Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, the day on which our fates for the coming year, which had been written in a book on Rosh Hashanah, are sealed. [Even medieval rabbis interpreted this metaphorically. And there’s a grace period through the 7th day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah.] Chabad has posted a summary of the holiday, Yom Kippur in a Minute, with links to more details for interested readers with more than a minute to spare.
Unlike Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur is actually described in some detail in the Torah, relating to the High Priest’s service, followed by these verses:
“And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.
“For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the LORD. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time.” (Lev. 16:29-31)
Note that “self-denial” is not defined in the Torah. Traditionally, Jews abstain from eating and drinking, wearing leather shoes, bathing or washing, applying lotions or creams (allowed if medically required), and sex. The most widely observed of these practices is fasting. This is a total fast for about 25 hours. [If there is a medical reason this would be dangerous, you are forbidden to fast.]
Nowadays, I usually don’t have much trouble fasting. It’s like there’s an automatic internal setting that it’s Yom Kippur, so eating and drinking are not appropriate. However, some fasts have been worse than others. There was my junior year in college, when I burned the side of a finger during glass blowing in physical chemistry lab, rushed home in tears, had my doctor father deal with my blistering finger, rushed dinner, and felt a particularly affinity for a hymn concerning “going through fire and water” and one comparing the Lord to a glassblower. Then there was my first year of grad school, which was the year of the Yom Kippur War. I think that was also the year I was almost hallucinating about which of the 31 flavors of ice cream I’d eat first at the nearby Baskin Robbins. And there were all those fasts marred by caffeine withdrawal before I knew about caffeine withdrawal. There are still occasional times I’ve taken medicine which was not kind to an empty stomach.
Yom Kippur requires stamina. While observing a total fast, we are expected to attend services in the evening and all the next day, until evening. At my synagogue, minus a mid-afternoon break, it comes to (very roughly) 12 hours, depending on how long the speeches are and how many medieval hymns (piyyutim) are cut.
During services, we pray for forgiveness in collective confessional, over and over, silently and aloud in unison. There are five services: Ma’ariv (evening), Shacharit (morning), Musaf (additional), Minchah (afternoon), and Ne’ilah (closing), which ends with a shofar blast. The Musaf service includes a section on the High Priest’s rites and a section about the martyrdom of 10 sages in Roman times; sometimes the latter is replaced by texts on more recent calamities.
Kol Nidre, a legal formula (not a prayer) is chanted three times right before the Ma’ariv service. Origins of the evocative melody are obscure. Kol Nidre is a communal nullification of vows between people and God (not between people). It first shows up in legal texts in in 8th c, Babylonia. Its history is not without controversy. It was used by non-Jews for centuries to show Jews’ words could not be trusted. My father was very aware of this and refused to go to services to hear it.
Here are the Torah and haftarah readings:
Morning: Leviticus 16:1-34, the Yom Kippur rites of the High Priest, which I cited above; and Numbers 29:7-11, the holiday sacrifices. The morning haftarah is Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14, which condemns mechanical ritual that does not lead to good deeds and ethical behavior.
Afternoon: Leviticus 18:1-30, about forbidden sexual relationships (mainly incest). This seems to be an odd choice. However, in ancient times, people rejoiced on Yom Kippur afternoon and looked for potential spouses (as on Tu B’Av, according to Mishnah Taanit 4:8), so it may be that this text 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. Jonah has its comical, even slapstick, aspects (see Humor in the Bible by Steven C. Walker), but it’s read on Yom Kippur afternoon because it is a parable on taking responsibility and the efficacy of atonement. It emphasizes the compassion and universality of the Lord. The whale story is just a hook to reel you in (Sorry…).
G’mar chatimah tovah* and an easy fast,
* Literally: A good final sealing (in the Book of Life).
Here are some tips to having an easier fast:
Here are mine: Gradually wean yourself off caffeine, starting at least a few days ahead, depending on how much you normally ingest and how sensitive you are to it. Drink lots of water before the fast. For the pre-fast meal, avoid foods that are difficult to digest, greasy, fried, or highly spiced. Go easy and don’t stuff yourself.
