Jewish Hope

Image: A person blows a shofar against a background of clouds. ((Shutterstock, all rights reserved)

This is the sermon I gave on Yom Kippur 5782 in a Zoom service for Jewish Gateways.

We are living in times that are genuinely frightening.

We meet tonight virtually because there is a deadly virus circulating in our world, and so we refrain from gathering in person because we want to live, and we want our neighbors to live.

We are living through a time of political unrest. Whatever our individual political positions, surely we can agree that we’ve never seen times quite like these before.

We are living in a time when the world is teeming with refugees: climate refugees, political refugees, and refugees from housing insecurity.

We are facing the realities of climate change: our state is literally on fire, while other parts of the country face killer storms. We are suffering through a drought, while other parts of the country and the world, are drowning.

And personally, we each have stories of injury and loss. Our beloved Rabbi Bridget is recovering from a fall that injured her badly. Some have lost jobs. Some have lost their homes. Some need medical care but cannot access it.

Tomorrow we will read a prayer called the Unataneh Tokef, the Yom Kippur prayer that affirms that we don’t really know what may happen in the coming year, who will live and who will die, who will suffer and who will have comfort, and so on. Even in an easy year it is a difficult prayer. Last year and this year, it has a terrible resonance, because the times are so uneasy.

What’s a Jew to do?

Our tradition is actually quite clear on this, and it offers us resources. Jewish tradition does not encourage us towards empty optimism. Instead, it encourages us to remain hopeful, even in the darkest moments. Not every individual Jew will survive, but as a people, we shall work towards better times, a better world.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l was the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, a major Jewish voice in the 20th and 21st century. He wrote:

“Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage – only a certain naivety – to be an optimist. It takes courage to sustain hope. No Jew – knowing what we do of the past, of hatred, bloodshed, persecution in the name of God, suppression of human rights in the name of freedom – can be an optimist. But Jews have never given up hope.”

It’s true, we Jews as a People have been through some truly terrible times over the millenia. Our Temples were destroyed – twice. We lived in exile for centuries. We suffered the Inquisition and the Holocaust.

But we have never, as a people, lost HOPE.

Hope – the belief that we can make change for the better — is baked into our tradition.

The book of Genesis begins with a statement of hope:  Bereshit bara Elohim et haShamayim v’et ha’aretz. “When God was beginning to make the heavens and the earth…”

The Torah’s first words, Bereshit bara Elohim – when God was beginning to create – Those hold Hope. The Torah tells us that creation is not finished, and God is not finished with creation. Nothing is a done deal. Change is still possible. That’s HOPE.

In Exodus, Moses asks for God’s name. God answers with a mysterious name, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. All a translator can say for sure about it is that the Name of God is in the future tense. Some translate it, “I will be what I will be.” Again, things are not done, not finished: Judaism focuses on the future.

In the beginning of the Book of Ruth, the widow Naomi gives up hope. She says to her widowed daughters in law, “Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I were married tonight and I also bore sons, should you wait for them to grow up?” One way to read the Book of Ruth is to say it is the story of how Naomi lost all hope of grandchildren – and then at the end, she gets a grandson. Ruth does mitzvot, Boaz does mitzvot, the people of Bethlehem do mitzvot, and hope is reborn.

Jewish hope is not mindless optimism. It looks at a difficult, sometimes cruel world and says, “We can fix this.” Sometimes it has to be very tough-minded. As Yehuda Amichai wrote in his poem Ein Yahav, “And I said to myself: That’s true, hope needs to be like barbed wire to keep out despair, hope must be a mine field.” Those are ugly images, but I think the poet is onto something important: the opposite of hope is despair, and we must guard against despair for hope to survive.

Many of the Jewish texts that speak of hope talk about hope in God. That may be very comforting for believers in a personal God, or it may be a challenge, if our idea of God is more abstract. When I read those texts, I remember that we are God’s hands in the world. God is still creating the world, but now God does it with our hands, our brains, and our determination.

How does that work? A person who lives a life of Torah does their best to keep the mitzvot, the commandments in the Torah. They are following God’s directions as expressed in our Torah. When such a person feeds the hungry, God is feeding the hungry. When such a person welcomes a stranger, God is welcoming that stranger. When a person who lives a life of Torah takes action to save the earth, God is saving the earth. No single human being can accomplish much by themselves, but we are not alone: we are part of Am Yisrael, the Jewish People, in all our diverse splendor. We are the erev rav, the mixed multitude, who left Egypt together, Jews and people who love Jews or who dwell with Jews, and all together, living lives of Torah, there is hope: we’ve got this.

