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Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement: Jewish Customs

This year Yom Kippur falls on September 25-26, 2012

In modern Jewish usage the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the ‘10 Days of Awe’ which began with The Feast of Trumpets. This 10-day period is devoted to the spiritual exercises of penitence, prayer and fasting in preparation for the most solemn day of the year, the Day of Atonement.

The number ten (10) symbolizes perfect holiness as the aim on the most sacred day of the year. The Ten Days of Repentance are concluded on the tenth of Tishri. The Viddui (Confession of Sins) begins with an immersion (baptism) of repentance, and is recited ten times on the Day of the Atonement to coincide with the tradition that the High Priest pronounced the Name of God ten times when he invoked divine pardon on Yom HaKippurim. Yom HaKippurim also recalls the Ten Commandments, which serve as advocates before the Supreme Judge in behalf of the children of Israel, who accepted them with love after the nations of the world refused them (Killian n.d.).

Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast and attend synagogue services on The Day of Atonement. In modern Israel, this day is the one day in the year when restaurants, places of entertainment, stores, offices, factories, and even the radio and television close down for more than 24 hours.

The sacrificial aspects of the Day of Atonement have not been in effect since the destruction of the Temple; however, Jews still observe the day by fasting and refraining from all types of work. It is the only Jewish fast day that is never postponed if it coincides with a Sabbath. Everyone is permitted in the synagogue for the Day of Atonement, even those who have been previously barred. Just the presence of someone confirms their desire to make amends.

Fasting in Jewish tradition is a religious discipline involving the abstention from food, drink, and physical pleasures, for the purpose of enhancing spiritual experience in atonement for sin, in commemoration of national tragedies, or as part of a personal petition to God in seeking His help.

Various rabbinical laws are associated with fasting. The mandatory fasts have to be observed by all males over the age of 13 and females over the age of 12. In order to train the religious loyalty and self-discipline of younger people, the rabbis encouraged youngsters below those ages to observe partial fasts. Fasting is not done in order to rebuke oneself, but simply to focus the mind on the occasion. To the Jews, entertainment of any sort on a fast day is inappropriate. The denial of pleasurable acts during Yom Kippur was designed to focus on moral purification to cause total dedication to the pursuit of moral character rather than bodily comforts. Sick people may take medicine and small amounts of food and drink, on the advice of their doctors or rabbis. Those who are ill may even be forbidden to fast altogether.

The Eve of the Day of Atonement

A special meal is prepared to be eaten before sundown. The meal shows that enjoyment as well as deprivation can be the expression of holiness and that both have their place in the Jewish concept of holiness. Jews fast for twenty-five hours on Yom Kippur to help them to direct their thoughts to their spiritual rather than to their physical needs. Since one does not eat on Yom Kippur, the meal is eaten earlier than usual and then the candles are lit to begin the festival. Many families bless their children (parents, spouse) after the meal, prior to the departure for the synagogue.
The Day of Atonement starts, like Sabbath, at sundown, and there is a long evening service called Kol Nidre, as well as services throughout the day. The shofar, or ram’s horn, is blown to assemble the people for worship in the synagogue. The impressive Kol Nidre (all vows) service is chanted (some synagogues hold the Kol Nidre the next day). This special prayer is sung to a sorrowful, traditional melody asking for forgiveness from God for breaking the vows which they were unable to fulfill. A rabbinical decree of reprieve is declared three times.

It is customary to wear white on the holiday, which symbolizes purity and calls to mind the promise that our sins shall be made as white as snow (Isa. 1:18). The furnishings in the synagogue are also draped in white (as on the Feast of Trumpets). The customary greeting for the day is: “Gemar Hatimah Tovah”–may you be finally sealed for good (in the Book of Life).

It is a custom (now only among the very Orthodox) to spend the night in synagogue reciting the entire Book of Psalms and other readings. Sephardi and Reform Jews recite memorial prayers on this night.

On the Day of Atonement

Five services are held on the Day of Atonement, beginning with the initial evening service. Soon after, the fast commences, proceeding with festive morning, and afternoon prayers, and ending with the concluding service. Each service has its own special features and individual liturgy. Common to all of them, however, is the confession of sins. The confessions are written in the first person plural to emphasize shared responsibility for the individual, and the individual’s responsibility for his community.

Services are held on the Day of Atonement from early morning until night. At sunset the day is ended by a single blast of the shofar, after which the worshippers return to their homes. In the thirteenth century a custom was established to open the Ark replica and remove two scrolls held by two individuals on either side of the reader. These three men compose a judicial court and proclaim the prayer the offenders are to recite. In most Jewish communities the doors of the Ark remain open and worshippers stand throughout the service.

In the Home

A special memorial light is kindled to burn throughout the day and leather shoes are replaced by non-leather shoes or slippers before worshippers leave for the synagogue. The tallit prayer shawl is worn continuously at all services, including those held after dark. Since the color white is a traditional symbol of purity and forgiveness, a white curtain adorns the synagogue (Encyclopedia of Judaism).
A widespread custom is for construction of the sukkah (see Feast of Tabernacles) to begin at home, once people have broken their fast.

Excerpts from the book A Family Guide to the Biblical Holidays

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