Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement
Yom Kippur, also called Yom Ha-Kippurim, literally means "The Day of Atonement." (This year, Kol Nidre, the eve of Yom Kippur begins on Friday night). The holiday is observed on the tenth day of the month of Tishrei, as was established in the Book of Va-Yikra (Leviticus):
And this shall be an eternal law for you: In the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and do no work, neither the native or the proselyte who dwells among you. For this day will atone for you, to purify you from all your sins; before God you will be purified. It is a Sabbath of Sabbaths for you, and you shall afflict yourselves. This shall be an eternal decree. (Leviticus 16:29-31)
A few chapters later, Va-Yikra provides us with more information:
But on the tenth day of this month it is the Day of Atonement; there shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall afflict yourselves; you shall offer a fire-offering to God. You shall not do any work on this very day, for it is the Day of Atonement to provide you with atonement before God. For any soul who will not be afflicted on this very day will be cut off from its people. And any soul who will do any work on this very day, I will destroy that soul from among its people. You shall not do any work; it is an eternal decree throughout your generations in al your dwelling places. It is a day of complete rest for you and you shall afflict yourselves; on the ninth of the month in the evening - from evening to evening - shall you rest on your rest day. (Leviticus 23:27-32)
So, pretty well everything we need to know about Yom Kippur is presented to us in the Torah. It is a serious day, one that is observed like Shabbat, with prohibitions against doing labour. Yom Kippur is a day on which we seek atonement from God for our sins. This atonement is affected through worship and "afflicting the soul." In ancient times, Yom Kippur was a time when Jews congregated at the Temple and worshiped through a special series of sacrificial offerings.
Today, we worship in different ways then in Temple times, but our observance of Yom Kippur otherwise continues unchanged. Our worship now takes the form of prayer services, with the day of Yom Kippur being entirely devoted to prayer, with an extra service included which is unique to Yom Kippur.
Traditionally, Yom Kippur worship consists of the following prayer services: Kol Nidrei and Maariv (evening service), Shacharit (morning service), Musaf("additional" service), Mincha (afternoon service) and Neilah (concluding service).
Kol Nidrei("all vows") is a prayer that is recited in Aramaic. Somewhat controversial in our tradition, this prayer seeks to nullify all vows and promises we make to God during the coming year that we may not be able to keep. This prayer, repeated three times, emphasizes the importance of keeping vows, and refers only to vows between an individual and God. It does not release us from vows made to other people.
The Maariv (evening service) on Yom Kippur is similar to other evening services, However, the Vidui - confession - is included, along with a selection of Selichot - penitential prayers.
The Shacharit (morning service) is also not that different from other festival services. During the morning Torah service there are six Aliyot, one more than on other holidays and one less than Shabbat.
The Yizkor service is a special memorial service for those who have gone before us. Traditionally it is recited during the Shacharit service following the Torah reading, although many communities do it in the afternoon. In many communities, anyone who is not a mourner departs until after the service concludes.
While Musaf service is done every Shabbat in traditional communities, the Musaf of Yom Kippur is unique and fascinating. It is divided into two parts: the Avodah service, which recounts the service in the Temple in ancient times, and the Eleh Ezkerah, the martyrology, which describes the torture and murder of Talmudic Sages by the Romans during the Hadrianic period. In Reform congregations where Musaf is generally not done, these special remembrances are included in the Yom Kippur afternoon service.
The Mincha (afternoon service) on Yom Kippur is also not terribly different from other festivals. It is probably best known as the time when we read from the Book of Jonah.
Neilah (concluding service) is the final service of Yom Kippur and offers a last opportunity for repentance. This is the only time of the year when Neilah is done. The word Neilah means "locked," and is meant to symbolize the closing and sealing of the Book of Life at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. At the conclusion of this service, the shofar is blown again. Usually following Neilah communities gather together for a Break-the-Fast.
Afflicting the Soul
"Afflicting the Soul," or "fasting" as it is more commonly known, is not intended to punish ourselves for our sins. Rather, fasting is to help us transcend our physical nature. Without concern for our bodily needs, we can focus on the prayers. It is believed by some that to fast on Yom Kippur is to emulate the angels in heaven, who have no need to eat, drink, or wash.
There is more to "afflicting the soul" then just not eating. The fast of Yom Kippur is an arduous one, lasting fully from sunset to sunset, and including five different prohibitions. One is not supposed to:
* eat or drink;
* anoint with creams or oils;
* wear leather shoes;
* engage in sexual relations.
While Yom Kippur itself is devoted to fasting, the day before is devoted to eating. According to the Talmud (Tractate Yoma 81b), the person "who eats on the ninth of Tishrei, it is as if he had fasted both the ninth and tenth."
As always, fasting is prohibited if it will threaten one's health. Young children, the elderly and infirm, and pregnant women generally should not fast, even if they want to. If you have any concern about fasting, you should consult a physician or a rabbi for advice.
It is customary to wear white on Yom Kippur. White symbolizes purity and recalls the statement in Isaiah (1:18) that our sins shall be made, "as white as snow." Some people wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried. Tallitot (prayer shawls), which are usually only worn in the morning, are worn the entire day of Yom Kippur, including the evening before of Kol Nidre.
In memory of those who are deceased, special Yahrzeit candles are lit. These candles are designed to burn safely for an entire day, and should be left to burn throughout Yom Kippur. They are lit prior to the kindling of the Yom Kippur lights. These lights signal the beginning of Yom Kippur which means no eating or drinking from this point.