Now that Rosh Hashanah is over, what is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, which falls this year on the evening of Friday, September 13th and concludes on the evening of Saturday, September 14th.  It is a day of solemn contemplation and repentance – a day heightened by rules of physical abstinence, which require a full fast from all food and drink for twenty-five hours, a fast which begins the evening before. (All Jewish holidays traditionally being the evening before the holiday).

Yom Kippur begins with an evening service in which the hymn Kol Nidre is chanted by the cantor in a tune sanctified by centuries of tradition, and this begins the human dialogue with God on this most scared day of the year.

The Kol Nidre prayer is written in Aramaic and is a legal formula that asks God to consider null and void any vows and promises we may make and fail to fulfill in the coming year. We ask for forgiveness for anything that will make us unable to keep our commitments.

Yom Kippur is connected to the story in the Torah when the Jews came out of Egypt and committed a terrible sin by making and worshipping the Golden Calf.  Moses had to plead with God for 40 days and 40 nights until he could gain God’s forgiveness of the Jewish people. Moses started praying on the first day of Elul, the Jewish month before Rosh Hashanah, and 40 days later it was the tenth of Tishrei, when God proclaimed that He forgave the Jews for their terrible sin.  Thus the Day of Atonement falls on the tenth of Tishrei, the day that we hope God will continue to forgive us and show us His mercy.

Historically, Yom Kippur was the one day of the year on which the high priest could enter the inner sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem, “the Holy of Holies.”  This is when the high priest would pronounce the sacred name of the Lord and ask forgiveness for the people’s sins. After the ancient Israelites symbolically placed their sins upon a goat, the goat would be driven from the city bearing the sins of the Jewish community (thus the term “scapegoat”).

On Yom Kippur today, the Jewish community asks that their wrongdoings be forgiven and that God grant reconciliation. As Yom Kippur draws to a close, Jews read the biblical book of Jonah in their synagogues. At one point in the service, the rabbi or cantor prostrates himself before the ark, asking God to forgive his or her sins, and he or she is helped back up by two members of the congregation.

The clergy will wear a special garment on Yom Kippur called a kittel – a white robe that symbolizes the shroud that we are wrapped in when we pass away. On the Day of Atonement we must confront the fact that we spend our lives denying that we will die one day, and we must realize that we have to lead our lives more fully. Time is running out.

As night falls, the Yom Kippur services end with another blowing of the shofar (the ram’s horn), and congregants adjourn to their own homes or the home of friends to break the fast together with a festive meal.  As Yom Kippur ends, the Jewish community has a fresh chance to be forgiven, to be human, and to be good to one another and to God.

Thank you, Gail Katz, for answering our question again this week!