Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement

10 09 2008

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day of the Jewish Calender. On this day, G-d seals the fate of each person, deciding what the coming year will hold.  The Sages tell us that Rosh Hashana , the Jewish New Year, is the day when judgment is inscribed, and Yom Kippur, ten days later, is the day when the judgment is sealed.  As the final day of judgment, Yom Kippur is an opportunity for every Jew to fully repent any previous wrongdoings or faults, and merit a year full of blessing.

Atonement For All Sins

The Torah describes Yom Kippur as the “day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before G‑d” (Leviticus 16:30).  The day is marked by fasting and prayer as we beseech G-d for a good year for ourselves, our families, the Jewish People and the entire world.  For 26 hours, we focus completely on returning to G-d.  We refrain from five significant acts.  There is no eating or drinking, we do not wash or anoint our bodies, no wearing leather shoes, and we abstain from marital relations.  These acts represent the material and physical aspects of our lives, and we abstain from them on Yom Kippur in order to emphasize our inner selves, and our longing for closeness to G-d.  It is also a custom to wear white clothing, signifying our desire for purity and holiness.

Repentance and Atonement are key themes throughout the day.  We beg for forgiveness for our sins of the past year and resolve to act only in accordance with G-d’s will.  Our Sages tell us that Yom Kippur can only atone for sins between Man and G-d, such as eating non-kosher food, inadequately fulfilling one’s obligation to learn Torah or pray properly, not keeping Shabbat, etc.  However, Yom Kippur cannot atone for sins between Man and his fellow Man.   Stealing from another person, slandering, or shaming someone will not be forgiven on Yom Kippur unless the sinner first begs for forgiveness from the person he has harmed.  Only once he has appeased his friend can he proceed to ask G-d to forgive him for those sins as well.  It is therefore an accepted practice among Jews to try to remember who they might have harmed over the past year and ask them for Mechila (forgiveness).

The Tefillot of Yom Kippur

There are five specific tefillot, prayers, throughout Yom Kippur: Maariv, Shacharit, Mussaf, Mincha, and Neila.  The highlight of each of these prayers is the Vidui (confession), which is recited twice during each of these five prayers.  Perhaps the most famous prayer of Yom Kippur is not one of the five prayers at all, but an introductory prayer to the Yom Kippur service, the Kol Nidrei. Kol Nidrei is the soft, supplicating prayer that precedes the tefillah of Maariv.  In this short prayer, we exclaim that, tonight, we allow everyone, both the wicked and the righteous, to join together in prayer to Hashem.  We then ask Hashem to nullify any vows and promises that we’ve made over the last year, so that we may begin the coming year with a clean slate. 

Maariv, the Prayer after Nightfall, which is recited after the sun sets and Yom Kippur begins, is different from any other holiday Maariv service. It is the only Maariv prayer that includes Selichot, special supplications for forgiveness. The selichot prayers feature many repetitions of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the special prayer that G-d taught Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, when He forgave the sin of the Golden Calf. 

Shacharit, the Morning Prayer, follows the regular pattern of Shacharit for Holidays, and also includes Vidui in the private Shemoneh Esrei and the chazzan’s repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei.  Many piyutim (prayer poems) proclaiming G-d’s Sovereignty versus Man’s impotence, are added to the chazzan’s repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei. The Shacharit prayer ends with the Reading of the Torah, which describes the Kohen Gadol’s service in the Beit Hamikdash (the Temple) on Yom Kippur, and with Yizkor (the Memorial Prayer for the Deceased), which is recited on every holiday.

In the times of the Temple, an extra sacrifice was brought in honor of every holiday.  Now that we don’t have a Temple, Mussaf, the ‘Additional Prayer,’ is added to every holiday Morning Service.  The Shemoneh Esrei of Mussaf describes the sacrifice that was offered in the Temple on the holiday.  The Mussaf of Yom Kippur relates the unique service of the High Priest in the Beit Hamikdash on Yom Kippur.  On Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) sacrificed special sacrifices in order to atone for himself, his family, his tribe, and the Jewish People.  The Mussaf prayers beautifully describe the many steps of purification and atonement performed by the Kohen Gadol, climaxing with the once-a-year entry of the Kohen Gadol into the Kodesh HaKedoshim (Holy of Holies).  During this time, a red thread was hung outside the Beit Hamikdash while the Kohen Gadol was in the Kodesh Hakedoshim.  If the service in the Kodesh HaKedoshim was performed properly, the red thread miraculously turned white, symbolizing G-d’s forgiveness of His People.  The people would then joyously accompany the Kohen Gadol to his home.  One who fervently recites these Mussaf prayers is considered to have actually witnessed the Yom Kippur service in the Temple, and therefore merits the same level of atonement.

Mincha, The Afternoon Prayer, features a reading of the Book of Jonah, which describes Yona Hanavi’s (Jonah the Prophet), attempt to ‘escape’ the prophesy of G-d by leaving Israel, and his subsequent suffering on the boat and in the innards of a large fish.  The theme of the Book of Jonah is repentance; the repentance of Yona Hanavi, the sailors on the ship, and the non-Jewish city of Ninveh are all described.

The last tefillah of the day is Neila, literally the Locking of the Gates.  This prayer is the climax of Yom Kippur.  Recited just before nightfall, we desperately beseech G-d for His mercy before the Heavenly books are closed.  We end the tefilla with a powerful Acceptance of G-d’s Sovereignty, Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim, as the whole congregation cries out the Shema in unison, and follows by affirming our complete faith in G-d by reciting other pesukim of faith repeatedly.

Although Yom Kippur is a serious time, there is an undercurrent of joyful hope. We believe that G-d will accept our sincere repentance and forgive us for our sins, allowing us to build a relationship of love and trust with Him again. The day ends with a shofar blast and singing of “Next Year in Jerusalem” usually accompanied by singing and dancing.

To learn more about Yom Kippur as well as the Yom Kippur Davening (Prayer), check out these Torah video classes at www.naaleh.com:

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