Yom Kippur: A guide to understanding the Day of Atonement

September 25, 2012

Scott Perlo is a rabbi at Sixth & Historic Synagogue in D.C. and a contributor to the Washington Post’s local faith leader network.

The signs will be everywhere. You will see it in coworkers, colleagues and friends. Even some family members will be affected. Those you know as rational and sober will suddenly rush to be home by exactly 5:45 p.m. No compromise will be considered, yet no explanations proferred. The long-windedness of clergy members will be weighed; the vocal merits of others debated; a mantra – “when will services be over?” – will be repeated again and again.

Those without sartorial ability will groom. The fashion sensible will dress as if to do battle with Anna Wintour. After 27 hours without food or water, the desire for lox and bagels at 8 p.m. will grip sufferers.

Yom Kippur is upon us.

Herein you will find a partial guide to surviving this unusual time and to understanding the behavior of the Jews 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 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 our holiest day.

Timing

The Jewish day begins in the evening. This is not quite as crazy as it sounds – what we mean is that our calendar day changes as the stars come out, rather than at midnight. Thus every Jewish holiday begins in the evening.

Greetings

It’s a bit awkward to say, “Happy Day of Atonement.” It would be something like saying, “Happy Bar Exam.” One would receive odd looks.

Our metaphysical symbol for the day is the book (deeply important to Jews). There are two relevant books: the Book of Life, and, as one of our great teachers said, the Book of Not So Much. Mortality and the future are important themes of Yom Kippur, and we pray that we are inscribed in the Book of Life. So to greet a Jew on Yom Kippur 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.  

Rituals

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. Jews 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 Jews dress all in white – our color 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 we actively approach those we’ve wronged to set things right. Should a Jewish friend approach you to apologize, do not be surprised. Whether going to services or not, most Jews will gather in the evening after the holiday for a “break fast.” If you are with Jews 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

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 we do not permit legal procedures on holidays. Kol Nidre takes place slightly before Yom Kippur begins.

Spiritual content, emotional resonance, philosophical force

Our Rabbis 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 we reconnect with God and each other. Of all the year, it is the day I love most.

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