June 19, 2024
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Coming to Terms With the High Holy Days

For Yiddish speakers, there is a certain irony inherent in the High Holy Days, particularly Yom Kippur. For a great many, the message of repentance remains wedged between the pages of the machzor. For those versed in mameh loshen, Yom Kippur terms remain relevant each day of the year.

Below are five expressions with origins in Yom Kippur that feed into the daily vocabulary of Jews, with an affinity to Yiddish:

Kooken vee a honn in Bnai Odom (as a rooster would look at the Bnai Odom prayer): Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there is an age-old custom of “kappores” where we transfer our sins to a rooster (most use a chicken) while reciting a paragraph that begins with words, “Bnai odom yoshvei choshech,” (children who dwell in darkness). Clueless individuals with blank stares are described as “kooken vee a honn in Bnai Odom” or a fowl looking into the paragraph to be recited by those participating in kappores.

Erev Yom Kippur vehren alleh gahnovim froom (on the eve of Yom Kippur, all thieves become pious): Yom Kippur may very well be the only holiday on the Jewish calendar that is able to draw Jews who are otherwise non-observant into the synagogue. In line with it being the culmination, as well as the pinnacle of the Days of Awe, Yom Kippur inspires a sense of apprehension and awe in those who remain Jews—in name only—throughout the rest of the year. Even thieves who lack scruples in their daily lives, suddenly become God-fearing with the advent of Yom Kippur.

Shryen El chai vekayam (shout “living and enduring God): The prayer “U’Nesaneh Tokef” is regarded as the magnum opus offered up on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. After being reminded that we—humans—are nothing more than a “blowing wind, swirling dust and a fleeting dream,” the congregation raises its voice and proclaims, “Veatah hu Melech El chai vekayam—But You are the King, the living and enduring God.” “Shryen El chai vekayam” describes those who loudly protest in no uncertain terms.

Shloggen zich al cheit (beat oneself “for the sin”): Common to all five Yom Kippur prayer services is the long confessional “Al Cheit.” Of unknown authorship, the congregant stands with body slightly bowed and with clenched fist proceeds to strike the left side near the heart as a litany of transgressions are recited. When one’s poor judgment or lack of forethought leads to long lasting regret, Yiddish speakers have been known to remark, “Ehr shloggt zich al cheit ah gahntz yohr,” (He is striking “Al Cheit” for an entire year). For those who express profound remorse, beating one’s chest is replaced with “beating oneself up.”

Shoin noch Neilah (already past Neilah): Neilah is the fifth and final service of Yom Kippur. Although Hashem is receptive to prayer at any time, Yom Kippur is considered to be an especially propitious time. “Shoin noch Neilah,” is the Yiddish equivalent of “missing the boat.” On a personal note, the first time I heard Carole King’s hit song. “It’s Too Late,” back in the summer of 1971, I immediately thought of the Yiddish expression, “Shoin noch Neilah.”

As we approach the High Holy Days, as we prepare to welcome a new year, may it be a year where no one wistfully exclaims, “ess iz shoin noch Neilah.” Hopefully, no one will be mindlessly “shloggen zich al cheit.” With Israel having had more than its fair share of protests, let’s be able to look forward to a year where few, if any, find the need to “shryen El chai vekayam.”

May it not take a Yom Kippur for thieves—or anyone else for that matter—to suddenly become pious. Above all, let’s increase our commitment to learning and observance, so that there will be fewer and fewer who are left “kooken vee a honn in bnai odom.”


Rabbi Shawn Zell has recently returned to New Jersey, after serving at a pulpit in Dallas. He possesses certification in teaching Yiddish. Rabbi Zell is the author of three books.

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