...In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work ... For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the Lord.
Yom Kippur (“day of atonement”) is observed on the 10th day of Tishri. On this day we repent for our sins of the past year and this is the day that our fates are sealed for the year ahead.
We repent in shul for our sins against God but are meant to atone for sins against other people before the holiday, asking anyone we’ve sinned against three times for forgiveness. That person does not have to grant our request but we’re considered to have repented, so long as we’re sincere in the asking.
On Yom Kippur, virtually everything focused on the physical is restricted so long as health isn’t compromised: eating, drinking, washing, and bathing, wearing cosmetics or leather shoes. It is customary in some synagogues to wear white, symbolizing purity.
This holy day begins with the Kol Nidre (“all vows”) service in which we ask God to annul all vows we make during the coming year. According to the Torah, vows are to be taken with the utmost seriousness and failure to make good on them can incur divine punishment. The Kol Nidre prayer, which is written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, has a history of controversy. Some historians attribute it to Spanish Jews in the Seventh Century who were forced to convert to Christianity. Through this prayer they were able to take verbally the conversion vows to save their lives, but ask God’s forgiveness for the act. Other historians claim that while the Jews in Spain did recite the prayer, clear evidence exists that the prayer pre-dates that time by several centuries.
A meditation in Gates of Repentance explains “Kol Nidre is the prayer of people not free to make their own decisions, people forced to say what they do not mean. In repeating this prayer, we identify with the agony of our forebears who had to say ‘yes’ when they meant ‘no’:
Let all our vows and oaths, all the promises we make and the obligations we incur to You, O God, between this Yom Kippur and the next, be null and void should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fulfill them. Then may we be absolved of them. (Gates of Repentance, For Days of Awe 2001)
In the middle ages, however, anti-Semites used the Kol Nidre as a reason to question all vows taken by Jews in Christian courts on any topic. In fact, a special oath was developed to be administered only to Jewish witnesses. Despite the fact that Kol Nidre only addresses vows between an individual and God, the controversies led to the elimination of the prayer from the Reform Movement’s liturgy between the 19th century and 1945 when it was reinserted.
There is much speculation over the origins of the stirring melody of Kol Nidre, which became widely popular when composer Max Bruch adapted it in 1880 for a cello piece. The earliest surviving version of the melody can be found in the work of 18th Century Cantor Ahron Beer.
On Yom Kippur, most of the day is spent in services and the emphasis on home rituals is much less than with most other Jewish holidays. In the book Jewish Family & Life: Traditions, Holidays and Values for Today's Parents and Children (Golden Books), authors Yosef I. Abramowtiz and Rabbi Susan Silverman suggest the following ways to observe Yom Kippur. The suggestions were intended for families with children but certainly can be performed by adults as well.
- Write a letter to yourself. On the day before Yom Kippur, gather the family…and have them write a letter to themselves. Choose a topic that is appropriate for the holiday, such as "What I would like to do to be a better, more sensitive person in the coming year."
- Have each person write a letter, seal it in a self-addressed envelope, and put a stamp on it with a bit of extra postage (rates are likely to go up next year). Someone should mail the letters just prior to the next Yom Kippur. You and your family members will enjoy receiving these annual letters, which can be used as a measuring stick for the past year. Keep them in a scrapbook, which as your kids grow up, can become a precious record. And it will make a touching wedding gift for them years later.
- Break the fast. While there are few special foods for Yom Kippur, a meal is certainly a necessity at the beginning and end of the holiday. People often gather in the synagogue or at the home of friends for breaking the fast. Invite to your home a stranger from services, for it might be the only time they have walked into a synagogue. It is traditional to eat challah and cake--which are baked prior to the holiday – but you need not limit yourselves to these. Avoid meat dishes, since they are difficult to digest after fasting.
- Using Yizkor. Normally during this memorial service to parents who have passed away, the younger generation shuffles outside. If you are going to attend the Yizkor service, take some time prior to Yom Kippur to tell stories and show pictures of your folks to your children. This is a good time to think about what were some of the most important values they taught you that you would like to pass along to your children. Teach these lessons through your stories. Perhaps your children will opt to stand with you during Yizkor this year.