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About Yom Kippur

And this shall be a statute for you forever: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls, and do no work, the native, or the stranger that sojourns among you. (Lev. 16:29)

Also, the tenth day of this seventh month shall be a yom hakippurim. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall humble your soul, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord; you shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a yom hakippurim, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God. (Lev. 23:27–28)

On the tenth day of the same seventh month you shall observe a sacred occasion when you shall humble your soul. You shall do no work. (Num. 29:7)

  • Ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the holiday of Yom Kippur occurs. Yom Kippur marks the end of a period of individual introspection, but the holiday itself is a day of communal rather than individual assessment. The holiday, now considered to be the ultimate holiday of the year, is only mentioned three times in the Torah. It’s not found elsewhere in the Tanakh. The Torah portion we read in the morning service doesn’t even have anything to do with Yom Kippur; this reading describes the dedication service of the Mishkan and was held on 1 Nisan, according to Rashi, based on comments in the Talmud; this was the date of the Mishkan’s erection and the completion of Aarons’ and his sons’ ordination.

    Yom Kippur, in addition to its spiritual importance, also has significant social and ethical components that complement its significance for the individual Jew. The social component reflects the Jewish religion’s orientation toward the community rather than the individual. This is illustrated in the Tanakh, which repeatedly stresses that rewards and punishments were served on the people by God based upon the community’s behavior as a whole. In modern times this idea is continued in the Jewish principles of tzedakah, charitable service, and tikkun olam, “repairing the world.” At Yom Kippur we recall that both the individual as well as the community are responsible for one another and both have an obligation to do as much as possible to improve our world.

    The ethical component of the holiday reminds us that we all are capable of changing our behavior to improve our lives and our relationships with others. On Yom Kippur, we atone for our sins as a community but also as individuals, resolving to refrain from repeating these acts in the future, and ask that others forgive us for any wrongs committed against them. The idea that one’s personal actions are inseparable from the fate of the world is embodied in this passage from the Talmud:

    Rabbi Elazar ben R. Shimon said: The world is judged by the majority [of its deeds], and an individual [also] is judged by the majority [of his deeds]. A man should therefore always regard himself and the world as half meritorious and half guilty. If he performs one good deed, happy is he, for he has tilted the scale both for himself and for the entire world, all of it, toward the side of merit; if he commits even one transgression, woe to him, for he has tilted the scale both for himself and for the entire world, all of it, toward the side of guilt. (b. Kiddushin 40b)

  • What's your name? Yom Kippur is called a variety of names in the Bible and in rabbinic writings. In Leviticus it's called both Shabbat Shabbaton, "Sabbath of Complete Rest" (16:31) and Yom haKippurim, "Day of Atonements" (23:27). For the rabbis of the Talmud, the day was known as Yoma, "the day," and this was the name given to the tractate that dealt with the holiday. In the Jerusalem Talmud, Yom Kippur is referred to as Tzoma Rabbah, "the great fast" (j. Peah 7:4), and in another place as simply Tzoma, "fast" (j. Bava Batra 9:7).

  • The mitzvah to fast on Yom Kippur is not actually mentioned in the Torah. In Leviticus 16:29, 23:27 (and Numbers 29:7), the word nafshoteichem is used, which refers to “humbling (or mortifying, afflicting) one’s soul.” This has been interpreted as including, in addition to fasting, refraining from bathing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and sexual relations (Yad, Shevitat Asor 1:5), but many say that these are forbidden only by rabbinic legislation (Tosafot, Yoma 7b).

    The instances of actual fasting that are mentioned in the Tanakh that can be identified as a pre-exilic practice seem to refer not to fasts associated with any ritual or cultic observance, but when an occasion warranted it. One notable example may be found in 2 Samuel 12:16–17, where David fasts to show remorse and to try to gain God’s pity.

    All adults and children past their b’nei mitzvah are expected to fast. The Rabbis, recognizing that it may not be wise for everyone to fast (piku’ach nefesh, regard for life), exempt the infirm, the elderly, and children, from fasting. However, if one can adequately fulfill the mitzvah to fast, one is expected to do so.

  • A twenty-five-hour fast? But the day is only 24 hours long. Why 25 hours? Since Jews are expected to fast from one-half hour before sundown until night falls the next day, the fast is actually longer than one full day; during the early fall this period is quite close to 25 hours.

