Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement”.
The annual Jewish observance of fasting, prayer, and repentance is known as Yom Kippur, which means “Day of Atonement”. Along with Rosh HaShannah, Yom Kipper is part of the High Holidays and is actually considered the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. In the Torah, three separate passages tell the Jewish people that “the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: You shall practice self-denial.” (Leviticus 23:27). This biblical commandment is seen as being fulfilled through the act of fasting. This fast for Yom Kippur helps us to use prayer, repentance, and self-improvement in order to enable us to put aside our physical desires.
This moment in Jewish time allows us to dedicate our bodies, mind, and soul to a reconciliation with God during Yom Kippur as well as other human beings, and most importantly, ourselves. Through his command, we acknowledge the pain and sins we may have caused by turning to those that we have harmed first while also being able to forgive others and learn to let go of certain offenses that may have caused us or provoked us to feel resentment. This journey puts us in the role of a seeker and as a giver of a pardon. Then, and only then can we ask for forgiveness from God: “And for all these, God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.”
History of Yom Kippur
Dating back to biblical times, Yom Kippur is referenced in the Torah in three separate passages. Yom Kippur is described in the Torag as Shabbat Shabbaton or “a Sabbath of complete rest,” which is also noted in the Talmud as Yoma, simply known as, “The Day.”
Portrayed primarily as a cultic festival in the Torah, Yom Kippur is primarily seen as a day centered around the Temple in Jerusalem. On this day, the kohen gadol, otherwise known as the high priest, would perform complicated rituals and sacrifices which would purify the Temple from any defilements that may attach to it from the result of the sins committed by the Israelite people. These defilements would cause God’s presence to leave them. The day would also have another aspect: atonement, people would be able to give themselves a spiritual cleaning. This allowed them to be an expectant and attentive audience waiting outside the Temple, hoping for the successful result from the high priest’s service. According to the Torah, abstaining from work and practicing “self-denial” was their purpose. Defined as inuyim (afflictions) in our traditions, the practice of fasting as well as refraining from other activities that can satisfy our needs physically help us during this time of “self-denial.”
When the Temple was destroyed, a focus on atonement, the second aspect Yom Kippur began to become a primary focus for the Jewish people. Turning inward, atonement is seen as an act of self-purification, taking the misdeeds that stain our lives and purge them from us. As we fast, we understand that this self-denial is a cleansing of our soul, as well as an act of self-discipline that provides us with a sign that we can rise above our most basic biological needs and focus on matters of the spirit, much like the Israelites during the Temple period.
Much like the service of the high priest, the prayers we speak traditionally last all day. The recitation of N’lah or closing at the conclusion of Yom Kippur looks back to the past when the act of closing the gates was part of the Temple’s everyday ritual and recall the service by the high priest in poetic form. The ancient sacrifice and the drama that comes with it, has become internal drama, allowing us to experience it through a grand spiritual and emotional sweep with the Kol Nidre’s haunting melody, with the recitation of prayers, through readings of poems that tell of supplication and forgiveness, also known as selichot and viduyim (confessions of sin). This guides us to the N’ilah, in which we stand one last time before God as the year’s holiest day comes to an end.
In 1973, a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria against Israel occurred on Yom Kippur and while the Israeli army was severely outnumbered by the troops of the combined forces, the Israeli troops were successful in defeating their attackers. At the United Nations Security Council two weeks after the attack, a was called for. In September 1978, a meeting was held at Camp David with Muhannad Anwar al-Sadat, president of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Menachem Begin, the prime minister or Israel, and then-president of the United States Jimmy Carter in attendance to create a policy to establish peace in the Middle East. Although Israel still pursues peace with its neighbors, the meeting that took place between three world leaders to help reconcile and move forward together is a shining example of the spirit of the High Holidays that we can all learn from.
Yom Kippur Customs and Rituals
We’re taught through family traditions that on Yom Kippur the decree that we make for the New Year is sealed and on Rash HaShannah, the Book of Life is written. By doing t’shuvah (repentance), t’filah (prayer), and tzedakah (charity), we are taught that we can have an effect on the decree’s severity. This results in much of the liturgy on Yom Kippur as well as the acts that have been recommended for the entirety of the Yamim Noraim being aimed at achieving this goal. Like Shabbat, Yom Kippur is a day when one will refrain from work. Described as a Shabbat Shabbaton, Leviticus 23:32 describes Yom Kippur as a sabbath of complete rest. A greeting used on this day is “G’mar chatimah tovah” which translates to “May you be sealed for a good year ahead.”
Originally seen as a fulfillment of “practicing self-denial” as found in the biblical commandment, fasting on Yom Kippur allows for at least one day a year, to focus on our spiritual and ignore our physical desires. During the day, concentrating on prayer, repentance, and self-improvement allows us to return to our usual routines once the holiday is over.
All males that are at least 13 years old and females that are at least 12 are required to fast, according to traditions. A traditional fast will last a full 24-hour period. It will commence once the Erev Yom Kippur meal has concluded and last until the following evening. No eating or drinking is permitted during this time.
The Jewish religion places great value on life and while the fast is of the utmost importance, it would never risk someone’s health as well. Anyone who may be too ill to fast is not allowed totake part in the fast. Anyone who needs to take medication may do so as well as any pregnant women or those who have recently given birth.
Anat Hoffman, the Director of the Israel Religious Action Center offers her own perspective on the Yom Kippur fast in this short essay
The most popular product in Jerusalem on the eve of Yom Kippur is a little bottle of a product named “Kal-Tzom” (Easy-Fast) that contains herbal essences. On the bottle, you’ll find a promise made by the manufacturer that this product helps relieve the difficulties of fasting and enables one to experience a convenient Yom Kippur fast.
