There is also a minor fast day, Tzom Gedaliah, which memorializes the death of a righteous governor of Judea in the years after the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians. Read 2 Kings 25: 24-25 or Jeremiah 41 for the story.
Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day of the Jewish year. Jews have observed Yom Kippur for millennia.
Yom Kippur observance is based on Leviticus 16, where procedures are laid out for atonement for all the sins of Israel. The key verses are 29-31: “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or a foreigner residing among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins.It is a day of sabbath rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance.”
Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, sacrifices were no longer possible. Yom Kippur remains a day of fasting and earnest prayer. Even in extreme situations, Jews will do whatever they can to fast from sundown to sundown.
The Day of Atonement atones for sins against God, but it only atones for sins against one’s fellow human beings if one has already gone through the process of teshuvah. Follow the link for more information about teshuvah. Because often proper teshuvah takes time, the entire month of Elul is set aside for preparation for the Days of Awe.
The evening service that opens Yom Kippur is called Kol Nidre, after the legal formula with which it begins. Kol Nidre means “all vows.” It is both a nullification of foolish vows we may be tempted to make during the day of fasting, and a remembrance of the many times our people were given the bitter choice of conversion (to Christianity or Islam) or death.
Yom Kippur is unique in the Jewish Year in that there are five complete services for the day. A normal Jewish weekday has three services. Shabbat has four. (The number of services corresponds to the number of sacrifices in Temple times.)
On Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally observe five different practices: We fast from food and water, we do not wear leather shoes, we do not bathe, we do not “anoint ourselves” (use lotions or wear makeup) and we refrain from sexual relations. Fasting is the most widely observed of these among liberal Jews. However, people with medical problems and pregnant women are forbidden to fast. Children under 13 do not fast.
Yom Kippur is the day when Jews who do not otherwise enter a synagogue will go to services. Many Jews spend the entire day at synagogue, going to services, studying, confessing personal and communal sins, and discussing serious matters.
On Yom Kippur, Jews who have lost close relatives attend Yizkor, a service of mourning and remembrance.
The last service of the day is Neilah, “locking,” which refers to the poetic idea that during the Days of Awe, the “gates of repentance” are open. It is a dramatic service in which the cantor and service leaders plead for God’s forgiveness for Israel.
Yom Kippur appears to “move around” in the Gregorian calendar. That is because Jewish holy days are set by the Jewish calendar, which is lunar and works differently than the Gregorian. In the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur always falls on the 10th of Tishri, in the autumn.
In 2014, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on October 3.
This is another in a series of posts to make Jewish life a little more accessible. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living.
Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on September 24, 2014. Here are the basic facts to know about the holiday season:
Happy Jewish New Year!
Rosh HaShanah is the Jewish New Year. Observant Jews will go to synagogue that day, and will do no work. Many other Jews may take the day off for reflection and celebration. The mitzvah [commandment] for the day of Rosh HaShanah is to hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn.] The basic greeting for the New Year is “Shanah Tovah” [literally, “Good Year!”]
Days of Awe
Rosh HaShanah begins a very serious time in the Jewish year called the Days of Awe. Unlike the secular New Year, which is mostly a time for celebration, the Days of Awe are an annual period for reflection and for mending relationships and behavior. Synagogue services use solemn music and urge Jews, individually and collectively, to mend what is broken in their lives, and to apologize for misdeeds.
Teshuvah: Sin & Repentance
The Jewish understanding of sin is that all human beings fall short of their best selves from time to time. When we do wrong, even inadvertently, we are required to acknowledge what we have done, take responsibility for it, and take steps to assure it will not happen again. This process is called teshuvah [literally, “turning.”]
The Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is the culmination of the process of teshuvah. Observant Jews fast for 24 hours and spend the day in synagogue, praying and reflecting on their lives. Work is forbidden. Other Jews may take the day off for reflection as well. Yom Kippur is a day for atonement for sins against God and/or Jewish law; it only atones for sins against other human beings if we have gone through the process of teshuvah (taking responsibility, apologizing, and taking steps to prevent a recurrence.) If you have a health problem that requires regulation of food and/or liquids, do not fast – there are other ways to observe.
In the Synagogue
Very important, for newcomers: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the days of the year when the greatest number of Jews attend synagogue. However, they are not good days to attend synagogue for the first time. The services are longer than usual and much more solemn. For a first visit to a synagogue, a regular Shabbat service on Friday night or Saturday is much more typical of Jewish practice and belief.
Tickets for Prayer?
Because of the high attendance, many synagogues do not have seats for visitors for their main services. If they have a few extra seats, they sell tickets for those seats to offset the extra expense of the visitors (members pay their share via membership dues.) Note that synagogues often make arrangements for reduced rates for membership for those who wish to participate in synagogue life but who cannot afford full dues. Consider joining a synagogue – they offer much more than High Holy Day services.
There are several options for attending High Holy Day services for low or no cost. You can always call the synagogue and ask; they may be able to make a referral, and there are synagogues who offer free High Holy Day services as a form of outreach. Some synagogues offer free High Holy Day tickets for college students. If you are in a city in the USA, call the Jewish Federation or other local Jewish agency for information about locations for free or low-cost services.
