Let My People Go! To High Holy Days Services. For Free.

The “Days of Awe” from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are a season of introspection, penitence, and reconciliation. Accordingly, I try to restrain an inveterate tendency toward criticism. After all, I remind myself: human folly and stupidity are universal and ubiquitous. I have the other 343-45 (or, 373-75) days of the year (for you: 325!) to excoriate them. My concerted attempt at better behavior starts in the month of Elul and lasts until maybe after Sukkot, when my noble intentions and willpower begin to fade, and I relapse into my wicked ways. And so the cycle starts again.

Ironically, I’ve found that religious matters are what irritate me most at this season. It’s usually just an incoherent sermon or inconsiderate congregant (never at my current place of worship, of course). In my defense I would say: these things spoil the atmosphere of the festival, distract me from its purpose. But then, I remind myself, so does my frustration. So I take a deep breath and let go.

However, there is one irritant that I find hard to get over: the sale of High Holy Days tickets, so prevalent in American communities. My gripe is not unique. As I was writing this just before Yom Kippur, another publication calling itself the Times saw fit to address the topic.

The practice is part of a long history of—to our modern sensibilities—peculiar customs in which a material element seems to intrude uncomfortably into the spiritual realm. The origins are harmless enough: the admirable traditional principle that a meritorious act is enhanced when it entails an effort or a sacrifice.

From the Middle Ages onward, the most “honored” seats in the synagogue were thus purchased and even inherited. Above all, “honors” such as aliyot—the right to recite blessings over or read from the Torah—were sold or auctioned off. These sales represented both a worthy deed and a status symbol for the purchaser, and a crucial means of income for a community without support from the state or other external sources. The auctioning of these aliyot was not uncontroversial even in the nineteenth century but it continues today, sometimes for charitable purposes: The right to read the Book of Jonah this Yom Kippur commanded $ 660,000 in Moscow.

The sale of High Holy Days tickets is a modern outgrowth of this need for resources, and we all know the additional reasons: given the prevalence of “High Holy Days Jews” who are interested in attending services only twice a year, synagogues want to ensure seating for their dues-paying congregants, while making clear that non-membership, too, has its price. In principle, they want to encourage outsiders to pony up and join.

There are just two problems with this system: it looks terrible, and it doesn’t work.

There are just two problems with this system: it looks terrible, and it doesn’t work.

Over the years, I have been to a good number of churches at Christmas and Easter, and never, on these holiest days of the Christian calendar, have I seen anyone turned away for not being a member. It would be ironic given that our popular image of the Nativity is Luke’s account of birth in a manger “because there was no room for them in the inn.” Speaking of ironic:  can we think of any synagogue practice that better reinforces the antisemitic stereotype of a legalistic religion and the grasping, materialistic Jew than the charging of admission to the services at which, according to tradition, God determines “who shall live and who shall die,” who shall see his or her sins forgiven and be inscribed in the Book of Life?

In any case, it doesn’t work. If congregants are worried that the influx of guests will deprive them of a seat, they need but heed the advice of Eleazar of Mayence to his children in the fourteenth century: “Be one the first in the synagogue.” And, will shaming and punishing non-members make them more or less likely to join? (Have you ever trained a dog?)

How can we at Passover say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat”—and then, at the holiest season of the year, say: Let only those who can pay come and pray?

Think about it: in the olden days, attendance at synagogue was expected (sometimes enforced by penalties); nowadays, we keep people out. How can we at Passover say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat”—and then, at the holiest season of the year, say: Let only those who can pay come and pray?

When I was co-president of our local congregation some years ago, I had two goals: to get rid of High Holiday ticket sales, and to create a healthier climate for discussion of Israel. We succeeded in both. Since we shifted to a voluntary dues system and eliminated tickets, membership has rebounded. Naturally, there were multiple factors. But it’s hard to argue with common sense: if you want people to join, you first have to make them feel welcome. The High Holy Days are the best opportunity to do that.

“He received Maftir and didn’t pay!”

There are some classic jokes about selling aliyot:

Kohn won the auction for the right to read the Maftir, or final Torah portion, but hasn’t yet paid for this vow. (Because it is forbidden to carry money or conduct business on the Sabbath, these payments were made later in the week.) By chance, the synagogue sexton spots him a few days later at the train station, runs after him, and makes a scene.

The railroad official comes over to investigate.

The sexton, agitated: “He received Maftir and didn’t pay!”

The railroad official, sternly, to Kohn: “So, either you pay up now, or you give him back his Maftir!”

* * *

Baron Sparwitz, bored, is walking around a backwoods town in his East Prussian domain. Hearing voices coming from the synagogue (it happens to be an auction for Torah blessings and Torah readings), he steps inside.

At that moment, someone calls out: “Kohn—20 Marks!”

Whereupon, without pausing to think, the Baron shouts: “A hundred marks!”

One of the Jews, abashedly: “But Herr Baron has no idea what is involved here!”

“I have no need to know,” replies Sparwitz.

“I know one thing for sure: If Kohn bids 20, then it’s worth 100.”

I was about to say there is nothing funny about synagogue tickets, but then I remembered that there is at least one good joke:

The High Holy Day service has already begun when a Jew comes running up to the synagogue door. The sexton stops him: “Hold on! Where’s your ticket?”

The Jew: “Let me go! I have no intention of going to the service. I just have to see my brother-in-law, to give him an urgent message about his business.”

The sexton, giving him a knowing wink: “You ganef, you want to daven!”

Variant: “Well, so long as it’s only about business. But you’d better not let me catch you praying!”

This classic Jewish humor makes its point about the inanity of the custom with a light touch. As the saying goes: “Der remez shlogt shtarker vi der emess”—A hint hits harder than the truth.

We need synagogue tickets ahf kapores. Speaking of which: If the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi (as well as others 1, 2) can question the humanity or even logic of adherence to the kapparot ritual, and if the Ultra-Orthodox can talk about substituting synthetic for natural fur in their shtreimls, why can’t the rest of us consider a more natural and humane approach to attendance at High Holy Days services?

My wish for the New Year is that we relegate the stupid and obnoxious custom of ticket sales—like that of swinging a chicken over our heads—to the quaint world of the ghetto and shtetl, where it belongs. Maybe then we will be able to look back on it and really have a good laugh.


About the Author
Jim Wald is a professor at Hampshire College, where he teaches modern European cultural history, including the history of antisemitism and fascism, and the history of the book.