R. Samuel bar Nahman said: Prayer is likened to a mikvah but repentance is likened to the sea. Just as a mikvah is at times open and at other times locked, so the gates of prayer are at times open and at other times locked. But the sea is always open, even as the gates of repentance are always open. – Lamentations Rabbah
Kol Nidre is a famous and much-misunderstood part of the Yom Kippur service.
- Kol Nidre (KN) means “All Vows.”
- Kol Nidre is pronounced COAL nee-DRAY.
- Kol Nidre is a legal formula recited at the beginning of the evening Yom Kippur service.
- Kol Nidre is a legal formula declaring that religious vows made in the coming year are null and void.
- The purpose of Kol Nidre is to underline the seriousness of vows, and to nullify vows made out of passion or frivolity.
- Kol Nidre does not affect oaths taken in court or any other secular vows or promises made to human beings.
- Kol Nidre is written and recited or chanted in Aramaic.
- We do not know when Kol Nidre was first recited, but we know it appeared in the prayer book of Rav Amram in the mid-9th century CE.
- Today Kol Nidre sets the mood for the beginning of the Yom Kippur services, the most solemn in the Jewish Year. Its significance goes beyond any literal meaning of the prayer; rather, it puts the congregation into the mood to do the serious prayer work of the evening and the day that follows.
To learn more about Kol Nidre, you can read this article in the Jewish Virtual Library.
So you can’t fast this Yom Kippur: you are pregnant, a diabetic, you have an eating disorder, you have medications that cannot be taken without food.
Thank you for taking care of your body. That is a mitzvah, did you know? The Hebrew for it is Lishmor HaGuf, “to guard the body.” It is just as important a mitzvah as any other, including the Yom Kippur fast.
So how can you observe the holiday, if you must eat or take water? Here are some ideas:
FASTING IS NOT JUST FROM FOOD Traditionally, we refrain from several things during the 24 hours of Yom Kippur: eating & drinking, sex, anointing, washing, or wearing leather shoes. If your health dictates that you must drink and/or eat, you can still refrain from the other things. It’s just not as cool to complain about them in public.
ATTEND SERVICES The Yom Kippur services are some of the most moving of the entire year. From Kol Nidre in the evening to Neilah the following evening, the services carry us on an arc of spirituality and emotion that must be experienced to be understood. Too few Jews avail themselves of the full experience.
EAT PRECISELY What I mean by “eat precisely” is eat exactly what you are supposed to eat, no more and no less. If your doctor has given you a diet, have you ever stuck strictly to it for an entire 24 hours with no little cheats? If you are supposed to eat 5 vegetables, eat 5 vegetables. If you are supposed to leave refined sugar alone, leave it alone. If you are supposed to eat 3 balanced meals, don’t wimp out with only one or two. Following doctor’s orders exactly is a discipline, too.
USE THE DAY FOR SERIOUS REFLECTION The larger purpose of Yom Kippur is to examine our lives, individually and communally, and to seek out ways to be better Jews and better human beings. You can do this whether you fast or not.
USE THE DAY FOR PRAYER “Prayer” can take a lot of forms. If you are uncomfortable with the words in the machzor (prayer book), you have two choices: (1) you can let them float on by you and say your own prayers or (2) you can struggle with them and think about why they bug you. That’s a form of prayer, too. I wrote an article a while back on options in prayer: New to Jewish Prayer? Ten Tips for Beginners. See if anything there appeals to you.
One other thing: as a kindness to other Jews, eat or drink out of their sight. Slip out to the car for your packed lunch, or go home for meals. Don’t carry a water bottle around if you can possibly avoid it. Rachmanes [mercy] is a mitzvah, too.
- Ten Things to Know About the Jewish Days of Awe (coffeeshoprabbi.com)
Recently I was asked if God would be mad if a person didn’t fast on Yom Kippur.
We have a mitzvah (a commandment or sacred duty) to refrain from eating or drinking from the sundown that begins Yom Kippur until the sundown that ends it. It’s a tough mitzvah. Some Jews observe this mitzvah because it is a commandment from God. Some observe it because it is a custom of the Jewish people. Some observe it because it puts them in better touch with what it feels like to be poor and hungry.
There is another mitzvah that sometimes cancels this one out. This is the mitzvah of taking care of our bodies. We have a sacred duty to care for our bodies, and if a pregnant woman, a child or a sick person (say, a diabetic) fasted it could do a lot of damage. For those people, it is a mitzvah not to fast on Yom Kippur, but to eat exactly as prescribed by their doctor.
Let me repeat: If you are pregnant or sick or a child, it is a mitzvah to eat exactly as your doctor has told you to eat, even on Yom Kippur.
But what about the healthy person who can’t or won’t control herself for the 25 hours of the holiest day in the Jewish Year?
If you truly can’t master your urge to eat, this may be a wake up call that something is going on with the body. Talk with your doctor and get tested. (I’m assuming here that you have access to medical care. If you don’t have access to medical care and think that something may be wrong, ask for help in finding free or low-cost medical care. It is OK to ask for help. And if you cannot find it, I am truly sorry.)
