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What is Yom Kippur?

Simon Rocker explains the meaning and customs behind the holiest day in the Jewish calendar

    (stellalevi/iStock/Getty plus)

    The origins of Yom Kippur 

    Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, a “Sabbath of Sabbaths” according to the Bible. It marks the climax to the Ten Days of Repentance which begin with Rosh Hashanah

    The 24-hour fast responds to the biblical commandment to “afflict your souls”. In ancient days, the centrepiece was an elaborate Temple rite in which the High Priest sought atonement for the people of Israel; dressed in simple white and shedding the usual adornments of office, he entered the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple for the only time in the year and made his appeal, pronouncing the ineffable name of God. 

    Post-Temple, it has become a day of prayer, a spiritual vigil spent in the synagogue. According to the traditional liturgy, God judges the fate of every living creature on Rosh Hashanah but confirms the decision only on Yom Kippur when His decree may be mitigated by teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah – repentance, prayer, charity. 

    The keyword teshuvah, repentance, literally means “return” – to God, to one’s true self. It is a day of restoration. For those who struggle with the traditional symbolism, the day of introspection remains a compelling exercise, to rise above mundane preoccupations and reflect on what is truly valuable in life. 

    But the rabbis were clear. Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and God. If you have wronged or hurt someone, you must ask forgiveness directly from them. The prelude to Yom Kippur is a time to make amends and seek reconciliation. 

    Despite its solemn intensity, the Day of Atonement is still considered a festival, a Yom Tov. It is grounded in hope, expressing Judaism’s optimistic belief that no one has sunk so low that they cannot change for the better. 

    Fasting on Yom Kippur 

    One is obligated from the age of bar/batmitzvah to abstain from any food and drink from sundown to nightfall the next day. However, anyone advised by a doctor that to fast would endanger their health should listen to medical advice; if in doubt, consult a rabbi. The other Yom Kippur restrictions are not to wash or bathe, use lotions or ointments, wear leather shoes or have sexual relations. 

    The Eve of Yom Kippur 

    In observant circles, it is customary to immerse oneself in the mikveh in order to purify oneself before the onset of the fast. 

    More controversially, some of the devout still practise the ritual of kapparot in which a white rooster is gently waved around the head and the prayer recited that whereas the bird should go to its death, the person waving it should proceed to a good life: the chicken is slaughtered and donated as food for the poor. The practice is not supported in the Code of Jewish Law and some authoritative medieval rabbis firmly rejected it. But some substitute money instead of a live animal for the ceremony. 

    The meal before the fast is considered a festive meal and the challah bread eaten with honey as on Rosh Hashanah. But wine, which usually introduces a Shabbat or Yomtov meal, is not drunk on this occasion. 

    The night and day of Yom Kippur 

    The first service on the night of Yom Kippur is perhaps the best attended in the whole year, drawing many Jews who rarely set foot in synagogue but feel stirred to come on this occasion.  

    While the tallit is not normally donned for evening services, on this night it is. Orthodox men often wear a kittel, a simple robe of white linen which is a sign of humility (and also serves as a burial shroud). 

    The melody used by Ashkenazim for the opening prayer, Kol Nidre, is among the most haunting in the liturgy. It is so old that it is said to be “miSinai” – as if it were handed down from Mount Sinai. Strictly speaking, the text is not a prayer, but a declaration – to annul vows made during the year ahead. 

    The rabbis, who regarded one’s word as one’s bond, were wary of making religious commitments in the form of vows to God, particularly if they prove hard to keep. Perhaps the idea behind it is that while we should be affected by the mood of the day, we should not get so carried away as to make rash or excess promises of piety. 

    The prayers that take up the whole of the next day are interspersed with piyyutim, religious poems that highlight God’s mercy, and the ritual formulae of confession which are repeated several times during the day. While internally we may focus on our individual failings, the act of collective confession means that no one is publicly exposed as being more needy of repentance than any other. 

    The prophetic readings in the morning and afternoon are particularly powerful. What good are fasts, asks Isaiah, unless they are accompanied by ethical action – to free the oppressed, feed the hungry and clothe the naked. 

    The book of Jonah carries the message that God’s mercy extends to all. The prophet, who tries to evade his divine mission until his encounter with the whale, is sent to persuade the city of Nineveh to repent its evil ways. It is not simply that its Assyrian inhabitants are not Jewish, they were foes of ancient Israel. 

    Finally, after a long day of fasting and prayer comes the concluding service of Neilah, when the ark which houses the Torah scrolls remains open for the duration, symbolic of the open gates of heaven which are still receptive to prayer even at this late hour. The Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy, which God revealed to Moses after the sin of the Golden Calf, are sung repeatedly during this service. 

    The end of Yom Kippur is formally declared with a long blast of the shofar, sending home the worshippers, spiritually refreshed, to break their fast with family and friends. 

    As with other festivals, in theory there would be a case for diaspora Jews observing it for two days rather than one. But the rabbis knew a 48-hour fast would be over the top. 

     

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