Yom Kippur morning. I’m nine years old, sitting in our sanctuary, surrounded by thousands of fashionably overdressed congregants. Conspicuous consumers were wearing fur coats in September, with God, in Playful Mode, delivering an Indian Summer heat wave.
The Yom Kippur requirement demands twenty-four hours of fasting. No eating. No drinking. Not just of alcohol, no drinking of any kind. On this most solemn of holy days, Jewish congregants’ minds are abuzz with two consuming questions: One, “Will our names be inscribed in the Book of Life?” And Two, “When do we eat?”
On the Yom Kippur morning in question, our rabbi…well, this was a man who did everything big. He had a big, powerful physique. A big, bellowing voice. And that morning, when he welcomed us to prayer, and outlined the day’s schedule, the rabbi ended his remarks with a big, jaw-dropping promise:
“Our services will conclude this evening at precisely seven-fifteen.”
In the history of High Holiday predictions, this announcement was totally unheard of. True, rabbis traditionally predict when Yom Kippur services will conclude, but they never say “precisely.” How can anyone know “precisely”? He must have meant “approximately” and it came out “precisely.” Because “precisely” couldn’t possibly be predicted.
“Let me repeat myself. Our services will conclude this evening at precisely seven-fifteen.”
He said it again! “Precisely.” This was unprecedented. As the immortal Babe Ruth had done – in a non-liturgical setting – the rabbi of our synagogue was “calling his shot.”
A rumble rolls through the sanctuary. “This is craziness!” cry synagogue elders. “The man is mishugah!” cluck the traditionalists, offended by such chutzpah (“mishugah” means crazy; “chutzpah” means brazenness). A lone gambler in the crowd, risking Divine disapproval, whispers, “Two to one, he pulls it off.”
Guaranteeing a service of almost twelve-hour’s duration would conclude at “precisely” the minute he predicted it would? Such assurances exceed human possibility. It appeared our rabbi was confusing himself with the Fellow he was working for.
Our “Day of Worship” felt like forever. We chanted, we sang, we got up, we sat down, the choir sang, we got up again, we sat down again, we went out, we came back in, they were still doing it…
The rabbi delivered a ninety-minute sermon, filled with words nobody understood. For many, it was inspiring. For others, it was a welcome opportunity to nap.
Were we on schedule? Our rabbi assured us that we were.
As time wore on, inexplicably – miraculously? – the ritual of prayer and deprivation gradually wore us down, liberating impulses of renewal and hope. Who knows, our minds began thinking, maybe we could change. We felt like we could. Maybe we could turn the page.
The sanctuary came alive with a collective excitement. From now on, we would all be better people.
Our Day of Atonement inched towards its conclusion. The congregants checked their watches, then looked at each other with amazement.
It was seven-fourteen.
Against all reason and expectation, the rabbi was making good on his prediction. One last order of business, and then we’d be done.
The rabbi strides to the microphone.
“Our services conclude this evening – at precisely seven-fifteen – with the blowing of the shofar.
That would be that. One long, concluding blast on the shofar, and then…food.
The congregation came to its feet. And on the rabbi’s sonorous command,
the Shofar Blower lifted his spiraling Ram’s Horn to his lips, inhaled deeply, and blew.
And nothing came out.
Not a note. Not a squeak. Just air passing through a tube.
Maintaining his composure, the rabbi repeats his command.
And nothing the third time. Nothing the fourth. And the numerous times after that. Just
Nowhere near enough to satisfy the requirements.
What was going on? Having had no liquid touch his lips for twenty-four hours, the Shofar Blower was simply too parched to blow. This debacle was far more than a personal embarrassment. If the Shofar Blower didn’t blow the shofar, Yom Kippur was officially over. And until it was over,
We couldn’t eat!
The mood in the sanctuary began to sour. By the tenth “Pffffffffff”, our congregation, so recently a bastion of uplift and redemption, deteriorated into a hostile, hungry mob.
“Blow, already!“ shouted one congregant, speaking for many. “We have dinner reservations!”
The urgency grew with every failed attempt. And not just from hunger. Sai Woo, the popular “post-fast” destination, was waiting.
The rabbi’s commands sounded angrier and angrier. His end-of-service prediction, so close to fruition, was slipping helplessly down the drain.
When the service finally ended – with a short, pathetic bleat – a Sai Woo “break fast” was no longer in the cards. Our names may have been inscribed in the Book of Life, but they’d been unceremoniously erased from the Book of Reservations.