  • According to the Talmud, not only is it a requirement to fast on the tenth of Tishrei, it is also a mitzvah to eat on the ninth: “One who eats and drinks on the ninth of Tishrei, the Torah considers it as if one fasted on the ninth and tenth of Tishrei” (b. Yoma 81b). This interpretation is based upon the statement in Leviticus 23:32, which refers to Yom Kippur as a shabbat shabbaton, a “sabbath of complete rest.” If Yom Kippur is to be a day of complete rest, the rabbis reasoned, then the day before should not be grim and forbidding. Thus, the s’lichot service on erev Yom Kippur is abbreviated and the Avinu Malkeinu prayer is not recited.

    The fast of Yom Kippur necessitates some changes in pre-holiday ritual: Since the lighting of holiday candles ushers in the holiday, the Yom Kippur candles are lit after the meal rather than before. Also, this is the only biblical holiday for which no kiddush is performed. The mincha (afternoon) service is said earlier in the afternoon than usual to accommodate the early pre-holiday meal, and the viddui (confessional) prayer, which is recited at every Yom Kippur service, is recited at this service as well. This custom was attributed to the superstitious belief that, should the person die before the holiday began, reciting it early still allowed the person to seek forgiveness, but its actual source is rooted in the second or third centuries CE, when the rabbis instituted it because of the fear that people would overindulge in food in preparation for the fast and neglect to participate in the evening prayer (b. Yoma 87b).

  • Which is the holier day—Yom Kippur or Shabbat? This is a question that has exercised commentators, theologians, and rabbis—not to mention innumerable laypersons—for many centuries. Consider: Shabbat is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah; it is the first mitzvah in the Bible, observed and sanctified by God (Gen. 2:3). It is the first holy day mentioned in the Torah. The fourth commandment tells us we must observe the Shabbat. On the other hand, Yom Kippur is only mentioned three times (being named only once), and is not mentioned at all in the Ten Commandments. It's true that it is called a shabbat shabbaton, a “sabbath of complete rest” (Lev. 16:31, 23:32); however, so is Shabbat itself (Ex. 31:15, Lev. 23:3), which is also called a shabbaton shabbat-kodesh, "a rest, a holy Shabbat" (Ex. 16:23), and even Rosh Hashanah, Shemini Atzeret, and Sukkot are each called a shabbaton (Lev. 23:23, 39), so this isn't any help either. What about the penalty for not observing the commandment to rest? In Numbers, we learn that the punishment for violating Shabbat is death by stoning (Num. 15:32–36), while violating Yom Kippur is to result in being “cut off from the people” or “destroyed from the midst of his people,” a punishment reserved for God alone. So on the basis of the Torah, God sanctified Shabbat, it’s mentioned lots of times, we’re told to “remember it” (in the Decalogue of Shemot) and “guard it” (in the Decalogue of D’varim), and violating it is a capital offense—but Yom Kippur is only commanded to be a "day of complete rest."

    What about in the liturgy? Do we find a clue there? Perhaps—when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, there is a tension between two prayers, Psalm 92 for Shabbat, mizmor shir le-yom ha-shabbat, and the shehechiyanu that celebrates Yom Kippur. Which should be recited first? No one knows for sure. If Yom Kippur is holier, then the shehechiyanu would be said first, and this is how Ashkenazim do it. But the Sephardim recite the psalm for Shabbat first. So this doesn’t answer the question either.

    Shabbat does add to the Yom Kippur celebration in at least one material way. On a weekday Yom Kippur havdalah, we use no besamin, spice, while for havdalah on a Shabbat Yom Kippur we do (Orach Chaim 624:3,4). So Shabbat adds something material to Yom Kippur, something Yom Kippur doesn’t have on its own.

    But of course there is more to Shabbat and Yom Kippur than material symbols; these two days provide a sacred time, a holy time that stands apart from the mundane world. The rabbis of the Mishnah, in specifying how the holidays, festivals, and Shabbat were to be observed after the Temple’s destruction, recognized that the idea of a sacred time could serve as a substitute for the Temple’s sacred space, and, just as the Temple had a hierarchy of spaces of increasing sanctity, a hierarchy of sanctity of time could be established. So the ordinary days, festivals, and Shabbat were each given a number of aliyot, Torah honors, that were designated for the Torah reading of that day. Thus, on the weekdays when the Torah is read, Mondays and Thursdays (and Shabbat mincha), there are three aliyot. In the Mishnah we are told that Rosh Chodesh and the intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot are allotted four aliyot, the festivals and Rosh Hashanah have five, and Shabbat has seven. Yom Kippur, however, has six aliyot: one greater than the festivals, but still fewer than Shabbat (j. Megillah 4:2). So in the Mishnah’s hierarchy of importance, Shabbat has precedence over Yom Kippur. The rabbis of the Mishnah didn’t learn this from the Torah, they set this precedence for a reason: they felt that Shabbat was the more sacred day. We see this sanctity exhibited in the changes that are made to holiday observance when a festival falls on Shabbat; for example, the shofar is not sounded on a Shabbat Rosh Hashanah, and the lulav and etrog are not used when Sukkot falls on Shabbat.