So now I look out through this screen at all of you, and I feel my faith renewed. Members of this congregation stepped up this High Holidays to take care of one another while Rabbi Bridget was injured. You are continuing to do mitzvot even while your rabbi and teacher has to be out sick. You lift one another up, you speak kindly and truthfully, you do what needs to be done.

That is Jewish hope.

We have what it takes to survive difficult times, to learn what can be learned, to record what can be recorded, to remember those who need to be remembered. We can do this.

As Rabbi Sacks wrote, no Jew can be a mindless optimist, knowing what we know about how low humanity can go. But Jews – and those who love Jews – can face reality, and have a quiet resolve that we will do our part to heal this troubled world. We will not give up hope. 

So I want to finish this sermon tonight with a quotation from the end of Psalm 27, a psalm about hope,

A psalm that challenges us to keep walking forward, to keep on keeping mitzvot, to keep on doing what needs to be done in the world:

Kaveh el Adonai, hazak v’amatz libehkha, ukaveh el Adonai  —

Hope in the Eternal One;
be strong and of good courage! 
O hope in the Eternal, hope in one another.

“Chazak v’amatz” – be strong and of good courage – let’s say it together, to each other —  chazak v’amatz!

Keyn y-hi ratzon, may it be God’s will.  Amen.

Yom Kippur Greetings for Beginners

Image: Rabbi Sharon Sobel blows a large shofar. She wears a colorful tallit.

The High Holy Days have one good all purpose blessing that actually keeps working through the end of the cycle, at the end of Sukkot. We can say, “Shana tova!” [Good year!] to which “Shana tova!” is a perfectly acceptable reply.

But if you are spending any time, even online, with other Jews, you may hear some other greetings. Here are some of the choices:

G’mar tov! — (g’MAHR TOHV) — A good finish

G’mar chatimah tovah! — (g’MAHR khah-tee-MAH tow-VAH) — A good final sealing

Tzom kasher! — (zohm ka-SHAYR) — Have a proper fast

Tzom kal! — (zohm KAHL) — Have an easy fast

The good news is that all of those are answered just as they are asked. Just say them back, and it’s all good.

There are also some all-purpose greetings you may hear. They are a bit less common on Yom Kippur, given its sober tone.

Chag sameach! — (khag sa-MAY-akh) — Happy holy day!

Goot yuntiff — (goot YUN-tif) — Yiddish — Good Holy Day.

Join me for Yom Kippur?

Image: Jewish Gateways Logo for High Holidays 2021. Colorful abstract.

I will officiate at online Yom Kippur services this year at Jewish Gateways. If you still need somewhere to attend, we would be glad to have you. For information, and to register, visit their High Holidays webpage. You must be registered to attend.

The schedule for Yom Kippur Services, all times Pacific:

Wednesday, September 15, 7:00-9:00pm, Erev Yom Kippur

Thursday, September 16, Yom Kippur Day                        

  • 9:00-9:45am: Yom Kippur Family Service for children under 9 and their families
  • 10:30am-12:30pm: Yom Kippur Morning Service
  • 1:00pm: Questions and Open Discussion with Jewish Gateways community members
  • 6:00-7:30pm: Yom Kippur Afternoon Services
    • 6:00-6:30pm: Healing Service
    • 6:30-7:00pm: Yizkor • Memorial Service
    • 7:00-7:30pm: Ne’ilah • Closing Service

G’mar chatimah tovah! (May you be sealed for goodness.)

After Pittsburgh & Poway: A Reading for Yom Kippur

Image: Memorials to victims outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. Official White House Photo, Public Domain.

1. Eleh ezkerah:  These I remember.

These I call to memory, late in the long day:

The voices of martyrs, stilled by tyrants,

The voices of my ancestors, murdered by mobs.

I remember the Ten Martyrs, the ten Torah scholars

who were murdered by the Emperor of Rome:

Shimon ben Gamliel was beheaded for daring to teach Torah.

Ishmael, the High Priest was flayed alive.

Akiva whose flesh was torn with iron combs.

Chaninah ben Tradyon was burned alive with his Torah scroll.

Hutzpit the Interpreter begged to say the Shema one more day.

Elazar ben Shamua was one of Akiva’s most famous  students.

Chaninah ben Chakmai was killed by poison.

Yeshevav the Scribe urged his students to love one another, before he was murdered.

Judah ben Dama is known only as one of the Ten Martyrs.

