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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Yom Kippur

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Yom Kippur is observed by fasting (neither eating nor drinking) and prayer. All bodily pleasures, including washing with water and engaging in marital relations, are forbidden on Yom Kippur. The law also forbids the wearing of leather shoes. One of the explanations given for this last prohibition is that just as Moses was commanded: “remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5) We are commanded do the same on Yom Kippur, when holiness permeates the whole earth.
The commandment to observe Yom Kippur is found in Leviticus 16:29-30: “In the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves, and shall not do any work”.. For on this day he shall provide atonement for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins before G-d shall you be cleansed.”
Throughout the ages, our Sages have elaborated upon the significance of the fast and upon the meaning of Yom Kippur. According to one opinion, Moses descended from Mount Sinai with the second tablets of the Ten Commandments on the tenth day of Tishrei (Yom Kippur) and brought the people the good news that the sin of the Golden Calf had been forgiven; therefore, the tenth of Tishrei was ordained as a day of forgiveness.
Quoting Philo, Dr. Joseph Hertz, in his Commentary on the Bible, states; “No other nation, ancient or modern, has an institution approaching the Day of Atonement in religious depth. A day of purification and of turning from sins for which forgiveness is granted through the grace of the merciful G-d, who holds penitence in as high an esteem as guiltlessness.”
On Yom Kippur, the Jewish people resemble the angels, without human wants, without sins, linked together in love and peace.
Confession of sin is the most essential and characteristic element in the services of the Day of Atonement. Every man begs forgiveness for his sins and hopes for G-d’s mercy, not because of his own merits, but through the compassionate nature of Him who will forgive rather than punish. The confession is said by the entire congregation collectively.
Throughout the day of Yom Kippur we pray that G-d forgive us for our sins. In the words of Rabbi Eleazar son of Azaryah, Yom Kippur atones for sins that man committed against G-d, such as desecrating the Sabbath day, but for sins against a fellow man, the Day of Atonement does not atone unless and until he appeases his friend and is granted forgiveness from him. Therefore, before Yom Kippur, one should make a point to ask forgiveness from anyone that he may have wronged in any way.


On Yom Kippur, the entire day is spent in prayer and meditation. The prayer service begins with Kol Nidrei ("All Vows"), the nullification of vows. It has been said: “The awe and solemnity with which it is pronounced, the beauty and pathos of the threefold chant, the scattered millions of Israel gathered in every synagogue in the world, are signs that the words of the prayer, written like an old inscription, are full of meaning. Beneath them lurks the thought that is G-d-inspired, a conception of the sanctity of Truth.”
Al Chet ("For the sin’.."), which is recited twice at each service on Yom Kippur, with the exception of Neilah, the Closing Service, is a confession listing many human sins, enumerated in alphabetical order. This too, is recited together by the entire congregation. Hence, the plural form is used, “for the sins that we have committed.” The confession is repeated many times through out the prayer service, so that it may penetrate every heart.
The Torah reading for Shachris (Morning Service) consists of the 16th Chapter of Leviticus. The sacrifices offered by the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, are described. He was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem once each year, on Yom Kippur. Another portion is read for the Maftir (the concluding reading). This reading describes the sacrifices offered by the people of Israel on Yom Kippur. The Prophetic reading for the Haftorah (additional reading) is taken from Isaiah. The prophet warns the people not to think that fasting alone atones for sins. On Yom Kippur, abstinence is only effective if it is accompanied by justice, good deeds, and a sincerely repentant heart.
The Yom Kippur prayer service concludes with Neilah, which means the closing of the gates. As the day nears its end, the gates of mercy are about to be shut. These words of the Neilah service contain the essence of the Yom Kippur message: “You reach out a hand to willful sinners and Your right hand is extended to accept penitents. You taught us, our G-d, to confess before you regarding our sin… so that You will accept us with a perfect repentance before You” You, O G-d of forgiveness, are merciful, slow to anger, abundant in kindness and truth. You favor the repentance of the wicked.”

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