The Museum of

       Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays


Paint What You Remember
Shabbat and the Jewish Holidays in Opatów, Poland
as told by Mayer Kirshenblatt


 High Holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 


Synagogue exterior.

Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-2009)
Synagogue Exterior,
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 36 in.

The synagogue--it was called di hoykhe shil, the high synagogue--was never used during the week but only on Friday evenings, Saturdays, and holidays. It was huge and unheated. In the winter, it was bitterly cold inside, and there was barely enough people to make a minyan, a prayer quorum of then men. In better weather, there was a crowd at the synagogue, many more people than I show in my paintings.


Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-    )
Blowing the Shofar,
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 18 in.

On the Days of Awe, a pall of sadness would descend on the town. These were the most important days of the year. On these days God would give out His sentence for the coming year, and your fate would be sealed for the next twelve months. During the entire month before Yom Kippur, the men would go to say slikhes, penitential prayers, to ask for forgiveness.


Malkes: Flagellation.

Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-    )
Malkes: Flagellation,
August 1996
Acrylic on canvas
30 x 36 in.


It was customary among some pious Jews, a few hours before sundown, to subject themselves to flogging as a sign of contrition. This was called malkes.

The Christians were not the only ones to use flagellation. The Jews did, too, and some Orthodox Jews still do to this day.

It is written in the Talmud that, during the afternoon, a few hours before Yom Kippur eve, one should receive thirty-nine strokes, although six is an acceptable amount. If a man were ill, three strokes or none at all was all right.

The flogger, the shmayser, was paid a small amount by his victim. A counter was standing by to keep track of the strokes in case the flogger got too enthusiastic.



It was a custom to transfer your sins to a chicken on the day before Yom Kippur. This was called shlugn kapures. Each person would say a prayer while swinging a chicken over his or her head, a rooster for a male and a hen for a female.

At the end of the prayer, you would point to the bird and say three times, "You for death, me for life."

The chicken was our scapegoat. If you were rich, you would give the chicken to poor people. Otherwise, you would carry the bird to the shoykhet to be killed. You would cook it and eat it as part of the last meal before the Yom Kippur fast.

I would take the chicken Mother bought at the market under my arm to the shoykhet. The shoykhet killed fowl in his own establishment, not at the slaughterhouse.

Thursday and Friday were his busy days. A lot of people came to him to slaughter their fowl for their Sabbath meals. The place where he killed fowl was on the hill in back of New besmedresh, away from the center of town.


Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-    )
Shlugn Kapures: Yom Kippur Eve,
March 1993
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 30 in.

Yom Kippur Eve.

Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-    )
Yom Kippur Eve,
Acrylic on canvas
24 x 30 in.


On the fateful evening of Erev Yom Kippur, people would gather outside, on the street or in the courtyard, and shake hands. If you were angry with anyone, you made up. You wished each other health, prosperity, and long life. This was a time of forgiveness. Then everyone packed into the synagogue. The weather was usually mild because Yom Kippur falls in the early autumn.

Inside the synagogue, there was a heaviness in the air. The place was lit with tapers and lamps. Everybody was standing shoulder to shoulder. The smell of their freshly oiled boots mixed with the scent of burning candles. Everybody was bloated from gorging themselves on the last meal before the twenty-four hour fast.

It is on Erev Yom Kippur, just before reciting the awesome Kol Nidre, that the preferred seats and the honors, the aliyes, such as getting called up to the Torah and reciting the mafter, the Haftorah, are auctioned off. The first aliye goes to a Kohen, the second to a Levite, and then the third one is auctioned off.

The eve of Yom Kippur was also the only evening service when we wore prayer shawls. The rest of the year, whether daily, the Sabbath, or holidays, we wore prayer shawls only at morning services. At the point in the Erev Yom Kippur service when the Kohanim, the priests, were to bless the congregation, they paraded to the dais in front of the Holy Ark. We youngsters would wait with great anticipation for the coming event. Everybody had to cover their faces with their prayer shawls. They were not supposed to look at the raised hands of the priests while they performed the blessing ritual (dikhenen) because the glory of God (the shkhine) would rest on their outstretched hands, which they held in a special way, with a space between the third and fourth fingers and thumbs touching. We were warned that, if we looked, we would become blind. Of course, I looked. Notwithstanding the danger, as soon as the main priest cried "May hashem [the Lord] bless you and protect you," that was the signal for us to perform our ritual. We got busy tying the fringes of the prayer shawl together. When it was over and people went to sit down, pandemonium broke out because all the prayer shawls fell to the floor and everyone was scrambling to untangle his fringes from those of his neighbors.


Dikhenen: The Blessing.

Kirshenblatt, Mayer (1916-    )
Dikhenen: The Blessing,
circa 1996
Acrylic on canvas
30 x 36 in.

By that time we were gone. After the service was over, most people returned home. Some remained to pray all night.

It was said that, on Erev Yom Kippur, ghosts wandered around the empty places of prayer. The spirits never frequented places where there were people. However, that didn't faze my friend and cousin Uma. We snuck up to the women's section after the women had gone home and played a trick on them too. The upper part of the body is divine. The lower part of the body is profane. This is the reason that religious Jews, when they pray, wear a sash, or gartl, to separate the sacred from the profane. This is also the reason that the women kept bottles of water with them in the women's section, the vabershe shil. Should a woman break wind or touch some part of her anatomy below the waist, she would symbolically wash her hands by sprinkling a little bit of water over them. Each woman had a bottle of water for that purpose. the women sat on benches. When they went home, they would leave their little bottles of water near their seats. They expected to find them there when they returned the next day for services. We would go up there when they were gone and empty the bottles on the ground. Imagine, the next day, when the women returned to the synagogue. They were rushing down to the water barrel all day. Man! There were a lot of comings and goings and not much praying that day. We only did this on Yom Kippur, when there were lots of women at the synagogue and they stayed there all day.

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