Yom Kippur is the holiest, most solemn day of the Jewish calendar. On it, our fates for the coming year are metaphorically sealed; actually, there’s a grace period through the 7th day of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah. 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)
*Alternatively, “you shall afflict your souls.”
“Self-denial” to include practices such as not wearing leather shoes, abstaining from sex, and fasting (if there’s a medical issue, you’re forbidden to fast). (Attending about 12 hours of synagogue services does not count as afflicting your soul.)
There are five services: Ma’ariv (evening), Shacharit (morning), Musaf (additional), Minchah (afternoon), and Ne’ilah (closing), which ends with a shofar blast.
Kol Nidre (All Vows) is chanted right before Ma’ariv. Its plaintive tune sets the mood for the holiday, but it’s not even a prayer. It’s a legal formula in Aramaic that nullifies vows (implicitly, between a person and God) for the coming year. It has been used as a weapon to show that a Jew’s word is not to be trusted. Why it has become the emotional centerpiece of Yom Kippur is a puzzlement.
The Torah is read during Shacharit and Minchah:
Shacharit: Leviticus 16:1-34, the Yom Kippur rites of the High Priest and Numbers 29:7-11, the required sacrifices. The haftarah is Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14, in which Isaiah condemns empty ritual that does not lead to ethical behavior.
Minchah: Leviticus 18:1-30, about forbidden sexual relationships (mainly incest). In ancient times, on Yom Kippur afternoon, after the High Priest announced the people had been forgiven, it was customary to celebrate and look for potential spouses, so maybe this text kept folks in line? The haftarah is the Book of Jonah plus Micah 7:18-20 about casting away sins. Jonah is read because it demonstrates the universality and efficacy of atonement and compassion, and the need for individuals to take responsibility. The whale story is a hook to reel you in (Sorry…and I’ve used that joke before).
Musaf adds sections on the High Priest’s Yom Kippur rites (Avodah) and one about the martyrdom of 10 sages in Roman times (Martyrology, sometimes including texts on more recent calamities).
The most important prayers on Yom Kippur are the communal confessional prayers (Vidui), which are said 10 times during the five services. 5 times silently, 5 aloud. There are two texts. Ashamnu (“We have trespassed”) is an alphabetic acrostic of 24 misdeeds, often only one word apiece, thus easy to remember. The long form, Al Chet , is a double acrostic 44 specific misdeeds. Many of these involve speech. Many also concern attitude, e.g., disrespecting parents and teachers, inappropriate levity, a haughty demeanor, and causeless hatred. Although written broadly, many of these really hit home in our time.
Yom Kippur is a time for confession, repentance, and atonement. for wrongs committed knowingly or unknowingly, deliberately or by accident. Sins against God are dealt with through prayer and behavioral change. But when you wrong a person, you need to deal with that person directly. I try to do that immediately. But sometimes I don’t know if I’ve hurt someone, or whom I have hurt, particularly on the web. There are also wrongs that are more general and cumulative, a matter of ongoing behaviors. And so, I need to resort to blanket statements for particular weaknesses.
Please forgive me for
- hurting or offending you through my words or actions;
- babbling, over-explaining, and otherwise wasting your time;
- not following through as assiduously as I could;
- not listening as well as I could; and
- not helping you as much as I could.
G’mar chatimah tovah*,
* A good final sealing (in the Book of Life).
Yes, we ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. Here’s how we can benefit by forgiving.
Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It (excerpt)
Studies have found that the act of forgiveness can reap huge rewards for your health, lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure , and levels of anxiety, depression and stress. And research points to an increase in the forgiveness-health connection as you age.
“There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,” says Karen Swartz, M.D. , director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Chronic anger puts you into a fight-or-flight mode, which results in numerous changes in heart rate, blood pressure and immune response . Those changes, then, increase the risk of depression, heart disease and diabetes, among other conditions. Forgiveness, however, calms stress levels, leading to improved health.
See the full article for helpful details.
Heavenly Voicemail (excerpts)
“Thank you for calling the Interactive Teshuvah Hotline here in Heaven.
This service is available for touch-tone telephone users as a supplement to your praying at shul over the Ten Days of Awe. It is not a substitute.
“To access your personalized account of all your known sins, including dates and affected parties, please press 1 now. Unless, if you have not already apologized to the affected parties, please hang up now and call back when this has been done.
“For a personalized list of sins towards the Al-mighty, please press 2.
“Please select the sins you have committed this past year. “Once you have chosen the proper sin, enter the code and press the pound key to enter it….
“Now you may access the Selichot (petitions for forgiveness) component of our service. As our computer reads out each sin you have indicated, please enter the contrition code.
‘1’ means you are only mildly sorry for your action,
‘2’ means you are somewhat sorry, but have mitigating circumstances and a good lawyer,
‘3’ means you are very sorry but will likely repeat it and have a great lawyer,
‘4’ means you are very very sorry, and will not repeat it unless there are mitigating circumstances and you have Dershowitz (yes, I know that needs updating. IGP) on retainer,
and ‘5’ means you are extremely sorry and will not repeat the sin under any circumstances, since you have only your second cousin’s son-in law who failed the bar twice.
Please proceed with your Selichot sequence now….
“Our computer has now processed your request for Kapparah (atonement).
You have been granted conditional atonement.
This offer expires within one calendar year.”
Quotes on Atonement
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
True atonement isn’t the periodic shaving of karmic stubble via confessional; it requires deep, truthful change. It means doing the hardest thing of all: not making the same stupid mistake again. Ben Dolnick
If the history of the Day of Atonement has anything to say to us now it is: never relieve individuals of moral responsibility. The more we have, the more we grow. Jonathan Sacks
The beginning of atonement is the sense of its necessity. Lord Byron
What atonement is there for blood spilt upon the earth? Aeschylus