Yom Kippur is known as the Day of Atonement, the day when sins are forgiven. This not as simple as some magical ritual that wipes the slate clean. Judaism acknowledges that God can only forgive for sins between “Man and God,” for sins that occur between “Man and Man,” between a person and his or her neighbour, the forgiveness must happen between them.
Herein you will find a partial guide to understanding Yom Kippur and the behaviour of the Jewish people in your life during their day of atonement.
Provenance and Meaning
The holiday’s name is straightforward: Yom Kippur means Day of Atonement. It is one of the few ahistorical Jewish holidays (nothing in particular happened on Yom Kippur). The holiday’s clear purpose is atonement, described in the Torah:
“And this shall be a law to you for all time: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall pain yourself and do no work at all… For on that day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all that you have done wrong – before God you will be clean.” (Leviticus 16:29-30)
Yom Kippur is the Jewish faith’s holiest day.
The Jewish day begins in the evening. This is not quite as crazy as it sounds – the Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar which means that day changes as the stars come out, rather than at midnight. Thus every Jewish holiday begins in the evening.
In Jewish metaphysical symbol for the day is the book (deeply important to Jews). There are two relevant books: the Book of Life, and, the Book of Not So Much. Mortality and the future are important themes of Yom Kippur, and the Jewish People pray that they are inscribed in the Book of Life. So to greet a Jewish counterpart on Yom Kippur you say, “G’mar chatimah tovah” – “May you end up with a good inscription.” If that’s too much of a mouthful, “G’mar tov,” – “Finish well,” works just fine.
The defining rituals of Yom Kippur are negative – things one does not do. On Yom Kippur Jewish law proscribes eating and drinking, showering and cosmetics, wearing leather shoes (they denote wealth and prosperity) and sexual contact. The intention is twofold, to clear out a space for contemplation and to imitate death and rebirth. Real reflection requires getting rid of clutter, so for a day we put aside normal human cares (food, sex, washing).
Additionally, the day itself is a memento mori, so these laws restrict fundamental life-sustaining actions. Jewish people approximate being near the end in order to gain encompassing perspective, and thereby change our ways for the better.
However, there is plenty to be done on Yom Kippur. Many Jewish people dress all in white – the colour of purity and mortality. The prayers are long – some do not even leave the synagogue for the duration of the holiday. The day is filled with confessions and apologies. In fact the weeks leading up to Yom Kippur are designated for this purpose and are the time that Jewish people actively approach those whom they wronged to set things right. Should a Jewish friend approach you to apologize, do not be surprised. Whether going to services or not, most Jewish people will gather in the evening after the holiday for a “break fast.” If you are with Jewish people of Eastern European descent and lox is not served at said break fast, please be aware that your break fast experience is dreadfully inauthentic.
Kol Nidre is the reason your co-worker books it out of the office on the afternoon before Yom Kippur. The ceremony, (lit. All Vows), annuls promises between human beings and God (however not between people). Kol Nidre is our way of living with the enormity of all that we should have done, but have not done. When created, it was deeply controversial; however, Kol Nidre speaks to feelings of regret deep within the soul and is our most emotional prayer service. By quirk, annulling vows is a legal procedure and Jewish people do not permit legal procedures on holidays. Kol Nidre takes place slightly before Yom Kippur begins.
Spiritual content, emotional resonance, philosophical force
Jewish Rabbis are taught, “There were no days as joyful for the Jews as Yom Kippur and Tu b’Av (a kind of Jewish romantic holiday).” (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8). Despite being a serious day, Yom Kippur is, well, happy. Rabbi Zvi Teitelbaum of Mesorah D.C. puts it well, “We call it the zissen ashamnu,” – the sweet confession. As any who have ever loved know, apology is not a tragedy. To ask for forgiveness is to birth renewal and to recover intimacy. Yom Kippur is the day where Jewish people reconnect with God and each other.
For related Articles by Danny Pio Murphy you can click the following link: Danny Pio Murphy Archive (Spirituality Ireland.org)