Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), together, are known as the High Holy Days (or High Holidays).
For many, this is the only time of the year we go to synagogue. For others, it's a chance to reflect, take stock of the past year and make amends. It's a holiday season that is rich in symbols, like the shofar or apples dipped in honey.
Our booklet, High Holy Days: the Basics , explains the Days of Awe, starting with Rosh Hashanah and running through Yom Kippur, including what to expect at synagogue services, what the home celebrations may look like and concluding with a glossary of useful terms.
InterfaithFamily is the premiere resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities. Learn more at InterfaithFamily.com.
The Day of Atonement is the most holy day of the Jewish year and it is full of spiritual opportunity if you open yourself up to its customs, prayers and melodies. This short video is a basic primer on what Yom Kippur is, for everyone. It explains what the holiday is about, where it comes from, what to expect at a service and how to break the fast! A great intro for Jews and non-Jews alike - share with your curious coworker or family member.
Created with the generous support of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.
Fasting on Yom Kippur is not as obvious as one might think. Nowhere does the Torah explicitly command it. Instead, the verses teach us to “afflict ourselves” without defining the nature of this “affliction.”
We do know that Yom Kippur is about atonement and forgiveness. So how does “afflicting” ourselves through fasting relate to teshuva ? Many assume that fasting is a form of self-punishment, a way of balancing the scales for over-indulgence or rule-breaking. The pietists of medieval Ashkenaz called this teshuvat hamishkal, literally repentance of balance. The pleasure brought by sin must be accounted for and balanced by physical discomfort. But this does not connect fasting to the personal growth and psychological transformation.
In his commentary on Leviticus, the Abravanel (1437-1508, Portugal) connects fasting to our capacity to be like angels. When we abstain from food and water we demonstrate our spiritual identities. As another medieval commentator noted, when we fast our bodies are afflicted, but our souls rejoice. I find the sharp dualism hard to connect with. I do not conceive of myself as a good, pure soul in constant conflict with and chained to a corrupt, sinning body. I find an integrated identity more relevant.
The Talmud alludes to another approach that I find to be the most helpful. In the section dealing with fasting, the rabbis note that Yom Kippur is referred to as a shabbaton, a day of rest. From this perspective, when we abstain from eating and drinking, we are actually “resting” or “pausing” from these activities. The discomfort we feel on Yom Kippur is not a direct result of the absence of physical pleasure but rather, from the psychic and spiritual pain brought on by sin.
When we act in ways that betray our inner goodness and contradict the essence of who we are as beings in relationship with God and each other, our souls are in pain. While this pain is always present, many of us ignore it, cover it up, or distract ourselves with physical pleasure.
On Yom Kippur we “rest” from these distractions and allow the “affliction” in our hearts (from pain caused, opportunities missed, and alienation from our best selves) to be fully experienced and felt. This type of affliction can then push us towards growth, forgiveness and transformation!
Rabbi Zvi Hirschfield teaches Talmud, Halakha and Jewish Thought.
From "The Pardes Companion to Yom Kippur": http://elmad.pardes.org/2016/09/the-pardes-companion-to-yom-kippur/
Unetaneh Tokef is a medieval prayer, of unknown authorship, recited in the Musaf Service of both Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. Unetaneh Tokef affirms our own mortality, asking, “Who shall live and who shall die?” In it, we state that through teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer), and tzedakah (acts of justice) we can transform our destiny and give meaning to our lives.
We shall ascribe holiness to this day, for it is awesome and terrifying. Your kingship is exalted upon it. Your throne is established in mercy. You are enthroned upon it in truth. You are the judge, the exhorter, the all-knowing, the witness. You are the One who inscribes and seals, remembering all that is forgotten. You open the book of remembrance, which speaks for itself, and the signature of each person is found there.
The great shofar is sounded. A still small voice is heard. The angels are dismayed, they are seized by fear and trembling as they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment! For all the hosts of heaven are brought for judgment, they shall not be innocent in Your eyes. All creatures shall parade before You as a troop. As a shepherd herds his flock, causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff, so do You count and record all the souls of the living, decreeing the length of their days, inscribing their judgment.
On Rosh Ha-Shanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born? Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not? Who shall perish by water and who by re? Who by sword and who by wild beast? Who by famine and who by thirst? Who by earthquake and who by plague? Who by strangulation and who by stoning? Who shall have rest and who shall wander? Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued? Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented? Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low? Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished?
But repentance (teshuvah), prayer (te lah), and righteousness (tzedaka) transform the severe decree.
You are our Creator and You understand our inclination, for we are but flesh and blood. The origin of man is dust, his end is dust. He earns his bread by exertion and is like a broken shard, like dry grass, like a withered flower, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that fades. But You are Soverign, God who lives for all eternity!