Judah ben Bava was stabbed to death for ordaining five new rabbis.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

2.  Eleh ezkerah.  These I remember:

I remember the martyrs of medieval Europe.

“Convert or die!” they were told, and many of them chose death

rather than to deny their heritage.

Rabbi Amnon of Mayence bled to death after after torture, a prayer on his lips.

The Jews of the Rhineland were murdered by Crusader hordes.

The Jews of Jerusalem were burned alive in their synagogue by the Crusaders.

The Jews of Blois were murdered  for the blood libel, a vicious lie.

The Jews of York died in Clifford’s Tower, rather than convert.

The Jews of Provence were blamed for the Black Death, and massacred.

I remember the Jews whose names are now forgotten,

martyrs who suffered and died rather than abandon the covenant.    

They were hunted like animals, and they died in public.

No voice rose to speak for them, none came to their aid.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.

3.  Eleh ezkerah, These I remember:

I remember the Jews of Sepharad, the Jews of Spain and Portugal.

The monarchs of Spain and the King of Portugal offered them a choice:

convert, go to exile, or die.

Many fled, some were converted by force.

Many remained secretly faithful to Torah..

Too many of them suffered at the hands of the Inquisition,

burnt to death in the auto-da-fe:

Thus were the great congregations of Sepharad destroyed:

in Seville, in Cordoba, in Cadiz, in Barcelona,

in Granada, in Malaga, and in Toledo

Jewish prayers and Jewish voices were heard no more. 

The civilization that produced great poetry and science, philosophy and medicine

scattered to the four corners of the earth,

driven underground, and burnt to death in the city centers.

Their neighbors denounced them, and crowds cheered for their blood. 

No voice rose to speak for them, none came to their aid. 

Eleh ezkerah, These I remember.

4.  Eleh ezkerah, These I remember:

I remember the Jews of Eastern Europe and Russia, the dwellers in the shtetl:

those who died in pogroms, in the Chmielnitsky massacre,

at the hands of Cossacks.

I remember the slaughter of children,

I remember the destruction of families and homes.

I remember their precarious lives, their pitiful deaths, and I say:

Eleh ezkerah, these I remember.

History took a more murderous turn.   

The cruel choice of the past – Convert or die! – became no choice at all.

The time of martyrs gave way to an even more terrible time,

when there were no choices,

only death, only murder, only annihilation.

Anti-Semitism, racism, and other bigotries were the scourge of humanity:

no choices.

Not only did we suffer, but other races and nations have felt their brutal virulence.

And still, the world stood too silent, did too little:

Africans were bought and sold like farm animals, while the world watched.

Native Americans were hounded, hunted, and murdered, while the world watched.

Armenians were the target of genocide, while the world watched

Jews were the prime target of the Nazis, slated for obliteration.

What can we say, in the face of the Shoah?

There are no words, no meanings, nothing to make sense of it.

The cold machinery piled us in nameless graves,

burnt us to cinders, ground us to dust.

What can we say about the loss of Jewish families, Jewish minds, Jewish learning?

What, what can one say in the presence of burning children?

And all of this, all of this, while the world watched.

Even today, there are those who deny that it happened.

But eleh ezkerah:  These I remember.

5. Eleh ezkerah: These I remember:

October 27, 2018, a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh:

Three congregations shared a building:

Or Hadash, Or L’Simcha, and Tree of Life.

An intruder (may his name be forgotten) murdered eleven Jews

and injured six more, not counting the shock wave

that went through American Jewry at the news.

Eleh ezkerah: These I remember:

  • Joyce Fienberg
  • Richard Gottfried
  • Rose Mallinger
  • Jerry Rabinowitz
  • Cecil Rosenthal
  • David Rosenthal
  • Bernice Simon
  • Sylvan Simon
  • Daniel Stein
  • Melvin Wax
  • Irving Younger

6. Eleh ezkerah: These I remember:

Lori Gilbert-Kaye attended Chabad of Poway for Shabbat services

April 27, 2019: The final day of Passover, a day of freedom and joy.

She was gunned down as she tried to protect her rabbi.

7.  Eleh ezkerah: These I remember:

I cannot forget the rare kind face, the furtive hand extended in help.

I cannot forget those who risked their lives to save one single Jew.

I cannot forget the righteous gentiles, who spoke up for us, and went to the camps with us.

I cannot forget the police who battled the intruder in Pittsburgh, who risked their lives to defend Jewish lives, and the officer who arrested the gunman in Poway.

Thank God for the outstretched hand, the kind word, the response of civil servants.

