The most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur takes place on the 10th of the Hebrew month Tishrei – 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. The serious Day of Atonement comes complete with a unique set of rigid rules and customs which are intended to highlight the day’s somberness and truest meanings.
The kotel is a popular destination for those seeking repentance.
Yom Kippur Commandments
Five different things are forbidden on Yom Kippur. They are:
- Eating and drinking
- Wearing leather shoes
- Sexual relations
- Washing or bathing
- “Anointing” oneself (using perfumes or lotions)
The point of these physical restrictions is to fulfill the Biblical command from Leviticus 16:29-30:
“…on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict your souls and do no work at all… for on that day God will forgive you and cleanse you so that you will be purified from all of your sins before God.”
It seems strange that we burden our souls by denying our bodies their needs and comforts. There are two reasons for this: once we’ve learned to ignore the initial hunger pangs, it’s easier to focus on your spiritual necessities instead. It’s also symbolic: we strive to imitate God’s blameless, pure angels, and they have no physical needs at all.
As with all commandments, common sense comes first. For example, a pregnant or nursing woman can eat as usual, as can anyone else with pressing medical requirements; and one should always wash their hands after going to the bathroom.
If fasting on Tishrei 10th is a mitzvah, so is eating on the ninth. Before the fast begins at sundown, we sit down to a large festive meal with our families. This is both physical preparation for the fast ahead and a beautiful way to usher in the festival together.
Yom Kippur Services
Excepting communities which take a short mid-afternoon break, almost all of Yom Kippur is spent in synagogue. Every other Jewish festival has four prayer services; Yom Kippur is unique in that it has five. They are:
Kol Nidrei is a special service which is completely unique to Yom Kippur. It relieves people of the obligation inferred by any vows taken in the previous year (this custom evolved in the middle ages, where Jews were often forced to convert on pain of death. Judaism takes verbal promises very seriously, so a special legal prayer was formulated to annul these vows before the holiday). Kol Nidrei is followed by Maariv, the evening prayer service, and is the only night-time service at which a tallit (prayer shawl) is worn.
Shacharit, the morning service, introduces the day’s themes: forgiveness, repentance and a full return to God’s pathway. It includes a Torah reading comprised of sections of both Leviticus and Numbers which detail Yom Kippur’s Biblical imperatives (such as the different sacrifices which were made).
The Musaf service continues the themes established during Shacharit and features two unusual additions which are unique to the Yom Kippur liturgy. The Avoda service combines the Torah’s literal instructions with Rabbinic and Mishnaic explanations to describe the rituals of ancient Yom Kippur in detail. The Martyrology – an ancient text also known as the 10 Martyrs – graphically details the horrific ways in which 10 Jewish scholars were murdered by Roman authorities.
The afternoon prayers include a second Torah reading ceremony. This time, Leviticus’s list of forbidden physical relationships is detailed. This may seem inappropriate – or even downright profane – for such a holy day, but the idea of divinity through physicality or even sexuality is common in Judaism, where we try to bring holiness into every aspect of our lives. It is followed by its special haftarah (reading from the book of Prophets) – the Book of Jonah.
Literally translated as “closing”, Neilah is the final service of Yom Kippur. The ark’s doors are left open throughout, signifying Heaven’s holy gates which remain open to receive our prayers. The service culminates with heartfelt cries acknowledging God as the source of all power and ends with a single, poignant shofar blast.
Yom Kippur Customs…
It’s customary not to wear gold jewelry on Yom Kippur: it may remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf and lead Him to pass an unfavorable judgment.
It’s customary to wear white for the day, as the clean color helps remove external distractions and reinforces the image of the pure angels we’re hoping to emulate.
The traditional Yom Kippur greeting is gmar chatima tova – literally “a good final sealing”, we wish our friends and family to be inscribed and sealed into the Book of Life and blessed with a good year ahead.
And finally, it’s customary to break the Yom Kippur fast on sweet honey cake, hoping that we’ve been signed into the Book of Life for the sweetest New Year.