For Jews, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which falls 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, is the culmination of the entire High Holy Day drama. This day marks our final opportunity of the year to repent of our sins. It is the holiest day of the Jewish year or, as the Bible describes it, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths”. The Bible states, “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or an alien living among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a sabbath of rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.” (Leviticus 16:29-32)
During the twenty-four hour period of Yom Kippur, Jews fulfill this biblical commandment to deny themselves by fasting from food and water, engaging in intense soul-searching, and praying for forgiveness. From the evening of the holiday until sundown the following day (except for the few hours when they go home to sleep), Jews are in the synagogue beseeching God for forgiveness and reflecting upon the course of their lives. An entirely different synagogue liturgy is used every year only on this day.
Yom Kippur is a day of inner purification and of reconciliation with God and our fellow human beings. Judaism insists, however, that repenting, fasting and praying atone only for those sins between man and God. Those sins committed against our fellow man require seeking forgiveness personally from those we have offended as well as from God.
Our fasting on Yom Kippur is a physical act meant to prod us on to spiritual matters. It is a reminder of the frailty of human existence and our duty to act charitably toward the less fortunate. The inspiring, yet sobering, words of Isaiah 58 are read publicly in the synagogue on Yom Kippur to reveal the true meaning of the Yom Kippur fast: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen,” says the prophet, “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
Yom Kippur observance
There are number of Jewish customs and traditions associated with the Holy Day of Yom Kippur. For example, we immerse ourselves in a mikvah, or ritual bath, beforehand in order to fulfill the biblical command, “You shall immerse yourselves in water and be purified.” This practice, from which Christian baptism originated, symbolizes purification and regeneration, as well as new birth through repentance. We greet each other on the holiday with the words “gemar chatimah tovah,” meaning, “May you be sealed for good in God’s Book of Life in the coming year.”
Parents customarily bless their children with the priestly benediction and often with an additional special blessing, as well. Here’s an example: “May it be the will of our Father in Heaven to put into your heart love and reverence for Him. May the reverence for God accompany you all the days of your life that you may not commit sin. May your longing be for the Bible and God’s commandments. May your eyes be directed straight, your mouth speak wisdom, your heart strive for holiness. May your hands be occupied with good deeds and your feet hasten to do the will of your Father in Heaven. May He give you pious sons and daughters who will occupy themselves with Torah and good deeds all the days of their lives; may your womb be blessed. May He grant you sustenance through legitimate means, without stress and with profit, out of His hand that is wide open and not through the handouts of other human beings. May this sustenance direct you toward the service of God. May you be inscribed and sealed unto a good, long life, you and all the righteous of Israel. Amen.”
It is also customary to give extra charity before the holiday and to light memorial candles in memory of departed family members. As with all Jewish festivals, the woman formally ushers in the holiday by lighting the candles at sundown. On Yom Kippur, Jews attend synagogue where the mood is one of solemnity and awe, but also of hope. A spirit of holiness pervades the congregation as all stand before God during this final twenty four hour period before the end of the year. All appeal to the eternal Judge for a merciful judgment.
Evening services commence with the recitation of the Kol Nidrei prayer, one of the most powerful and emotionally evocative in all of Jewish liturgy. The Kol Nidreiprayer is a plea for absolution from any and all unfulfilled vows a person may have made in the course of the year. At every opening Yom Kippur service, Jews feel an abundance of emotions as they listen to the sorrowful strains of the Kol Nidreimelody and recall their history of persecution and suffering. Both the words and the melody of the prayer end in a triumphant note of optimism, leading us from despair to hope. This prayer encapsulates the Jewish historical experience and vision for the future.
Other prayers used on Yom Kippur
The services on Yom Kippur morning and afternoon also contain a number of other unique features. We recite a series of confessionals for sins we may have committed during the course of the past year. These prayers recall how the high priest in ancient days entered the Holy of Holies as intercessor to pray for forgiveness for the House of Israel (see Leviticus 16). In another portion of the service, we remember our ancestors who suffered martyrdom rather than abandon their faith in God. We also recite prayers of Yizkor, or “remembrance,” for the souls of deceased members of our family. The Biblical passages read on this holy day include Isaiah 58, describing the true nature of a fast day, and the Book of Jonah, which reminds us that we can never flee from God or His judgment. The Book of Jonah also reaffirms for us on this special Day of Atonement that God is a loving, merciful, and forgiving Lord, Who cares for our welfare and seeks our repentance.
Finally, as nightfall approaches and Yom Kippur is about to come to an end, we pray the Neilah, or “closing service.” The liturgy of this service describes the heavenly gates as closing, leaving man, the petitioner, with a last opportunity to plead his case before final judgment. The prayer service reaches its climax as the congregation declares the central Jewish affirmation, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One. Blessed be His glorious kingdom for ever and ever,” and repeats seven times the phrase, “God is the Lord.” The service concludes with one blast of the shofar, or ram’s horn. The congregation, trusting in God and confident of His favorable judgment, proclaims, “Next year in Jerusalem!” The drama of the Day of Atonement has reached its finale. The High Holy Days have come to a close.