Monday, September 28, 2009

Yom Kippur: the Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur is undoubtedly 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 account of its institution is found in the Hebrew Scriptures in Leviticus 23:26ff.

Yom Kippur means Day of Atonement, a day set aside to “afflict the soul,” to atone for the sins of the past year. Jews believe that on Yom Kippur, the judgment entered in the books in which God inscribes all of the people’s names is sealed. This day is, essentially, one’s last appeal, a last chance to change the judgment, to demonstrate repentance and to make amends.
Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and God, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, one must first seek reconciliation before Yom Kippur with that person, righting the wrongs committed against them, if possible.

Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath; no work can be performed. It is well-known that one is expected to refrain from eating and drinking (even water) on Yom Kippur. In other words, it is a complete 25 hour fast, beginning before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur and ending at nightfall on Yom Kippur itself. Rabbi Irwin Kula , of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership explains the significance of the fast: “...What fasting does is it says I’m not going to concentrate on my physical body right now. I’m going to concentrate on a different kind of food. Rather than nutrients for my body, I’m going to concentrate on the nutrients for my spirit, and my heart, and my ethical way. So when you feel hungry at two o’clock in the afternoon, the feeling of hunger is not so that you’ll be in pain. The feeling of hunger is to stimulate two things: What am I really hungry for—because it’s more than just food. What am I really hungry for in my spiritual and ethical life? And who really is hungry that I need to feed? And if you take those two insights from the practice seriously, it’s working. That’s what atonement—that is what “at-one-ment” means...

The Talmud also specifies some less well-known additional restrictions: washing and bathing, anointing one's body with cosmetics, deodorants, etc., wearing leather shoes (Orthodox Jews routinely wear canvas sneakers under their dress clothes), and engaging in sexual relations. As always, any of these restrictions can be lifted if a threat to life or health is involved. Children under age nine and women in childbirth 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 are permitted to break the fast if they need to do so.

Most of Yom Kippur 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. People then usually go home for an afternoon nap and return around 5 or 6 PM for the afternoon and evening services, which continue until nightfall. The services end then, with the blowing of the tekiah gedolah, a long blast on the shofar.

The Yom Kippur observance includes a number of prayer services. Unlike a regular day, which has three prayer services, or a Shabbat or Yom Tov, which have four prayer services, Yom Kippur has five prayer services (Ma'ariv; Shacharit; Musaf; Mincha; and Ne'ilah, the closing prayer). Perhaps the most important addition to the regular liturgy is the confession of the sins of the community. All sins are confessed in the plural: “we have done this, we have done that”, emphasizing communal responsibility for sins.

The morning prayer service is preceded by litanies and petitions of forgiveness called selichot; on Yom Kippur, many selichot are woven into the liturgy of the mahzor (prayer book). The morning prayers are followed by an added prayer (Musaf) as on all other holidays. This is followed by Mincha (the afternoon prayer) which includes a reading of the entire Book of Jonah, which has as its theme the story of God's willingness to forgive those who repent. The service concludes with the Ne'ila ("closing") prayer, which begins shortly before sunset, when the "gates of prayer" will be closed. Yom Kippur comes to an end with a recitation of Shema Yisrael and the blowing of the shofar, which marks the conclusion of the fast.

There are two basic parts of this confession: a shorter, more general list: “we have been treasonable, we have been aggressive, we have been slanderous...”, and 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 (e.g., offensive speech, scoffing, slander, talebearing, and swearing falsely, etc.). These all come into the category of sin known as “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 stored, is kept open throughout this service, and the congregation remains standing. There is a tone of desperation in the prayers. The service is sometimes referred to as “the closing of the gates”, a sort of last chance to get in a good word before the holiday ends. At the end of the service there is a very long blast of the shofar.

It is customary to wear white on Yom Kippur, symbolizing purity and calling to mind the promise in Isaiah 1:18 that our sins will be made as white as snow. Some people wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried.

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