The hours are ticking down to Yom Kippur, the culmination of over a month of preparation.
I have a mental list of things to ponder. I’m open to what the prayers will bring up for me. This year will be an interesting trip through the day, since I have a bad cold and don’t feel so good. Maybe the fogginess will let me see something I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, who knows?
The point of this day is not perfection. Perfection is only for God. The point of this day is to open my heart and let in whatever needs to come: awareness, realizations, remorse, insight, or just quiet. I won’t know until I am in the midst of it exactly what will come.
As I wrote a few days ago, this is a rehearsal of death, but unlike death, we don’t do it alone. I will observe Yom Kippur in the heart of my community, Temple Sinai. I hope that you are able to observe it with your own communities. I understand that many synagogues are planning to live stream their services: Central Synagogue in NYC, Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, and Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA, among others. If you do choose that option, I’d love to hear about your experiences afterwards.
So here’s wishing you a tzom kasher, a proper fast, but also a tzom kal, an easy fast. Let’s both remember that fasting is a mitzvah, not a contest, and by itself it is not enough. The prophets remind us again and again that ritual observance is empty unless we open ourselves to the transformation that it can produce.
My hope for us is that when we rise from prayer at sundown on Saturday we will be changed in all the ways we need to change, that we will rise renewed for lives of Torah.
What sort of crazy people rehearse their own deaths?
Jews, that’s who.
Yom Kippur is a rehearsal of our deaths. We do our best to pretend to be dead: we don’t eat, we don’t wear nice things like leather shoes and cologne, and we don’t have sex. We sit in synagogue and reflect on the fact that our lives are very short, and we don’t know how long we’ve got. We read the Unetaneh Tokef: “Who will live and who will die? Death by fire or hanging? Death by illness or by flood?” We read about all the terrible things that can happen to us, and we reflect.
One of the things I do during the Days of Awe every year is visit the cemetery. I go to the place where Linda and I have purchased a plot, and I sit there a while and reflect on the fact that someday, thirty years from now or next week, my friends will lay my body in a box and put it in the ground right there.
This is not a pleasant thought, but it is a thought that keeps me honest. I do not know anything for sure about afterlife, but I know that my agency, my ability to make a difference in this life will be over for good when I travel to Home of Eternity Cemetery for the last time. So I better get moving on the things I want to do.
I will rise from prayer after Yom Kippur energized for my one precious life. I will rise ready to LIVE.
What do you want to do with your one precious life? What do you need to do now, for any of that to happen?
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.
There is an ancient tradition that on Rosh HaShanah our names are “written in the Book of Life” if we are living good lives, and that sinners have the ten days to Yom Kippur to do the work of teshuvah. (Click the link if you are not familiar with teshuvah. It means more than the English “repentance.”)
Do modern Jews believe that God has an actual account book in which our lives are measured? In a word, no.
This tradition has its roots in Biblical metaphor. In Isaiah 4:3, the prophet speaks of the survivors of the Babylonian invasion as those who are “recorded for life in Jerusalem.” It is referenced more clearly in a book of midrash called the Book of Jubilees that was not accepted for inclusion in most Bibles. The idea of a divine accounting book has its origins in Babylonia, where the concept of a Day of Judgment also first appeared. The civilizations of Mesopotamia were enthusiastic about bookkeeping. Much of the written materials we have from them are accounting books; it’s not surprising that they thought the gods would love accounting, too.
So why keep this tradition, if we don’t take it literally? The written word is a powerful image in the Jewish imagination. Words are powerful (they are the means of Creation in Genesis) – the written word even more so. God writes on the tablets at Sinai, to establish the laws of the covenant. The medieval teacher Bachya ibn Pekuda wrote, “Our days are scrolls. Write on them what you wish to be remembered.”
God may not keep an actual accounting book, but our lives are finite. None of us knows when we are going to die, only that we will not live forever. On Yom Kippur, we take a day to think seriously about our lives. What have we neglected? What have we done that we would regret? On Yom Kippur, there is still time to make it right. But the image of the Book of Life pushes us to get moving. Do not delay another hour! Because we don’t know how long we’ve got, how many more pages there are in our book.
While Jewish tradition is very vague about afterlife, it is sharply clear about this life, and unromantic about death. Death is an end to this life. On that day, whenever it comes, we’ve used our last opportunity to do good or to reconcile. Yom Kippur is a day and the month of Elul is a season, when we remind ourselves of that.
What would you regret if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? What would you change?
What can you do about it while you are still alive?
There are three days of the year when synagogues are weird. Services are not typical. The crowd attending the synagogue is not typical. Even the clergy may not be their usual selves.
In other words, those are bad days to “shul-shop,” to visit a prospective synagogue. Here they are:
Purim is fun, if you are a member of the community. But it is an evening when people wear masks, get rowdy, and may be a little tipsy. There may be a play, a “Purim Shpiel,” with lots of inside jokes that won’t make any sense to you. In the daytime, there will be a children’s carnival, with hordes of sugar-crazed little ones. Don’t visit for the first time on Purim – it could be the nicest shul in the world but you will want to flee screaming.
2. Rosh HaShanah
Rosh HaShanah (Jewish New Year) services are beautiful. However, they are also very long.The rabbi’s sermon will be longer, too. Like a church at Easter, every member is there and more dressed up than usual. The service, and the music, are different from regular services. Tickets are usually required. Don’t visit for the first time on Rosh HaShanah – it may be pretty, but it just isn’t typical.
and now, for the VERY WORST DAY TO VISIT A SYNAGOGUE:
1. Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur is the worst possible day to visit a new synagogue. Nothing is normal. The evening service, Kol Nidre, is much like Rosh HaShanah: everyone dressed up, solemn music, lengthy sermon, a huge crowd. And in the morning service, it is all that but even more so: no one has had any coffee. If you are already part of the community, then misery has company. We do the work of the day (praying), we kvetch about our caffeine headaches, services go on and on and on. The music is still beautiful. But it is no place or time to take the temperature of a synagogue, because the singers are hired, the clergy is tired, and no one has had any coffee.
When is a good time to shop for a shul? Any day but those three days!
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!
If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.
The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.
There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents. However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!
Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.