    But, on the other hand, Yom Kippur is unique in that it is one of only two days in the year where two haftarot are read: one in the morning service and one in the afternoon service. (The other day is Tisha b’Av.) Also, whenever a fast occurs on Shabbat—even Tisha b’Av—the fast is moved to another day, except for the fast day of Yom Kippur. But perhaps Shabbat really is the holier day. Observing Shabbat has been called the single practice of Judaism responsible for preserving our faith. As the saying goes, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Perhaps it’s because in observing Shabbat, we’re emulating God after the work of creation was completed. But perhaps another principle of Jewish ritual law is operating, the principle of frequency, which states, tadir v’lo tadir, tadir kodem, “that which is done more frequently takes precedence.” Obviously Shabbat occurs more frequently than Yom Kippur, so according to this principle when the two days are compared, it’s the more important holiday.

  • When Yom Kippur falls on a Shabbat, Jews still observe the fast, even though every other fast day is postponed to Sunday if it falls on Shabbat (except for Ta’anit Esther, which is moved to the preceding Thursday so that Purim may be observed on its proper day). Another Shabbat-related change for Yom Kippur occurs in the liturgy. The Avinu Malkeinu prayer, which is recited four times on weekday Yom Kippurs, is only recited once when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat—at the conclusion of the Ne’ilah (final) prayer. This is because the petitionary nature of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer makes it inappropriate for Shabbat, so it is said just as Shabbat is ending. Given the same reasoning, while the shofar is not sounded on Shabbat, it is still sounded at the end of the Ne’ilah service even when Yom Kippur is on Shabbat.

  • Services for Yom Kippur are the most complex of all the holidays. The erev Yom Kippur service (called the Kol Nidrei service after its beginning section) is actually two separate parts: the Kol Nidrei, which is actually recited before sundown and the onset of the holiday, is a prayer to be released from all unfulfilled vows made to God in the coming year. Since this is a petitionary prayer, it is improper to recite it during the holiday. This is why it is said immediately before its onset. Kol Nidrei is followed by ma’ariv, the evening service. Since the service has begun before nightfall, the tallit, which was donned for Kol Nidrei, continues to be worn. Since the mitzvah to wear tzitzit (on the tallit) requires one to be able to see the tzitzit, the Rabbis ordained that the tallit is not to be worn at prayer after sunset. This evening service is the exception; it is the only time that the tallit is worn for an evening service.

    There are three services for weekdays; these include the ma’ariv (evening), shacharit (morning), and mincha (afternoon) services; there are four services on Shabbat and festivals. This fourth service occurs immediately following the morning service and is called the musaf (additional) service, which commemorates the additional Shabbat and festival sacrifice in Temple times. Unique to Yom Kippur is a fifth service, Ne’ilah, the concluding service. This is the only holiday that has such a service. The length of the Yom Kippur service is not a modern result of accretion of prayers through the years; in the first century CE, the Jewish philosopher Philo remarked about the Jews of Egypt that they were busy praying on Yom Kippur "from morning to evening" (Treatise on the Festivals: the Ninth Festival).

  • Kol Nidrei is an interesting prayer since it is an Aramaic legal petition that asks for God's forgiveness for future acts of omission. It asks that God consider null and void all promises and vows that we may make to God and fail to fulfill in the coming year. This is the Ashkenazic version of the Kol Nidrei; the Sephardim use a slightly different version of the text which asks for forgiveness for failing to keep vows and promises for the prior year. Possibly the Sephardic version makes a little more sense. Note that there is no ritual formula or prayer that applies to promises and vows made to another person and not kept. Repentance for these promises can be made only after obtaining forgiveness from the offended person; if forgiveness is not offered after it is requested, one is obligated to try to seek it again, and even a third time, before ending further attempts (Orach Chaim 606:1). And if you are the slighted party, it's your obligation to offer forgiveness if the request is sincere.

  • What’s (or who’s) Azazel? During the Yom Kippur musaf service, many congregations read the Avodah, the Service of the Kohen Gadol, a recitation of the details of the Yom Kippur sacrificial service of the Temple. Most of the priests’ procedures described in this service are taken from the description in the Talmud tractate Yoma, but the Torah in Leviticus 16 recounts the sacrificial procedures for this holiday. One of these instructions includes directions for selecting a goat designated for “Azazel.” Biblical commentators, including Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides, have assumed that this ritual recalled a very ancient belief that demons resided in wilderness areas, and that the sending of a goat into the wilderness was to placate its demon. The text of the Torah seems to be very careful in specifying, however, that both goats used in this ritual are part of the offering to God, even though one of them is to be sent into the wilderness. Thus it appears that “Azazel” was likely a holdover from a more ancient belief that placating demons was an important thing to do; in later times the demonic imagery was replaced with a wilderness imagery, and sending the people’s sins into the wilderness was to remove their sins—a kind of sympathetic magic.

