Yom Kippur

In biblical Hebrew there are about 20 different words which denote “sin.”

That’s from an article in the Jewish Virtual Library, with lots of sources.  Yes, it’s almost Yom Kippur.  This is the culmination of the Ten Days of Penitence, at the end of which our fates are metaphorically sealed for the coming year (with a grace period until the 7th day of Sukkot).  Yom Kippur is clearly described in the Torah:

“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)

Since self-denial is not defined explicitly, practices have developed over the millennia, such as not wearing leather shoes, not bathing, and abstaining from sex.  The most widely observed self-denial practice is (no, not attending 10-12 hours of services) fasting.  This is a total fast, no food or water, traditionally for 25 hours.  Fasting is forbidden if you have a medical reason why it would be dangerous.

There are five services: Ma’ariv (evening), Shacharit (morning), Musaf (additional), Minchah (afternoon), and Ne’ilah (closing), which ends with a shofar blast.  Each contains usual prayers for that time of day (I get really tired of the Amidah by late afternoon) plus communal confession and prayers for forgiveness. The Musaf service includes a section on the High Priest’s rites (Avodah) and a section about the martyrdom of 10 sages in Roman times (Martyrology).  Some congregations include texts on more recent calamities in addition to or in place of the Martyrology.

The most well-known Yom Kippur text is Kol Nidre, which is not a prayer but a legal formula. It is chanted three times right before the Ma’ariv service.  Kol Nidre nullifies vows between people and God (not between people).  The origins of the text and the well-known traditional are uncertain; it first appears in a legal context 8th c, Babylonia. It has a checkered history and was used by non-Jews to “prove” that the vows of Jews were worthless. Yet somehow, people transformed “a dry legal formula, written in a confusion of tongues and tenses, and plagued by both legal and ethical problems, into the most prominent ritual of the High Holy Days” (Herman Kieval, “The Curious Case of Kol Nidre,” Commentary, October 1, 1968).

The communal confessional prayers (Vidui) repeated throughout the day are far more important.  There are two texts:  Ashamnu (“We have trespassed”) is an alphabetic acrostic of 24 misdeeds, often only one word apiece. Al Chet includes 44 specific misdeeds.

I cited above a reference claiming about 20 different words for “sin” in the Hebrew Bible.  The most common are chet (459 times), pesha (136), and avon (long “o”) (17).  Chet has the connotation of missing the mark (like an archer’s error) or a dereliction of duty. Pesha basically means a breach, an action “which dissolves the community or breaks the peaceful relation between two parties,” between people or between a person and God. “This is also the meaning of pshʿ when used to express the sinful behavior of man toward God.”  Avon basically expresses the idea of crookedness, and thus the verb form means “to wrong” (Lam. 3:9) or “to become bent.”

According to Rabbi Shraga Simmons in “Exploring the Al-Chet Prayer,” “these 44 statements are not a list of mistakes, but rather identify the roots of mistakes.”  They are written broadly enough to encompass many specific actions. For instance, “For the mistakes we committed before You through baseless hatred,” includes actions like being disrespectful toward fellow Jews who differ from you in religious practice or philosophy, disliking someone because we disagree on an issue, being eager to take revenge when you’re wronged, or bearing a grudge. When someone wronged me, did I bear a grudge?

Not surprisingly, many of the 44 involve speech, explicitly or implicitly.

Yes, there are Torah and haftarah readings. Here’s last year’s summary:

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 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,


tph g'mar   Literally: A good final sealing.   Idiomatically: May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for Good. 



Ten Inspiring Quotes for Ten Days of Repentance (selected)

Oct 4, 2016  |  by Sara Debbie Gutfreund

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are imbued with a special light that gives us the chance to make changes in our lives that seemed out of our reach during the rest of the year. Here are (four of) ten quotes to inspire us to begin the process of change.

“Open for me an opening the size of a needle and I will it expand it into a door through which wagons can go through” (Midrash on Song of Songs 5:2).

“I stopped looking for the light and decided to become it instead” (Anonymous).

“If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible” (Rabbi Nachman of Breslov).

“No matter how many mistakes you make or how slowly you progress, you are still way ahead of everyone who isn’t trying” (Unknown).



tph Jonah-And-The-Whale



Humor for Yom Kippur

with thanks to George Relles

In anticipation of Yom Kippur, first we have a few thoughts on sinning and atonement:

Sign on a synagogue just before Yom Kippur: “Your sins are not so many that you should stay out…Or so few that you shouldn’t come in.”

“Few sinners are saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon.”
– Mark Twain

Said one man to the other after the Rabbi’s Yom Kippur sermon on the congregation’s myriad of sins: “Well, at least I haven’t made any graven images.”



Repentance and the Joke

By Avi Lazerson

As the rabbi began his lecture on repentance, he asked the class, “What must we do before we can expect forgiveness from sin?”

After a long silence, one of the men in attendance raised his hand and said:




A Forgiving Wife

July 24, 2014

A married man, Jack wakes up with a huge hangover after a night out drinking with the boys. He didn’t even remember how he got home from the party. As bad as he was feeling, he wondered if he did something wrong. Jack had to force himself to open his eyes, and the first thing he sees is a couple of aspirins next to a glass of water on the side table. Jack sits up and sees his clothing in front of him, all clean and pressed. He takes the aspirins, cringes when he sees a huge black eye staring back at him in the bathroom mirror.

Then he notices a note hanging on the corner of the mirror written in red with little hearts on it and a kiss mark from his wife in lipstick: “Honey, breakfast is on the stove, I left early to get groceries to make your favorite dinner tonight. I love you, darling! Love, Jillian” He stumbles into the kitchen and sure enough, there is a hot breakfast, steaming hot coffee, and the morning newspaper all waiting for him.

His son is also at the table, eating. Jack asks, “Son… what happened last night?”

“Well, you came home after three in the morning, drunk and out of your mind. You fell over the coffee table and broke it, and then you threw-up in the hallway, and got that black eye when you ran into the door.”

Confused, he asked his son, ” So, why is your mother in such a good mood, and breakfast is on the table waiting for me?”

His son replies, “Oh THAT! Well, when Mom dragged you to the bedroom, and tried to take your pants off, you screamed, ‘Leave me alone, I’m married! I’m married!'”


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