Yom Kippur: Millions of Jews mark the Day of Atonement

Street view of city with roads showing no cars, only a few cyclers, and skyscrapers in the background

The streets of Tel Aviv are almost empty on Yom Kippur, as Jews spend most of the morning and evening in synagogue. Photo by brunswicksquare, courtesy of Flickr

TO INTRODUCE our coverage of Yom Kippur, ReadTheSpirit magazine welcomes back author and Jewish scholar Joe Lewis as well as our regular Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton. In addition to this column, you’ll enjoy these other stories:

INTRODUCING YOM KIPPUR

By JOE LEWIS

SUNSET FRIDAY, OCTOBER 3: Although it’s a solemn day, Yom Kippur is really a celebration, the anniversary of God forgiving the Jewish people for worshiping a golden calf. By traditional calculation, Moses brought the second tablets to the people on Yom Kippur. God’s nature is revealed to Moses as a God of mercy and compassion, patience and kindness (Ex. 34:6), and this idea is central to the liturgy of the day.

The Torah prescribes self-denial for this day, most obviously fasting: Adults who are medically able will abstain from food and drink for about 25 hours, from sundown to sundown.

In the days of the Temple, there was an elaborate sacrificial ceremony during which the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies; confess his sins and those of his family and the whole community; and utter God’s four-letter name. The sacrificial animals included two goats; one was sacrificed and the other released (the original “scapegoat,”) to bear the community’s sins into the wilds. The mystery of the purpose and efficacy of this sacrifice prompt us to study its details in our prayer service. Without the Temple, all of this is denied us, and we ache with sorrow for our loss and lovingly recall the ancient ritual.

Relying on an interpretation of Hosea 14:2 that prayer replaces the sacrificial system, our liturgy is extensive and includes soaring poetry and abject confession. Our prayers take up most of the day.

We end the day with a blast on the shofar, eat our fill, and make plans for the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), which is only five days away.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE HOLIDAY

By STEPHANIE FENTON

The High Holidays draw to a close tonight, as Jews embark on a 25-hour fast accompanied by prayers that will draw them close to God: it is Yom Kippur, known also as the Day of Atonement. Arguably the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur beckons even the most nonobservant Jews to the synagogue for earnest prayer and in hopes of forgiveness.

To understand more about this fasting—which is different than most traditional “fasts” in Catholic and Orthodox Christian traditions—read this week’s FeedTheSpirit column by Bobbie Lewis. (She’s Joe Lewis’s wife and a popular writer on many topics, including food.)

For families: Yom Kippur offers a unique opportunity for children to see their parents engaged in serious observance of their religious traditions, and the days leading up to the holiday allow families to examine and discuss their relationships. Families might want to write a themed letter each year; break fast together on Yom Kippur; and engage young members in the Yizkor memorial service, for parents who have passed away. Get more ideas here.

A different menu for Yom Kippur: Interested in what to eat to break the Yom Kippur fast in addition to Bobbie’s suggestions in FeedTheSpirit this week? You might also want to check out this article from the Washington Post, which examines traditions from Sephardic Jews—who dine on warm, sweet drinks, soups and a later meal of heavier curries and meats—to Indian Jews, who adapt dishes from the pies of Diwali.

Sports on Yom Kippur? Is one allowed to watch televised sports during the time of “afternoon nap” on Yom Kippur? This article contemplates that question.

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