What’s Archery Got to Do With the Jewish High Holy Days?

Did you know that the word for sin in Hebrew – chet – comes from the sport of archery? So does the word Torah, which refers to the Old Testament scrolls and the text they contain.

When on Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, Jews all over the world recite over and over again in the holiday liturgy the words “al chet,” which are usually translated as “the sin,” what they are really saying is “the missed mark.” Hebrew has no real word for sin. There are one or two other words that refer to what we think of as sin, but none that actually mean “sin” per se.

The word Torah means to take aim. Thus, the Torah teaches us to take aim. And sometimes we take aim and miss the mark.

Why do we Jews use archery terminology for such important words? After all, sins are not something to be taken lightly and the Torah is the sacred text of Judaism. Maybe the reason lies in the analogy that can be made between an archer and a person repenting for wrongs committed. Archery involves setting up targets in the middle of which are the bull’s eyes at which the archer aims his arrows. To hit the “mark,” an archer must practice her aim until she becomes good enough to hit not only the target but the bulls eye. On Yom Kippur, Jews look at the past 12 months of their lives to see what targets they set up for themselves, how they practiced hitting that target and if their aim was true. They look at the target to see if they managed to hit the bull’s eye. During this period of introspection they notice not only if they aimed their arrows and shot, but if they even got close to their mark. If not, the period between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur provides a time to set up new targets – or reexamine or study old targets and to commit to practicing their aim. It’s also a time to set the intention – kavanah (another word that, while not related to archer, also means “to aim”) — to try harder to shoot true – to hit the bulls eye this year.

What’s the bull’s eye? Judaism has 613 mitzvot (commandments), and while observant Jews try to hit them all, most Jews do not. All those mitzvot are meant to help us sharpen our aim. Torah teaches us how to aim in a righteous manner and in a spiritual manner. And each time we aim and shoot, each time we try to hit the target by performing a mitzvah (singular of mitzvot), we remember God. We aim towards God. If we hit the bull’s eye or even come close, we actually connect with God. That’s what Torah and mitzvot are all about.

No wonder at this time of year we talk in archery terms. Al chet…the marks I missed last year. Torah…the target towards which I want to aim this year.