Shalom y’all and welcome to Better Know a Jewish Holiday: Yom Kippur!
The Fightin’ Day of Atonement!
As the second of the “High Holidays,” Yom Kippur is considered a pretty big deal in the Jewish community. For many Jews, it’s one of the few holidays they celebrate and synagogue/temple attendance skyrockets
The holiday begins Tuesday evening this year with Kol Nidre (Kohl Need-ray). Yom Kippur kicks off with an evening service, whose name is taken from the major prayer we say and literally means “all my vows.”
Kol Nidre is a renunciation of all vows and oaths taken in the prior year. It was developed at a time when people took vows much more seriously and yet would often make vows/oaths they simply could not keep. It gave everyone a blank slate heading into the new year.
The prayer took on new meaning and importance during the Spanish Inquisition and other times when Jews were persecuted and forcibly converted. Many Jews saw Kol Nidre as an opportunity to call take-backsies on those conversions.
Now, on to the day itself: Most people associate Yom Kippur with atonement, or seeking pardon for our sins. For the 10 days leading up to Yom Kippur Jews will be apologizing to people for everything they’ve done wrong over the past year. In Jewish tradition, before God can forgive you for any sins, the person who you wronged has to accept your apology.
I’d like to go ahead and get this out of the way. I know I probably slighted many of you at some point this year soooo:
In ancient times, atoning for our sins was done communally and the entire Israelite people would gather in Jerusalem to ask God for forgiveness.
The high priest would take two goats and would cast lots (draw straws) to determine which would be the community’s literal “scapegoat.”
On Yom Kippur, the High Priest would place his hands on one of the goats and figuratively (or literally, depending on how seriously you take this) would transfer the sins of the entire Jewish people onto the goat.
The goat would the be led off into the wilderness in order to rid the community of the sins.
We don’t use goats any more, but the idea of passing our sins onto an animal is alive and well. The tradition of Kaparot, done during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, includes waving a live chicken over your head in order to symbolically transfer sins into the bird.
On Yom Kippur itself we spend most of the day in synagogue praying and beating our chests. This is our last chance to be sealed in the Book of Life so we really try to make it count.
Tradition holds that G-d writes us all in the Book of Life or Book of Death on Rosh Ha’Shana (which you all learned about 10 days ago) and then seals the books on Yom Kippur.
As many people know, Yom Kippur is a fast day. I found a great piece last year in which a University of Michigan student uses Amy Schumer gifs to explain what fasting is like, so I’ll just send you to her excellent work.
Despite all the fasting and chest beating, Yom Kippur was said by many Rabbis to be one of the happiest days of the year!
Some, such as The Vilna Gaon and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik go so far as to tie the holiday to the festival of Purim—when we dress up in costumes and are told to party hard—whose name shares the same Hebrew root as Yom Kippur.
So why is it a happy day? There are no shortage of reasons given, but I like to think that it’s because this day is such an incredible opportunity. We no longer send goats off into the desert to atone for our sins. We get a chance to speak one-on-one with God and ask for forgiveness and to be given another year to do as much good in the world as we can.
We also read the whole book of Jonah!
In the end, the shofar sounds one more time (go back and read the Rosh Hashana missive if you forget what that is) and then we all go and eat yummy foods at big break fast parties!
So, wish all the Jews in your life a “G’mar chatima tova!” (Gmahr Khah-tee-mah toe-vah and that’s a hard g on the front), which literally means a good final sealing but essentially means “may you be inscribed [in the Book of Life].”
To all who are fasting have an easy and meaningful fast.
No, I don’t have an obsession with goat gifs. You have an obsession with goat gifs
About the Jew
The Jew is an Uber driving, Bar Mitzvah DJing, yoga teaching ex-journalist from Ann Arbor, Michigan who attends rabbi School in NYC.