Here are examples of how Jews break the fast around the world (thanks for posting, Heleen): https://www.jta.org/2017/09/13/life-religion/how-jews-around-the-world-break-the-yom-kippur-fast
My advice: don’t pig out. My synagogue has a lovely break-the-fast that is tasty, enjoyable, and light.
Quotes about Fasting
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holy of holies of Jewish time. It is that rarest of phenomena, a Jewish festival without food. Instead it is a day of fasting and prayer, introspection and self-judgment when, collectively and repeatedly, we confess our sins and pray to be written into God’s Book of Life. Jonathan Sacks
We observe that in the scriptures, fasting almost always is linked with prayer. Without prayer, fasting is not complete fasting; it’s simply going hungry. Joseph B. Wirthlin
Instead of looking outside of ourselves and counting potential enemies, fasting summons us to turn our glance inward, and to take the measure of our greatest challenge: the self, the ego, in our own eyes and as others see us. Tariq Ramadan
He that lives upon hope will die fasting. Benjamin Franklin
A CHORISTER’S CONFESSION
Recently sent by the omniscient and most ingenious Maestro of my choral group to his loyal singing subjects:
ATTENTION!!! To all of my loyal singing subjects!
In lieu of the traditional “Chorister’s Prayer” we will now be using this brilliant and inspirational prayer, “A CHORISTER’S CONFESSION” just sent to me by one of our most accomplished, yet humble singers (no, not IGP). With this new prayer in our hearts, I believe it opens the potential for new levels of excellence and musical accomplish, thwarting the old naive notions of empowerment and esteem-building among our ranks. Please memorize the words carefully so we can all say them together in unison at the beginning of our next rehearsal! (I’m still waiting.)
From your omniscient and most ingenious Maestro!
A CHORISTER’S CONFESSION
Almighty and most merciful Conductor
We have erred and strayed from thy beat like lost sheep
We have followed too much the intonations and tempi of our own hearts
We have offended against thy dynamic markings
We have left unsung those notes that we ought to have sung
We have sung those notes which we ought not to have sung
and there is no support in us
But thou, O Conductor, have mercy upon us miserable singers
Succor the chorally challenged
Restore thou them that need extra note-bashing
Spare them that are without pencil
Pardon our mistakes and have faith that hereafter
we will follow thy direction and sing together in perfect harmony.
Posted on FB 2/24/14
Morris goes to the rabbi and says, “I committed a sin and I want to know what I can do to repent.”
“What was the sin?”
“It happened just once,” Morris assures him. “I didn’t wash my hands and recite the blessing before eating bread.”
“Nu, if it really only happened once,” the rabbi said, “that’s not so terrible. But tell me, why did you neglect to wash your hands and recite the blessing?”
“I felt awkward, Rabbi. You see, I was in a non-kosher restaurant.’
The rabbi’s eyebrows arch. “And why were you eating in a non-kosher restaurant?”
“I had no choice,” Morris said. “All the kosher restaurants were closed.”
“And why were all the kosher restaurants closed?” the rabbi asked.
“It was Yom Kippur.
Top Ten Unexpected Events in Synagogue on Yom Kippur
ADMIN — JULY 22, 2006
10. After a successful prayer rabbi announces he has good news for his congregation: “He just saved a lot of money by switching to Geiko”
9. Instead of Atonement, G-d offers consolation prize: free month Jdate membership
8. Cantor warns congregation of the possibility of him including some “Explicit Lyrics” in this year’s Kol Nidre
7. Birkat Kohanim (priestly blessing) replaced with Bikram Yoga
6. Pledge cards actually just old bangitout TuBav dating cards
5. Concluding powerful shofar sound played on 1985 Casio keyboard
4. Ladies auxiliary seen scalping half price tickets outside synagogue
3. Somber Yizkor (memorial) service concludes with a moment of silence for (gangsta rapper) Biggie Smalls
2. Rabbi’s speech actually different from last year’s
1. Your mother goes entire day without praying for you to get married already