Eleh ezkerah:  These, too, I will remember!

6.  Eleh ezkerah: These I remember.  These I cannot forget.

Never again!  Never again while a silent world watches.

I may not stand by while my neighbor bleeds.

I may not stand by while my sister is hunted and hurt.

I may not stand by while my brother is starving.

I may not stand by while anyone is made homeless.

I may not stand by while there is injustice – never again!

Eleh ezkerah v’nafshi alai eshpechah!

These I remember and I pour out my soul within me!

Yom Kippur and #MeToo Issues

Image: A tree-lined walkway in autumn, with light at the end. (Johannes Plenio /Pixabay)

I’ve written before about some of these issues, in Jewish Resources for Abuse Survivors, but Yom Kippur is approaching and I gather from Twitter that I’m not the only survivor feeling twitchy as the Day of Atonement approaches.

Issue: Loss of Control: Over the years, I’ve realized that one aspect of Yom Kippur is that we give up a lot of our autonomy for a day. For many Jews, that’s a useful thing. We have a list of things to do which fill the 24 hours of the day, and we do them, and there isn’t room for anything else. If we are born Jewish, or have been Jewish for a number of years, there is also the communal expectation that we will do these things weighing upon us. It doesn’t feel like a choice – it’s just what we must do. For a person who has had trauma involving control over their body, some of usual Yom Kippur observances can be triggering.

Reply: If the loss of control is a spiritual barrier, then perhaps some alternative observance would be more effective. If sitting in shul becomes too much, it’s OK to quietly exit and take a walk, even just a walk down the hall. If fasting is likely to trigger problems, make alternative plans. Tell yourself ahead of time that you are free to do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. You are free.

Issue: Guilt & Shame: For many of us, shame was a big part of the abuse experience, used like a weapon by an abuser. Remind yourself that shame is different than guilt: a guilty party has something for which to atone. The person who feels ashamed is turned inward on themselves in disgust or anger. The Day of Atonement is very much about guilt, and about the cure for guilt, which is teshuvah. Shame, however, doesn’t need teshuvah; the one who suffers from shame is a wounded soul in need of healing.

Reply: Healing from shame is not a one-day project, but it can be done. For Yom Kippur this year, try resolving to be as gentle with yourself as you would be with a five year old who felt horrible. Think about a trusted person to whom you could reach out, even a little bit, with the shame that has bound you. That person might be a therapist, a rabbi, or a good friend. Then in the days after this Yom Kippur, reach out and say, “There is this thing bothering me and I need help.”

Issue: Anger: One year I felt angry during Yom Kippur. We kept reading the Vidui prayers, listing sins, and it suddenly put me in touch with my anger at things that had been done to me. I was furious! I wanted an apology this minute! I could barely sit still. I fumed all the way through the prayers, and at the same time, I knew that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, and I felt angry and ashamed about that.

Reply: For some of us, there’s a point at which anger is progress. If you have had trouble feeling angry, then this response to Yom Kippur is really a gift. Follow up on that gift with a call to a therapist, if you have one, or get a therapist, if you don’t. This is an opportunity to get work done. On the other hand, if anger is where you are stuck lately, maybe lists of sins aren’t the healthiest reading right now. Take a walk, get out into nature, exercise, do something else to blow off the energy.

Are there emotions or experiences with Yom Kippur that I haven’t addressed here? Do you have ways you deal with these issues? I encourage you to share what you feel comfortable sharing in the Comments section.

Here is a psalm I keep in my machzor (HHD prayer book):

The Holy One is a haven for the oppressed, a haven in times of trouble.

Those who know Your name trust You, for You do not abandon those who turn to You, O God.

Sing a hymn to the Holy One, who reigns in Zion; declare God’s deeds among the peoples.

For God does not ignore the cry of the afflicted; God who requites bloodshed is mindful of them.

Have mercy on me, O Holy One; see my affliction at the hands of my foes, You who lift me from the gates of death,

so that in the gates of Fair Zion I might tell all Your praise, I might exult in Your deliverance.

Psalms 9: 10-15

Moving the Furniture

Image: My computer, unplugged and out of the way.

We have to rearrange the house to get some repairs done. Sukkot is coming, which means at least one gathering, and some other events as well. We are cleaning and repairing things in expectation of guests, holidays, and (soon) a new grandchild.

Funny, if you move the furniture around, you find stuff. We discovered when we moved the couch that there was a line of shmutz (Yiddish for dirt) just under it. I’ll have to clean that up before we replace the couch.