Many Jerusalemites tend to bless each other on the eve of Yom Kippur by saying, “Have an easy fast” or “Let it (the fast) pass easily.” But before you go looking for this product on the Internet, ask yourself when the fast became the central component of the holy day, over the opportunity to pray and study together as a community.
In reflecting on my own fasts, I think that the most difficult trial on Yom Kippur falls on the parents who have to feed their young children while they fast themselves. It seems that the kids on that day in particular demand from their parent’s uniquely unnecessary services. I remember one Yom Kippur when my daughter asked me to take off the salt from a particularly beautiful cashew nut, to test some magnificent soup for her to make sure it wasn’t too hot, and to prepare the sweet dessert of honey spread on her slice of honey cake. I believe that the focus on the fast comes from the fact that fasting is physically difficult. When you count the hours, the fast lasts a very long time and is extremely challenging. But if the fast is the disciplined ritual that enables us to engage in a full day of prayer, studying, reflecting and concentrating on texts that bare much wisdom, then the fast becomes easier. This year, let us all have a meaningful fast.
“All vows”, otherwise known as Kol Nidre, is named for the special liturgical formulation that is chanted by the Jewish people only on Yom Kippur. Dating back many centuries, it is a legal formula for the annulment of vows. This practice of reciting the Kol Nidre was likely to begin around the 9th century C.E. and uses the vernacular language of the time when being recited, Hebrew and Aramaic. This recitement annuls and cancels any unintended vow that was made to God during the previous year.
While it may be recited only one time in some Reformed congregations, the Kol Nidre is traditionally chanted three times, which is likely to derive from the practice of reciting all official proclamations three times, as was the normal practice during the day. During the chanting, leaders of the community will hold scrolls of the Torah while the congregation will stan together in silence.
Many Jews will wear white on Yom Kippur as it is a symbol of purity and on this day we undertake a spiritual cleansing, white is considered an appropriate color to wear during the occasion. To some, wearing white symbolizes our mortality, as it is the color of the shroud in which Jews are buried, and reminds us to be both humble and repentant.
A single, long blast from the shofar signified the end of Yom Kippur. There are many different explanations for the stirring sound that the shofar makes at the end of the holiday. One signifies Israel’s triumph over the sins of its people for another year as well as heralding the possible arrival of the messianic age. Other feel that the playing of the shofar calls back to the giving of the Torah at Sinai where they shofar was also blown.
In the Congregation
At its heart, the experience of Yom Kippur is done through worship with the congregation. Attending all of the services on Yom Kippur is seen as a good deed or a mitzvah. These include Kol Nidre in the evening, services throughout the day, concluding with N’ilah as well as the sounding of the shofar. Included on Yom Kippur is a memorial service known as Yizkor and a service of separation, known as Havdalah. These are recited at the end of the day for the shofar’s sounding. Occurring either at the congregation or at home, at the conclusion of services, a joyous “break-the-fast” meal is served.
In addition to Erev Yom Kippur, traditionally the next day is spent in its entirety at a synagogue. Powerful readings from the Torah, the core of Jewish teachings and practices, is used as the liturgy on the day of Yom Kippur. Memorial services, also known as Yizkor, take place to remember loved ones who passed away as well as use our memories of them as inspiration to become the best that we can be.
Confessing our sins is only one part of the Days of Awe as they are an opportunity to picture our lives as well as our if we were to care a little bit more with each year that passes. The morning of Yom Kippur, the Nitzavim, a portion of the Torah is read, teaching us that a Jewish life that is meaningful is not too hard or too far away if we are willing to live our lives caring for one another. The Al Cheit, a prayer that recounts the sins that we have committed during the past year including gossip, arrogance, exploiting the weak, and any other missteps we’ve taken is recited.
While t’shuvah during the High Holidays is understood by many to mean repentance, it can be much more than just repentance. The literal meaning of t’shuvah is return and to many, t’shuvah is indeed a return forward to something inside us that is holy and has yet to arrive as well as a return to the caring and the goodness that could have been and still can be. The search to find
holiness and the potential for good that is within us all, but has somehow become hidden in our everyday lives and their daily challenges and stressors is the essence of t’shuvah.
At the sundown before Kol Nidre, rendering oneself less comfortable through a variety of ways, is customary. This can include fasting. Before the fast, a concluding family meal, known as a se’udah mafseket, is eaten before sundown with a candle lit at the end of the meal. This will mark the entrance into Yom Kippur in the home and the fast will begin with a blessing.
Acts of tzedakah are important to the observance of Yom Kippur according to tradition. Many synagogues will hold fundraising that will coincide with the High Holidays. For many Jews, a part of their Shabbat ritual includes tzedakah with the donation of money prior to the start of Shabbat into a tzedakah box. This ritual can also be a major component of the meal eaten before Kol Nidre. Days of Awe can be even more special as it can be a time to count the funds that may have been put aside each week for the previous year and decide where to donate the funds.
Through the recitement of prayers on Yom Kippur in a synagogue, we can atone for our sins against God. For those wrongs we commit against other people, seeking out our friends as relatives that we have wronged during the year and asking for their forgiveness prior to Yom Kippur has become a customary practice. Families should be at peace during holiday time, putting aside the hurts that have occurred during the past year and focus on creating a new beginning.
Perpetuating the memory of those we have lost is also customary on Yom Kippur. Many will light 24-hour yahrzeit candles or visit the cemetery the day before Yom Kippur to pay respects and remember loved ones who died. Lit prior to the lighting of the holiday candles, in the Middle Ages, Yahrzeit candles were seen as a way of atonement for the dead. In more modern times, they are seen as a beautiful expression of paying tribute and remembering someone close to us.