Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur.  The climax of the 10 Days of Repentance.  The day on which our fates for the coming year, written in a book on Rosh Hashanah, are sealed.  OK, as I noted last week, even medieval commentators tended to interpret this metaphorically.  And it’s not really final on Yom Kippur, either.  There’s a grace period through Hoshana Rabbah (the 7th day of Sukkot), 11 days later.

This is an intense holiday of personal introspection and communal confession.  It is a day of fasting and afflicting our souls.  It is not a fast day of mourning, like Tisha B’Av, but one of spiritual cleansing and hope.  And many hours of synagogue services.

There are five services:  Ma’ariv (evening), Shacharit (morning), Musaf (additional), Minchah (afternoon), and Ne’ilah (closing).  Each service includes added prayers for forgiveness and communal confession of sins.  Traditionally, there are also a number of piyyutim, hymns, often written by medieval poets.  Some machzorim (holiday prayer books) contain few of these; they are replaced with readings of more recent composition.  There is also a section in the Musaf service about the martyrdom of 10 sages (such as Rabbi Akiba) in Roman times; sometimes this too is modernized by substituting a reading about more recent calamities.

The best known text, Kol Nidre, is chanted three times right before the Ma’ariv service.  It is not a prayer.  It is a legal formula in Aramaic and is a communal nullification of vows between people and God.   It has an obscure and tangled history.  First appearing in legal texts in 8th c, Babylonia, it was soon dismissed as a foolish custom and condemned by the Babylonian sages as improper.  It was also used by non-Jews throughout the centuries to denigrate Jews as untrustworthy and was removed from the service by early Reform Jews (it’s back now).  Since most congregants do not understand Aramaic legalisms and do not have the ancient concern over rash vows, it is unclear why this text has become the iconic symbol of Yom Kippur.  Maybe it’s the music.  The first reference to a special melody was in 12th century Jerusalem. Today, the best known is the traditional Ashkenazic one which found its way into Western classical music, such as the Bruch Cello Concerto.  Again, origins of that melody are obscure.

Yes, there are Torah and haftarah readings:

Morning:  Leviticus 16:1-34, the Yom Kippur rites of the High Priest; and Numbers 29:7-11, the holiday sacrifices.  The morning haftarah is Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14, which insists on ethical behavior in addition to ritual. 

Afternoon: Leviticus 18:1-30, about forbidden sexual relationships (mainly incest).  In ancient times, Yom Kippur afternoon was a time of celebration after successful atonement, so it may be that this section was meant to remind them of what they shouldn’t do.  The haftarah is the Book of Jonah plus Micah 7:18-20 about casting away sins.  If you read the whole Book of Jonah, not just the fish story, you will see why it is appropriate for Yom Kippur.  

G’mar chatimah tovah* and an easy fast,


*tph-gmar    Literally: A good final sealing.   Idiomatically: May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for Good.  More at http://www.learnhebrew.org.il/print/gmar.htm.


Some months ago, I learned of a smartphone app for atonement, “eScapegoat”. It’s “modeled after the Yom Kippur ritual described in Leviticus, in which the community’s sins were figuratively placed onto a goat that was then sent off into the desert.” (http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/184880/app-lets-you-atone-on-your-smartphone).  See also https://igplotzk.wordpress.com/2016/05/06/acharei-mot-lev-161-1830/

Now I found a Yom Kippur app based on the Book of Jonah:


Jew May Run, But You Can’t Hide (excerpts)

Jonah Run app entreats tweens to repent this Yom Kippur.

09/16/15  Rivka Hia, Editorial Intern


Jonah Run, a new app designed by G-dcast, a Jewish new media tech company.

Praying for salvation this Yom Kippur? There’s an app for that.

Jonah Run, a new app designed by G-dcast, a Jewish new media tech company, allows users to jump into the biblical book of Jonah in an unconventional way—by becoming the characters. From the belly of a whale and back, the biblical tale, read during Yom Kippur services, comes alive on screen as players score points by running back and forth as they flee the word of the Lord. The app is currently available for Android and iOS.

“Like any infinite runner, there’s no way to actually run away forever no matter how hard you try,” said developer Russel Neiss, who created the app to give synagogue-goers a new way to interact with the text. “We wanted to try and reinforce the idea of teshuvah (repentance) on Yom Kippur—it’s about being faced with the same situation that caused you to sin in the first place, but not giving in.”

Though running gains a user points, only through engaging in repentance can the user win the virtual game, Neiss explained.

Jonah Run’s target audience is middle-schoolers and teens, but adults have shown an explicit interest in the app, Neiss said.

“Jonah knows that he can’t actually successfully run away, much like most players of the game know they can’t actually ‘win’ an infinite runner,” he said. “And yet, we still play, again and again and again. Jonah ran away, survived a tempest, and 3 days in the belly of a fish before he decided to turn around and repent.

Though the worst thing that can happen to players is an increased number of ‘unsuccessful runs,’ often increasing to comical levels, Neiss hopes the underlying theme of Yom Kippur comes across: the ability to turn around. 

“In the game, and in life, you can always turn back and reconsider the approach you’ve previously taken,” he said. “That’s an important value, especially at this time of the Jewish year.”




This Yom Kippur, try confessing the good things you’ve done

By Andrew Silow-Carroll October 6, 2016, 11:58 am


Yom Kippur is a time for confession, as Jews flock to synagogues to recite their sins in a lengthy litany known as the “Viduy.” Striking their hearts, the congregation chants: “we have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, we have robbed, we have spoken slander….”

The goal of the ritual is to inspire the confessor to do better in the year to come. But what if the opposite is true? What if, as Rabbi Avi Weiss asks, all that confessing leads “to despair, to loss of confidence, even to loss of belief in one’s capacity to do good”?

Rabbi Weiss, the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in the Bronx, has proposed an “opposite recitation” of the confession, this one focusing on the good things the speaker has done. His inspiration is Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of what became Israel, who once wrote that just as there is a confession for the bad, there should be a confession for the good. Like the original, Rabbi Weiss’ new confession is an alphabetical acrostic.

“A person should also be joyous concerning the good he or she has done. It follows that just as there is a great benefit to self-improvement through confessing one’s sins, so is there great benefit to confessing one’s good deeds,” Rabbi Weiss writes.


 (From 2006)


Yom Kippur service

The phone rings at a leading firm of solicitors.

“Levy Minkoff and Rokenson,” says the receptionist, in a professional voice, “can I help you?”

“Yes,” says the caller, “can I speak to Mr Levy please?”

“Mr Levy is out of the office,” says the receptionist, “this is Yom Kippur.”

“OK, Ms Kippur, please could you tell him his car is fixed and he can now pick it up.”


(From 2011)


Food for the Fast [lightly edited]

Rabbi to congregant: “Yes I understand that McDonalds calls it “fast food”…but you STILL can’t eat it on Yom Kippur!” 


 (From 2010)


Top Ten Reasons why HIPSTERS Love Yom Kippur

10.Synagogue Outfit of choice: Sneakers (vans, converse, crocs) with a suit
9. Prayer book is filled with indie band name ideas: The Temple Service? Veedoy?
8. Jews uniting to boycott the exploitation of leather
7. Ability to stick it to the man and wear white after Labor Day
6. Get to dress in layers (Tallis, Kittel, Suit, Tzitzit)
5. No one is eating meat!
4. Bending for Alenu so many times makes for a great yoga class
3. Your hair looks best unwashed and lack of shower maximizes your cowlicks.
2. Most of davening is about self exploration and confession. Can you say emo?
1. Fasting helps you fit into your skinny jeans




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