Yom Kippur is a lot like that. Our tradition gives us a season to drag around the furniture of our lives, checking for shmutz, fixing what’s broken. That season culminates in a serious 24 hour period for reflection, stripped of our usual distractions of food, or drink, or sex. If we use it well, we will be renewed. If we waste it by clinging to distractions, we are the losers.

Many of us are worried about the state of the world and the country right now. That, too, can be a distraction from dealing with the things that are truly ours to control: our behavior, our attitudes, and our choices.

I wish you a thoughtful, prayerful time as you traverse the Days of Awe 5780.

“This is the fast I desire…”

Image: Sunrise over earth, in space. (kimono/pixabay)

The story that follows is an amalgam of several stories I could tell. All the names have been changed, and the setting obscured. If you are an old friend and wondering if this is your congregation, the answer is maybe and probably not.

Once upon a time, there was a student rabbi leading Yom Kippur services. As the day went on, a little drama developed.

First, seventy year old Dora fainted. She had been fasting from food and water, and it got the best of her. Her daughter called 911, because it seemed Dora had both heart trouble and diabetes. After the EMT’s took Dora to the hospital, the student rabbi ditched the topic she’d planned for the afternoon colloquy and instead started a conversation about fasting.

She began with the teaching that pregnant women and sick people are exempt from the fast. There’s a commandment called lishmor haguf, “protecting the body,” and it commands us not to endanger our bodies. Some people cannot safely fast. Then she opened it up for questions and discussion.

It turns out that Dora was not alone in her determination to fast whether it was good for her or not. Person after person stood up, paid a bit of lip service to the idea of not fasting, and then proceeded to tell about the worst Yom Kippur fast they ever survived – and soon the student rabbi realized to her horror that it had become a contest. Each person who stood up tried to top the story before, until ninety-something Mike talked about how he fought in a WWII battle on a Pacific island all day and all night – and since it was Yom Kippur, he took not a single sip of water.

The student watched the faces of those she knew were not fasting, and they would not meet her eyes. They felt shamed by the stories of Yom-Kippur-valor, shamed and set apart. Later private conversations confirmed it: more than one used the word “wimp” to describe themselves.

Folks, the original point of fasting was to atone for our sins, to mortify our bodies – to remind us that someday we will die. The sages did not teach this to us so that we could show off, or display our piety, or for a contest about who’s the toughest or who’s the most fragile.

If fasting is going to hurt you, don’t fast. And perhaps – just perhaps – there is something you can do that’s better than forgoing food and drink. Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah, and make your plans for this Yom Kippur:

Cry with full throat, without restraint; Raise your voice like a ram’s horn! Declare to My people their transgression, To the House of Jacob their sin.

To be sure, they seek Me daily, Eager to learn My ways. Like a nation that does what is right, That has not abandoned the laws of its God, They ask Me for the right way, They are eager for the nearness of God:

“Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers!

Because you fast in strife and contention, And you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such As to make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush And lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, A day when the LORD is favorable?

No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin.

Then shall your light burst through like the dawn And your healing spring up quickly; Your Vindicator shall march before you, The Presence of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then, when you call, the LORD will answer; When you cry, He will say: Here I am. If you banish the yoke from your midst, The menacing hand, and evil speech,

And you offer your compassion to the hungry And satisfy the famished creature— Then shall your light shine in darkness, And your gloom shall be like noonday.

— Isaiah 58: 1-10

What is a Vidui?

Image: A walkway across a dune, to the ocean. (Ulrike Mai / Pixabay)

One of the prayers we will say during the Yom Kippur ritual is called a vidui (vee-DOO-ee). Vidui means “confession,” and that is exactly what it is. It includes an acrostic list of sins.

However, the use of the vidui prayer is not limited to the Yom Kippur service. Such prayers can be very helpful in cheshbon nefesh, taking stock of our lives, as we prepare for the High Holy Days.

The other principal time we say the vidui prayer is near the end of life. The sick person has the opportunity to consider their life in light of Torah values, taking responsibility for their life, for things done and undone, words spoken and unspoken. They may say the prayer alone, or with a rabbi or other support person.

The traditional vidui is a Hebrew prayer, and the English translations of it vary, depending on whether the translator is invested in maintaining the acrostic form. It is always a list of sins, which allows those saying the prayer to reflect on the ways and times they have slipped into those behaviors.