    The recalling of the “Azazel” figure is not the only mention of demons in the Bible. Sometimes foreign gods, called shedim, are referred to as “demons.” An example may be found in Psalm 106:37, “Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons.” In Deuteronomy 32:24, the word resheph, which translators render as “pestilence,” is used. (The word is also found in Habakkuk 3:5.) Interestingly, the Canaanites’ god of pestilence was named Resheph.

    Other words used in biblical writings recall the names of demons from other cultures. For example, Psalm 91:5–6 reads, “You need not fear the pachad, “terror,” of the night, the chetz, “arrow,” that flies by night, the dever, “pestilence,” that prowls in the dark, the ketev, “scourge,” that stalks at noon.” Cultural anthropologists have associated these Hebrew terms with the names of demons of neighboring societies.

    Finally, the Talmud has much material on demons. Pirke Avot tells us that demons were created at twilight just before the first Shabbat (5:6). And demons are mentioned in tractates Eruvin, Berachot, Chullin, Sandedrin, Pesachim, Gittin, among others, and in innumerable midrashim.

  • Most everyone is familiar with the term “scapegoat.” During Temple times, as described above, two goats were designated for sacrifice to God: one remained at the Temple for the full sacrifice ritual while the other was sent into the wilderness, carrying with it the sins of all the people. This goat came to be called the “scapegoat,” and it served to atone for the sins of the Jewish people until the ritual came to an end following the destruction of the Temple. After Temple days, the process of atonement came to be part of the synagogue observance of Yom Kippur. But what of the symbolism of the scapegoat? Actually, the custom seems to have survived and eventually reappeared during the eighth and ninth centuries CE, and instead of a goat, a fowl was involved, where the fowl took on a kind of scapegoat property. In fact, during the twelfth century one scholar theorized that this ritual involving the fowl grew out of the desire to conduct a re-enactment of the Azazel rite (Machzor Vitry 373).

    The custom is called kapparot, “atonements,” and while it was widespread in Ashkenazic communities of the last several centuries, it is only observed in a few modern communities. For kapparot, a family purchases a live fowl, waves it over the heads of family members, and then has the fowl slaughtered and given to the poor. Waving money in a scarf and donating the money has become the most popular modern substitute for the ritual.

    Some interesting customs have arisen concerning this ritual—for example, white roosters are considered particularly efficacious, and in some circles, a fowl is used by each member of the family. For the case of a pregnant woman, two chickens would be used—one for the mother and one for the baby. In some ultra-observant circles, the sex of the chicken is matched to the person, so we might see a woman waving three chickens over her head; a female for herself, and a male and female for the baby, if its sex is unknown. (Forget about what would be done in cases of expected multiple births!) Obviously, rabbis have been opposed to this ceremony because of its possible magical overtones, but its popularity has managed to keep it around for centuries.

  • Apparently Yom Kippur wasn’t always observed as a solemn day. We learn from the Mishnah that Tu b’Av (15 Av) was celebrated in a very joyful way—young women would dress in white garments and dance in the fields, singing: “Young man, raise your eyes and see what you are choosing; do not set your eyes on beauty, but set your eyes on family,” (Otsar HaTefilot, p. 1158) and young men would gather to watch and choose brides, a sort of Jewish Valentine’s Day. Tu b’Av is only one of the days the Mishnah speaks of where this tradition was observed. The other day is Yom Kippur! According to R. Samuel b. Gamliel, "There never were in Israel greater days of joy [yomim tovim] than the fifteenth of Av and Yom haKippurim" (b. Ta’anit 26b) This tradition is a clue to a possible origin of Yom Kippur, and indeed, to the three major fall holidays: They were rooted in agricultural customs and closely tied to the fall harvest season. Indeed, some commentators have speculated that the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot had a common origin and may have been at one time a single holiday period. This would appear to make sense, since Tu b’Av marks the beginning of the fall harvest and Yom Kippur falls during its end. Then the tithes from the harvest were brought to the Temple at Sukkot.

  • After Yom Kippur.

    Immediately after Yom Kippur ends, on the next day if possible, it’s a mitzvah to begin to build your sukkah (Rema, Orach Chaim 624:5).

  • Unusual food customs of Yom Kippur.

    Food customs.

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© 2014 S.R.

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