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Shana Tova 5781

09/25/2020 12:27:28 PM

Sep25

Besides Shabbat, Yom Kippur is the most sacred day in the Jewish calendar. In fact, Yom Kippur itself is called ַשבת שבתוֹן (Sabbath of complete rest) in the Torah. A common misconception about Yom Kippur, due to the fact that it is a fast day and that our focus is to be on forgiveness and regret for misdeeds of the past, is that it is a sad and solemn festival. This, however, is not supposed to be the case. While it is a day that must be taken seriously, it really is a day of joy, likened in many ways to a wedding day. On Yom Kippur, each individual Jew comes before God to be united or reunited with God and God’s highest expectations. When we do so, it is traditional to wear a white robe, called a kittel, as does a groom at a wedding or white clothing as a bride on her wedding day. Just as on one’s wedding day, we fast in order to separate ourselves from the mundane of the everyday, to physically purify ourselves and to focus on the deeper meanings of the day. 

Candle Lighting for Yom Kippur

ברוּךְ אתה ה’ א-להינוּ מלךְ העוֹלם אשר קְדשנוּ במצוֹתיו,וצוּנוּ להדליק נר של יוֹם הכפּוּרים

Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam asheir kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel yom hakippurim.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us with the commandments, and commanded us to light the candles of the Day of Atonement

The Kol Nidrei Prayer
The name given to the service on Yom Kippur eve “Kol Nidre” is derived from the text that serves as the opening prayer for that service. כל נדרי / Kol Nidrei is not so much a prayer as it is a declaration, asking God not to hold us accountable for oaths that we will not be able to fulfill over the course of the next year. The swearing of an oath or promise of any kind is taken extremely seriously by Jewish tradition, for they are seen as being made in the name of God. Failure to fulfill an oath is as if one took God’s name in vain. As Yom Kippur begins, we make this declaration with full knowledge that our prayers over the next twenty-five hours will contain many promises. Yet, we are wary that we will not be able to fulfill them all. Therefore, while we take seriously the commitments we make on Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidre prayer allows our imperfect ability to fulfill them to be acceptable.

The Kol Nidrei melody is one that is recognized the world over and is one of the rare melodies that is almost, if not completely, universally implemented. Its music brings an instant association with the festival of Yom Kippur and is meant to transport members of the congregation into a serious and introspective state of mind. The mood is enhanced by the Torah scrolls being removed from the ark and held aloft throughout the entire chanting of the text. The paragraph of Kol Nidrei is recited three times, beginning traditionally in a quiet volume, gradually increasing with each successive recitation. The completion of the third rendition reaches a climax as the Cantor reaches full volume and then ends abruptly, leaving the room in an eery silence.

The ודוּי/Vidui Confessional
The central prayer text for Yom Kippur is called the “על חטא ” “al heit,” meaning “for the misdeed.” This is the confessional during which we beat our breasts over the area of our hearts as a combined way to perform both verbal and physical repentance. One of the intriguing aspects of this text is that it is formulated in the plural. Each of us is confessing to sins that were committed by “us” as a community of the whole. It is not phrased as “For the sin that I have committed.” Rather, each of us confesses to “the sins that WE have committed.” Some of the misdeeds listed in this confessional apply to us and some of them do not. However, a communal confessional provides comfort to us as individuals in a community of “sinners.” It is much easier to perform the confessional for your own sins if you know that others are doing it right there next to you for theirs.

Recalling Yom Kippur of Temple Times: The Avodah Worship Service
Yom Kippur in the time of the First and Second Temples was the one and only day on which the Kohein Gadol/High Priest would enter the Kodesh HaKodashim/Holy of Holies (the innermost chamber of the Temple) and recite the Tetragrammaton (four letter name of God: yud-hey-vav- hey), God’s holiest of names. Intricate preparation by the High Priest for this one moment was required, under the supervision of many aides. He would stay awake studying the entire night before the day of Yom Kippur in order to be sure of what he would need to do and to remain ritually pure. The moment of the recitation of the name was accompanied by tremendous anticipation.

After the destruction of the Temples, new ways to create the drama of the Temple service was deemed necessary by the Rabbis in order to preserve the traditions of the past. The Rabbis of the Talmud obligated the study of the details of the Temple service on Yom Kippur. This obligation led to the creation of the Avodah Service as one of the parts of the Musaf/Additional Service on Yom Kippur. A recounting of the practices of the Kohein Gadol/High Priest and the verses from the Torah related to the sacrifices of Yom Kippur are included in the liturgy of the service. The Avodah Service is marked by the practice of full-body prostration (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the only two times when the practice is permitted) three times, corresponding to the recountings of the High Priest’s requests for forgiveness from God during the ancient Temple services on Yom Kippur. Full-body prostration is common in the most traditional of communities even today.

The Story of Jonah and The “Big Fish”
The Book of Jonah, one of the books of the “minor prophets,” is read on Yom Kippur afternoon. It is famous for the section of the story in which Jonah is swallowed by a giant sea creature (typically translated as “whale”). When the story begins, God orders Jonah to travel to the city of Nineveh and deliver God’s message there. Not wanting to, Jonah runs away to Jaffa to sail off to Tarshish. A huge storm arises and the sailors, realizing this is no ordinary storm, cast lots and learn that Jonah is to blame. Jonah admits this and states that if he is thrown overboard the storm will cease. The sailors try to get the ship to the shore but in failing feel forced to throw him overboard, at which point the sea calms. Jonah is miraculously saved by being swallowed by a large fish. In chapter two, while in the great fish, Jonah prays to God and asks for forgiveness. God then commands the fish to “vomit” Jonah out.

God repeats the order to Jonah to visit Nineveh and deliver God’s message. This time he goes there and walks through the city crying, out “In forty days Nineveh shall be destroyed.” The Ninevites believe his word and appoint a public fast, ranging from the King (who puts on sackcloth and sits in ashes) to the humblest person. God has compassion and spares the city for the time being.

Embittered by this, Jonah questions the need for his journey, stating that since God is merciful it was inevitable that God would yield to the Ninevites’ entreaties. He then leaves the city and makes himself a shelter, waiting to see whether or not the city will be destroyed. God causes a plant to grow over Jonah’s shelter to give him some shade from the sun, but a worm bites the plant’s root and it withers. Jonah, now being exposed to the full force of the sun, becomes faint and desires that God take him out of the world.

God says to him, “Are you really so very angry about the little plant? You were upset about this little plant, something for which you have not worked nor did you do anything to make it grow. It grew up overnight and died the next day. Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals?”

The story ends with a question, challenging the reader to face the questions and challenges posed by Yom Kippur, as its final few hours tick away. The book is unique in its ending in such a way. No other book in the Bible does so.

Yom Kippur is the day on which we envision ourselves moving into a new phase of our lives, with a fresh start, a clean slate, and a new beginning. Therefore, while the serious purposes, work, and characteristics of the day are to be remembered and acted upon, it is also crucial that we regard Yom Kippur as a day of celebration.

Wishing you and your family a G'mar Chatima Tova - may you be sealed in the book of life for a blessed year.

Shanah Tovah,
Rabbi Suson

Wed, April 14 2021 2 Iyyar 5781