Abraham, that God is the one and only God, the Great, the Mighty and the Awesome. The Talmud, however, reminds us that we say the the phrase "HaEl, HaGadol, veHanorah" because it was established by Moses (Deut. 10:17) and the Men of the Great Assembly, but that such praises cannot ever be enough (Yoma 69b; Megillah 25a).


* the Shemone Esrei (which means "eighteen" [blessings]; also called the Amidah or “Standing Prayer”) is part of the daily prayer service and follows the recitation of the Shema.


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Editorial material prepared by Elizabeth Young 2009

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