Another option, almost always free, is to attend Selichot services which are usually on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah. You will hear the High Holy Days music, often the clergy will be wearing their High Holy Day robes, but it is an evening penitential service that is so little known that only regulars attend. Call your local synagogue for information.
Get the Most out of Your High Holy Days
To get the most out of the High Holy Days, observe the month of preparation that leads up to them. Attend services at a local synagogue (guests are welcome at regular services). Ask yourself “What about my life and behavior needs to change?” and make those changes. Mend relationships that can be mended, and do your part even in those relationships that cannot be mended at this time. Consider reading a book about the High Holy Days, or keeping a journal. Like everything else in life, the more you invest in this experience, the more you will get out of it.
There is much more to know about the High Holy Days; this is just a beginning. If you are curious about Judaism, this is a great time of year to contact a synagogue about adult education classes, since many things in synagogue start immediately after the holidays.
L’Shanah Tovah: I wish you a fruitful beginning to the New Year of 5775!
Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. In just a few weeks it will be Rosh HaShanah. Between now and then, there is work to do. It’s time for a personal inventory.
Last week was a week for contemplating the snapshot of my life now. What is good? What is lacking? With whom am I on good terms? Do I owe an apology to anyone? What have I left undone? About what do I feel uneasy.
I’ve been stirring the pot. Things have come up, some of them difficult. If they were easy, I’d have dealt with them already.
This week is the week to begin contacting people: the neglected people, the estranged people, the people I may have wronged. Who has been avoiding me? Whom have I avoided? Those are the people I need to reach.
This is the week for reaching out.
Some will reach back, some will not. That is not my concern.
Some will want to talk, some won’t. That is not my concern.
Some will accept my apology, some won’t. That, too, is not my concern.
Feeling downbeat after a week of soul-searching? Feeling discouraged, knowing that there are three more weeks to Rosh HaShanah? Here’s a video that both celebrates the joy of the coming new year and speaks to the task of making ourselves new in time for it:
Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. A month from tonight will be Rosh HaShanah. Between now and then, there is work to do. It’s time for a personal inventory.
Tonight I will say my prayers and look at that dark sky. Tonight, I will ask the questions and I will not rush to the answers, because now there is time to let the true answers emerge:
Against whom might I have sinned in the past year?
Some of them are people I know personally. I avoided them, failed to return their calls, whispered about them, excluded them, hurt their feelings, embarrassed them, neglected them, or ignored them. I failed them in some way, large or small.
Some of them are people I don’t know personally. I dismissed them as a group. I thought I knew all I needed to know. I made pronouncements about them. I forgot that “they” are individuals with hopes and dreams, each of them some mother’s child. I forgot that they are made in the Divine Image, just like me.
This first week, I will make an honest effort to identify all the people towards whom I need to make teshuvah. I will figure out, too, what behaviors and attitudes I will need to change in order to make teshuvah, a genuine new path. I will think about what I can change, and what I cannot, to whom I can apologize and for whom an apology would only cause more hurt. In the latter case, I will need to think even harder what to do, in order to put wrongs right.
Before I can do any of this, I need to sit and think and be honest with myself. That is my task this first week of Elul.
For sins against God the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins against human beings the Day of Atonement does not atone until the injured party has been appeased. – Mishnah Yoma 8:9
I’ve been a Jewish professional for almost 14 years.
I started with the Outreach Department of the Union for Reform Judaism (then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.) There I was part of a national staff that assisted congregations in planning programming to be more welcoming to new members of the community, including converts to Judaism, interfaith households, and Jews who had grown up without Jewish community.
“Programs” were at the heart of the work. We designed programs to help people integrate into their congregations. We designed programs to help the congregations grow into more welcoming places. We designed programs to help people talk about difficult topics like Christmas trees, and in-laws. And all that work was important.
Looking back, though, I think the most important programs were those that taught people how to “do Jewish”: how to light Shabbat candles, how to prepare for the High Holy Days, how to set a Passover table, and so on. Those programs taught people that they didn’t need programs: they needed to take action themselves. And in retrospect, we left out a very important instruction: Now that you know how, go include others in this mitzvah you’ve learned how to do.
But “programs” are not the reason that Jewish civilization has thrived for three millennia – Jews living Torah and teaching it to others is how we have survived to this day. Instruction books can only tell “how to,” whether written in codices by 16th century mystics or in blogs by modern day rabbis. They cannot transmit the warmth of the table, the camaraderie of an afternoon spent decorating a sukkah with friends, the laughter around a Shabbat table. They cannot transmit the power of simple human presence at a shivah.
Many of us want the warmth, the camaraderie, the laughter, and the comfort. But we will not get them from “programs.” We will get them from living Torah with other Jews. That is why I’m moving into a place where I can more easily have people over: I want to teach Torah by Doing Torah. And what I want to tell you is that you can do this too.
Join me on this adventure. Invite someone for this Shabbat. Invite others to join you, even if nothing is kosher, even if it is at a restaurant, even if you do it with takeout on a card table. Don’t think of it as entertaining – think of it as what it is: Torah.