Inspired by Un'taneh Tokef, (ונתנה תוקף) (" Let us speak of the awesomeness "), a piyyut that has been a part of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy in rabbinical Judaism for centuries.
To help people understand and prepare for Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement - and the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Peter Rubinstein unpacks the central prayer of the holiday, Kol Nidre, which is chanted in synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur and traditionally draws huge crowds, despite the obscure meaning of the text. He offers some ideas about why this ancient Aramaic prayer still has such a hold on so many people.
Kol Nidrei, sung by Cantor Angela Buchdahl
The traditional confessional prayer, the Vidui, is composed of two parts, the Ashamnu and the Al Chet, that we read aloud on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. The Ashamnu (translated as “we have trespassed” or “we are guilty”) is an abbreviated confession, an alphabetic acrostic, and written in first person plural. We recite this confessional in the plural to represent our shared responsibility and culpability in all of our lives and missteps. We also share this confessional as a reminder that forgiveness is also shared.
Use the modern interpretation of the Ashamnu below using the English alphabet and add in your missteps for each letter of the alphabet:
We have behaved arrogantly,
We have betrayed ourselves and our families,
We have acted out of contempt,
We have been dishonest,
We have erred out of ignorance,
We have forgotten who we are,
We have gossiped,
We have been hypocritical,
We have been insensitive,
We have justified bad decisions,
We have killed our impulse to do good,
We have looked the other way,
We have been mean,
We have been neglectful,
We have acted out of fear instead of love,
We have pushed too much,
We have been quiet when we should have spoken up,
We have been rageful,
We have stolen,
We have tried to teach when we should have tried to learn,
We have been untrue,
We have behaved violently,
We have withheld that which could have been given freely,
We have held others to unrealistic expectations,
We have yielded instead of moving forward,
We have zoomed too narrowly into challenges
Over the course of our Yom Kippur prayers, we recite the Al Chet over and over again.
V’al kulam, Elo’ah s’lichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper-lanu. “For the ways in which we have fallen short, oh God, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement,” we say. We take collective responsibility for our communal shortcomings, even for the ways in which we may not have failed individually. We acknowledge both our conscious and unconscious failings.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha b’imutz ha’lev v’al chet shechatanu l’fanecha bi’v’li da’at. “For the sin of commission and for the sin of omission,” we say. But it is not just in our relationship with God that we have missed the mark. We have also wronged our fellow human beings, those who sit next to us and those we have never met but whose cries for help we failed to answer. At this time, we take a moment to reflect on how we fell short in our struggle to confront and stem the tide of the worst refugee crisis in history. We acknowledge both the actions we could have taken but did not and those we never knew to take in the first place.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha – for the sin we commit when we fail to recognize the enormity and pervasiveness of the global refugee crisis.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha when we close our eyes to the horrifying images of children clinging to the sides of boats unfit for sea travel, images of terrified parents passing their babies through barbed wire fences.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha when we are unwilling to give tzedakah to our full capacity to ensure that refugees have safe housing, medical care, and food to eat.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha when we remain silent with our voices and our votes instead of calling on the United States to be a world leader in responding to this crisis.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha when we allow fear to give way to xenophobia.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha when we assume that someone else will help.
Al chet shechatanu lifanecha when we absolve ourselves of the burden of tempering the decree faced by the 65 million refugees and displaced people around the world.
May our teshuvah, our tzedakah, and our tefilah enable us to do more in the year to come for those so desperately in need of our protection.
V’al kulam, Elo’ah s’lichot, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper-lanu. For all these failings and more, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.
Download the PDF here: http://www.hias.org/sites/default/files/final_designed_high_holiday_liturgical_reading_2016-5777.pdf
This is adapted from an original post that I wrote in 2010.
The 10 Days of Repentance represent the window of time in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, during which time we are meant to repent on the sins of the past year. I’ve always found it tough to focus on this and properly bring it down to earth, so I developed this writing exercise to help me through it. It can work for anyone, irrespective of faith. Read on…
Imagine if you had to spend 10 days in a room confronted with all of your sins/mistakes/wrongdoings of the past year:
1. What would that room look like? How big would it be?
2. Who or what would be in this room? Would there mostly be people in that room? Actions? Thoughts? Decisions? Ideas?
3. What what you say to them/what would they say to you?
4. What would it feel like to spend 10 days in there? Could you handle it?
5. What would you do with the time that you had in there? What would you address first, last?
At the end of those 10 days, whatever you do, it’s time for you to leave that room and close the door for the next year. But don’t close it all the way. Leave it just a little bit ajar. You may have done all you can, but accept the fact that come next year, you might re-enter that room and be confronted with some of the same things. And Yom Kippur comes along, you can be the one closing the gates, writing the book. You don’t have to let God make all of the decisions, since at the end of the day, so much of it is completely in your own hands.
Happy new year, everybody!