Technically Yom Kippur doesn’t begin until sundown, but we’re getting pretty close to sundown here on the west coast and I figure that many of you are already well past that. So, happy Yom Kippur! (Or, is it “merry” Yom Kippur? Blessed Yom Kippur? Yom Kippur greetings?) Anyway, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) begins at sundown tonight (Sep 17) and ends at sundown on Saturday (Sep 18). So, it’s time to get your Yom Kippur on.
To be honest, I don’t normally notice when it’s Yom Kippur. But, the following article was sent to me by Dr. Carl Laney, one of our Bible professors. I thought the article was quite interesting in that it doesn’t focus on the theology of Yom Kippur, with which I’m already familiar (see esp. Lev. 16:1-34; 23:27-32), but it describes the traditional practices associated with its celebration. I found that quite fascinating. So, I’m passing it along to everyone else for your personal edification. The article was originally written by Professor Yagal Levin.
Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath: no work can be performed on that day. It is a complete, 25-hour fast from eating and drinking (even water) beginning before sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. The Talmud also specifies additional restrictions: washing and bathing, anointing one’s body (with cosmetics, deodorants, etc.), wearing leather shoes (Orthodox Jews routinely wear canvas sneakers under their dress clothes on Yom Kippur), and engaging in sexual relations are all prohibited on Yom Kippur.
Most of the holiday is spent in the synagogue, in prayer. It is customary to wear white on the holiday which symbolizes purity and calls to mind the promise that Israel’s sins shall be made as white as snow (Is. 1:18).
The liturgy for Yom Kippur is much more extensive than for any other day of the year. The evening service that begins Yom Kippur is commonly known as Kol Nidre, named for the prayer that begins the service. Perhaps the most important addition to the regular liturgy is the confession of the sins of the community. All sins are confessed in the plural (we have done this, we have done that), emphasizing communal responsibility for sins.
It is interesting to note that these confessions do not specifically address ritual sins. There is no “For the sin we have sinned before you by eating pork, and for the sin we have sinned against you by driving on Shabbat”. The vast majority of the sins enumerated involve mistreatment of other people, most of them by speech (offensive speech, scoffing, slander, tale-bearing and swearing falsely, to name a few).
The concluding service of Yom Kippur, known as Ne’ilah, is one unique to the day. The ark (a cabinet where the scrolls of the Torah are kept) is kept open and most people stand throughout this service. There is a tone of desperation in the prayers of this service. The service is sometimes referred to as “the closing of the gates”; think of it as the “last chance” to get in a good word before the holiday ends. The service ends with a very long blast of the shofar. After a festive (as we are sure that God has indeed forgiven our sins) “break-fast” meal, it is common to go out and immediately start constructing the sukkah, to show that we are serious about obeying all of God’s commandments.