There are also a number of nontraditional vidui variations, such as:

Al Cheyt, Regarding Ivanka

Image: Ivanka Trump at the Holocaust Memorial. (Public Domain)

I just saw some chatter on Jewish Twitter about Ivanka Trump. Doesn’t matter who was writing, or what they said; it was the same stuff as usual, and I started to do what I’ve been doing for years and let it pass. Then I realized that I need to make teshuvah, because my silence has been a sin.

So I confess it, Al cheyt, Concerning the sin of listening in silence to lashon hara (literally “evil tongue,” spreading lies) I am guilty. I have let people say cruel and untrue things about Ivanka Trump and I have said not a word.

Ivanka Trump is giyoret, a convert to Judaism like myself. She converted to a different branch of Judaism, and she has made a lot of choices that I don’t like, but that doesn’t change the fact that her conversion was legitimate. Like it or not, she’s one of us.

It has become fashionable in some circles to speak ill of her Jewish practice, to cast aspersions on her legitimacy as a Jew, and to use the word shiksa (Yiddish for non-Jewish woman, but literally “filth”) to refer to her. I’ve listened to people say such things, and I was silent.

Her conversion is legitimate. Her observance may not be perfect, but whose is?

She is a public figure, involved in the U.S. government. It’s fair game to disagree with her politics and her fitness for her job. It’s fair game to question her business practices. I don’t even have to like her.

It is not OK, it is downright wrong, for me to stand by while people throw words like shiksa at a convert. And from now on, I shall behave differently: I will change the subject, I will send the conversation elsewhere, or I will confront the person saying these things privately.

For the sin of evil speech, spoken or accepted, which we have committed before you, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us. 

– Adapted from Al Cheyt prayer in the Yom Kippur service

What to Wear on Yom Kippur?

Image: Air Force Captain Rabbi Gary Davidson is wearing a kittel and puts on a tallit to lead Yom Kippur services for Air Force personnel stationed in South East Asia. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Central Command)

(If it’s not Yom Kippur, see my other article What to Wear to Synagogue?)

I noticed that the third most popular article on this blog on Rosh Hashanah was What to Wear to Synagogue. I suspect there may also be folks who wonder what to wear on Yom Kippur – or who get to synagogue and worry that they have worn the wrong thing.

Yom Kippur is a complicated day for clothing choices for Jews, because there is a wide variation of practice. For a visitor to an unfamiliar synagogue, you are unlikely to go far wrong with clean, tidy business attire. 

However, what you will see upon arrival at the synagogue may cover quite a range. Here are some choices you may encounter at a Yom Kippur service:

  1. Many people will wear “nice” business attire.
  2. Some may choose to wear canvas or plastic shoes, since traditionally there is a prohibition of wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur.
  3. Some may choose to wear a white garment that looks a bit like a modest lightweight bathrobe or a lab coat. It’s called a kittel, and it has multiple connotations. Bridegrooms may wear a kittel for weddings. A kittel is part of the tachrichim, the traditional burial shroud. It conveys a sense of both purity and mourning.
  4. Some may choose to observe the prohibition against “anointing” on Yom Kippur. Interpretations of this practice vary: women may refrain from wearing cosmetics, men may forgo scented products. Some individuals interpret it as including deodorant.
  5. Washing for pleasure is forbidden during Yom Kippur, but washing for hygiene is permitted. Individuals decide on precisely where to draw those lines themselves. You may see someone who appears to be having a “bad hair day” because they still have “bed head.”

Why would civilized people show up for a major religious observance with such grooming? This has to do with the five “afflictions” of Yom Kippur. Traditionally, on Yom Kippur Jews abstain from:

  1. Food and drink
  2. sex
  3. washing for pleasure
  4. anointing
  5. wearing leather shoes

In my own experience as an American Reform Jew, I’ve seen a few people groom themselves differently for Yom Kippur, and some people wear canvas shoes. A much smaller number wear a kittel. Most people wear tidy, clean clothing but nothing unusual.

The last thing that’s different about clothing for Yom Kippur is that you will see a number of people in synagogue wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl, at the evening Kol Nidre service. At no other time does the Jew in the pew wear a tallit at night.

In most Orthodox synagogues, the tallit and kittel are seen as males-only attire. I say “most” because even in Orthodoxy, customs vary from shul to shul. Women dress as they do for any other service at that synagogue. How dressy they will be depends on the culture of that particular community. In general, women at an Orthodox shul wear skirts, not slacks.

For a visitor in any synagogue, the same rule applies as for other services: you are likely to fit right in wearing business attire. The important thing is that one be clean, tidy and modest. You want to dress in a way that will allow you and those around you to pay attention to prayer and the service, because after all, that’s the point!