Oz Torah: Wine, women & song – Yom Kippur features I


I sat there all day on Yom Kippur.

I knew that was what a Jew ought to be doing.

The day had its ups and downs. I looked around. Most of the congregation started off quite avidly.

They didn’t worry too much about the words and the ideas, but they were hooked on the tunes, more or less the same ones we were brought up on. We joined in with gusto.

Then we got irritable and wriggled. The things we could have been doing if it wasn’t Yom Kippur!

We didn’t even have the energy to chat too animatedly. The stale air and the lack of food and drink were getting to us. We started dozing and dreaming.

I guess the rabbi, the cantor, the choir were all trying their best. Surely they were as worn out as the rest of us.

Anyhow, there was a moment when my mind perked up and I began thinking – about God of all things.

Probably there was so much God-talk coming from pulpit and bimah that it affected my thinking. I’m not sure how long the daydream went on, but it was certainly about God.

Was it God the Prime Mover, or God the Eternal Thou? I’m not sure. It lasted a few minutes – how many I can’t be certain.

Suddenly it occurred to me – I had actually been thinking about God, about religion, about prayer… even about sin and forgiveness. I suddenly realised. I had found God!

Then what happened? I picked up the prayer book and tried to work out what page we were on. Since I had found God, I suppose any page would have been the right one.


It’s not just a question for Yom Kippur but for every day: What really matters in life.

That’s the question, there’s the rub, to borrow two phrases from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

What matters in life concerned the Greeks, because they were thinkers. It concerned the rabbis, because they were believers.

The Greeks had a range of ideas – wine, women and song; wealth, food and drink; honour, status and victory. They also valued music, literature, logic and drama.

The rabbis’ view was summed up in the Jerusalem Talmud (Makkot 31d) in the form of a question about sin.

They asked Wisdom and were told “evil” – i.e. suffering; they asked Prophecy, and they got the answer, “Death”; they asked Torah, and Torah said, “Bring a sacrifice”. Then they asked God, and God said, “Repent”.

The words placed in God’s mouth basically meant,

“What happens if you sin is up to you. You can overcome a sin so long as you choose to move on.”


On Yom Kippur most synagogues are chock full. Everyone is there.

When you look around, as more or less everyone does, you possibly ask the question,

“Who is really the most important person in the synagogue?”

You can argue in favour of the rabbi, the cantor, the shammas, the president, the secretary, the caterer, the cleaner… and so the list goes on.

Obviously there would be no synagogue without a congregation, so you could also argue that the most important person is any congregant you choose to nominate.

Naturally the whole purpose of the shule is to acclaim the Creator, so the most important person (or rather, Being) is God.

In my view, though, there is no such thing as the most important person. The whole shule population, not forgetting God Himself, is the entire team.

In the same way that the tabernacle in the wilderness needed everybody – the architects, the artisans, the community leaders and the population as a whole, with everyone having their own special function in the operation of the sanctuary – so the modern synagogue needs everybody.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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