And if you won’t master your urge to eat – well, I do not think God “gets mad” at people. I certainly do not think that you will bring down bad luck on yourself by not fasting. I think you are missing an opportunity to experience your bond with the Jewish people all over the world who are fasting, to find out just what goes on with your body when you go past hunger, to cultivate compassion for people who have no choice but to miss meals on a regular basis.
The purpose of mitzvot is to make us holy. That’s what we say in the blessing before we do a mitzvah, “Who makes us holy with mitzvot.” Fasting on Yom Kippur is an opportunity to grow in holiness, in connection to the Jewish People, and in understanding of a human situation.
Ready to give it a try in a few days? Check out Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur!
Wasn’t one enough?
In the Diaspora (outside of the land of Israel) many Jewish holidays are celebrated for two days. That’s because in ancient times, the Jewish calendar was originally based on the observation of the moon from the Temple Mount. It took a long time to get the announcement of the New Moon to Diaspora communities, so there was uncertainty about holiday dates.
But Rosh Hashanah is observed for two days even in Israel! The reason for this is that the the moon’s cycle is 29 1/2 days. Elul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, might have had 30 or 31 days, depending on exactly what the moon was doing that year. So there were two days of Rosh Hashanah, just to be sure to get it right.
Now, you may be wondering why it is that we do this even though we have calendars that know the exact dates years, even centuries, in advance. The answer is that the custom became established very early, at least before the year 70 of the Common Era and perhaps much earlier. Many Jews are reluctant to alter a custom that is so old, and refer to the two days of Rosh Hashanah as a Yoma Arichta, Aramaic for “one long day.”
However, as with many things in Jewish life, there is another custom, in some Reform communities, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah only on one day, now that we can calculate the New Moon accurately. They argue that the Torah prescribes one day of Rosh Hashanah, so they celebrate for one day.
By the way, if you need a Jewish calendar, there is a good one at the Hebrew Jewish Calendar website.
SHANA TOVA – (shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “Good year” it means “Happy New Year.” You can reply with the same words.
Some other greetings you may hear leading up to Rosh Hashanah and on the day:
L’SHANA TOVA (luh-shah-NAH toe-VAH) – literally “To a Good Year.” It also means Happy New Year, and you can reply in kind.
L’SHANA TOVA TIKATEIVU (shah-NAH toe-VAH tee-kah-TAY-voo) literally, “May you be written for a good year.”
GUT YUNTIFF – (GOOT YUN-tif), (Yiddish) “Happy Holiday.”
From Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, it’s polite to assume that someone has already been “written in the book of life” so you wish them a “good sealing”:
GAMAR CHATIMAH TOVAH – (ga-MAR chah-ti-MAH toe-VAH) – “May your final sealing be good.”
Remember, you can never go wrong with “Shana Tovah!”
Image by Slava. Some rights reserved.
This post is part of an ongoing series “Especially for Beginners” in which I will try to give simple explanations for words and concepts in Jewish life. There is always a lot more to learn than in these little posts. If you want more, follow the links. To see what other topics I have covered in this series, click “Especially for Beginners” in the Category cloud on the right side of your screen.
Things to know about the Days of Awe:
- The Days of Awe are the ten days from Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
- The Hebrew for the Days of Awe is Yamim Noraim [yah-MEEM no-rah-EEM].
- The Days of Awe are a time for concentration on teshuvah [turning, repentance], for mending relationships and adjusting the trajectory of our lives.
- Many Jews approach others during the Days of Awe to apologize for misdeeds, slights, and misunderstandings in the previous year.
- The teshuvah of the Days of Awe should be not only personal, but communal. Jewish groups, and the Jewish People as a whole confess their wrongdoings and make changes.
- Sometimes the Days of Awe are referred to as the Days of Repentance.
- The Shabbat that falls during the Days of Awe is called Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance.
- Synagogue services during the Days of Awe are unusual. They have their own music, and they are frequently much longer. They are not typical of services the rest of the year. Hence this is not a good time to “shul-shop” [look for a synagogue.] During services, someone may sound the shofar, the ram’s horn.
- Synagogues often charge or sell tickets for the most crowded services, but most larger communities have services that are free or low-cost. Call a local synagogue or Federation to find out about your options, and do so well ahead of time (a month ahead is about right.)
- The simplest greeting for the Days of Awe is “Shanah Tovah!” [sha-NAH toe-VAH]. It means (roughly) “Happy New Year!”
How can a beginner participate in the Days of Awe?
- Attend services. If you cannot find a free service and do not want to pay, know that many services do not charge for some of the less-attended services: Selichot, Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, or Yom Kippur afternoon services. Shabbat services (other than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur) are open to visitors as they are all year long.
- Read about the Days of Awe, either online or in a book. The Beginner’s Guide to the High Holy Days is a place to begin.
- Participate in making teshuvah. For more about that, read Teshuvah for Beginners and The Jewish Cure for Guilt.
- Eat the traditional foods of Rosh Hashanah: Apples, honey, sweets, pomegranates (for a sweet new year.)
- Fast all or part of the day on Yom Kippur. See Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur.
- Wish your Jewish friends “Shanah Tovah!”
- Consider signing up for a Taste of Judaism or Intro to Judaism course at your local synagogue. They often begin right after the High Holy Days.
I wish you a Shanah Tovah, a Sweet and Good New Year!