B"H (May G-d be Blest) Likrat Yom Kippur TavShinAyinVav (In honor if Yom Kippur)
What is Yom Kippur?
And what do you do on that day?
After writing the article about Rosh Hashana, I decided to follow up with another, about one of the most important Jewish fast days, called Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.
"...In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work ... For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the L-RD." -Leviticus 16:29-30
Yom Kippur is probably the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast and/or attend synagogue services on this day. Yom Kippur occurs on the 10th day of Tishri. The holiday is instituted at Leviticus 23:26 et seq.
Preparations for Yom Kippur
The name "Yom Kippur" means "Day of Atonement," and that pretty much explains what the holiday is. It is a day set aside to atone for the sins of the past year and to pray for G-d's forgivness. Leading up to this day are ten days called the Days of Awe, where one tries to "fix up", as much as humanly possible, give excessive charity to the needy, and try to change one's very self and purify one's traits. On these ten days we all bless each other "Gmar Khatima Tova", instead of the customary "Shalom". Gmar Khatima Tova means, literally, "to a good end". Jews bless each other that they may be forgiven and attain the best, ultimate change in themselves that they can reach that year. This greeting is so widespread that during these Days of Awe one sees it flashed on regular Israeli buses.
On Yom Kippur, if we have really tried hard to help ourselves and others, emotionally and spiritually, we are forgiven. This day is, essentially, your chance to stand before the Creator, to crave forgiveness, to demonstrate your repentance and to make amends. It is the day when our Father reaches down towards us and gives us a beautiful chance to change and to do better.
Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and G-d, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible. That must all be done before Yom Kippur.
The Mitzvot (Requirements) of Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath; no work can be performed on that day. It is well-known that you are supposed to refrain from eating and drinking (even water) on Yom Kippur. It is a complete, 25-hour fast beginning before sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. The Mishnah (an ancient Jewish code of Oral Law) also specifies additional restrictions that are less well-known: washing and bathing, anointing one's body (with cosmetics, deodorants, etc.), wearing shoes and engaging in sexual relations—these are all prohibited on Yom Kippur.
As always, any of these restrictions can be lifted where a threat to life or extreme health hazards are involved. In fact, children under the age of nine and women in childbirth (from the time labor begins until three days after birth) are not permitted to fast, even if they want to. Older children and women from the third to the seventh day after childbirth are permitted to fast, but nonetheless are also permitted to break the fast if they feel the need to do so. People with other illnesses should consult a physician and a rabbi for advice. Besides that, every man and woman is required to fast. Boys, 13 and above, and girls ages 12 and above, are included in the requirements as well.
Most of the holiday is spent in the synagogue, in prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, services begin early in the morning (8 or 9 AM) and continue until about 3 PM. Then some people go home for an afternoon nap while others attend different Shi'urim, (lectures) to help prepare themselves emotionally for that special and "Nora" (literally means "terrible") day of Yom Kippur. All of them usually return around 5 or 6 PM for the afternoon and evening services, which continue until nightfall. The services end at nightfall, with the blowing of the teki'ah gedolah, a long blast on the shofar. (See Rosh Hashana for more about the shofar and its characteristic blasts.)
It is customary to wear white on the holiday, which symbolizes purity and calls to mind the promise that our sins shall be made as white as snow (Is. 1:18). Some people wear a kittel, a white robe in which the dead are buried, to remind themselves that they come from the earth and to the earth they shall return.
The Tefilla (Prayer) on Yom Kippur
The tefilla for Yom Kippur is much more extensive than for any other day of the year. Liturgical changes are so far-reaching that a separate, special prayer book was made for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana. This prayer book is called the machzor.
The evening service that begins Yom Kippur is commonly known as Kol Nidre, named for the prayer that begins the service. "Kol Nidre" means "all vows," and in this prayer, we ask G-d to annul all personal vows we may make in the next year. It refers only to vows between the person making them and G-d, such as "If I pass this test, I'll pray every day for the next 6 months!"
This prayer has often been held up by anti-Semites as proof that Jews are untrustworthy (we do not keep our vows). In fact, the reverse is true: we make this prayer because we take vows so seriously that we consider ourselves bound even if we make the vows under duress or in times of stress when we are not thinking straight.
There are many additions to the regular liturgy. Perhaps the most important addition is the confession of the sins of the community, which is inserted into the Shemonei Esreh (Amidah) prayer. Note that all sins are confessed in the plural (we have done this, we have done that), emphasizing communal responsibility for sins.
There are two basic parts of this confession: Ashamnu, a shorter, more general list (we have been treasonable, we have been aggressive, we have been slanderous...), and Al Cheit, a longer and more specific list (for the sin we sinned before you forcibly or willingly, and for the sin we sinned before you by acting callously...) Frequent petitions for forgiveness are interspersed in these prayers. There's also a catch-all confession: "Forgive us the breach of positive commands and negative commands, whether or not they involve an act, whether or not they are known to us."
It is interesting to note that these confessions do not specifically address the kinds of ritual sins that some people think are the "be-all-and-end-all" of Judaism. There is no "for the sin we have sinned before you by eating pork, and for the sin we have sinned against you by driving on Shabbat" (though obviously these are implicitly included in the catch-all). The vast majority of the sins enumerated involve mistreatment of other people, most of them by speech (offensive speech, scoffing, slander, tale-bearing, and swearing falsely, to name a few). These all come into the category of sin known as "lashon hara" (literally: the evil tongue), which is considered a very serious sin in Judaism.
The concluding service of Yom Kippur, known as Ne'ilah, is one unique to the day. The ark (a cabinet where the scrolls of the Torah are kept) is kept open throughout this service, thus you must stand throughout the service. There is a tone of desperation in the prayers of this service. The service is sometimes referred to as the Closing of the Gates; think of it as the "last chance" to get in a good word before the holiday ends. The service ends with a very long blast of the shofar.
After Yom Kippur, one begins preparing for the next holiday, Sukkot, which begins five days later.
Gmar Khatima Tova!
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