What: Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, when we are closest to God and to the essence of our souls. Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” as the verse states, “For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before God.
When: The 10th day of Tishrei, coming on the heels of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year, which is on the first and second days of Tishrei).
How: For nearly 26 hours we “afflict our souls”: we abstain from food and drink, do not wash or apply lotions or creams, do not wear leather footwear, and abstain from marital relations. Instead, we spend the day in synagogue, praying for forgiveness.
History: Just months after the people of Israel left Egypt in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), they sinned by worshipping a golden calf. Moses ascended Mount Sinai and prayed to G‑d to forgive them. After two 40-day stints on the mountain, full Divine favor was obtained. The day Moses came down the mountain (the 10th of Tishrei) was to be known forevermore as the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur.
That year, the people built the Tabernacle, a portable home for G‑d. The Tabernacle was a center for prayers and sacrificial offerings. The service in the Tabernacle climaxed on Yom Kippur, when the High Priest would perform a specially prescribed service. Highlights of this service included offering incense in the Holy of Holies (where the ark was housed) and the lottery with two goats—one of which was brought as a sacrifice, the other being sent out to the wilderness (Azazel).
While the High Priest generally wore ornate golden clothing, on Yom Kippur, he would immerse in a mikvah and don plain white garments to perform this service.
This practice continued for hundreds of years, throughout the time of the first Temple in Jerusalem, which was built by Solomon, and the second Temple, which was built by Ezra. Jews from all over would gather in the Temple to experience the sacred sight of the High Priest performing his service, obtaining forgiveness for all of Israel.
When the second Temple was destroyed in the year 3830 from creation (70 CE), the Yom Kippur service continued. Instead of a High Priest bringing the sacrifices in Jerusalem, every single Jew performs the Yom Kippur service in the temple of his or her heart.
How to Observe Before, On the Day of Yom Kippur, and after…
Forty days before Yom Kippur, on the first of Elul, we begin blowing the shofar every morning and reciting Psalm 27 after the morning and afternoon prayers. In Sepharadic communities, it is customary to begin saying Selichot early every morning (Ashkenazimbegin just a few days before Rosh Hashanah)—building an atmosphere of reverence, repentance and awe leading up to Yom Kippur.
For the week before Yom Kippur (known as the 10 Days of Repentance), special additions are made to prayers, and people are particularly careful with their mitzvahobservance.
Just as Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, the day before Yom Kippur is set aside for eating and preparing for this holy day. Here are some of the activities that we do on the day before Yom Kippur:
- Kaparot is often performed in the wee hours of this morning
- There is a beautiful custom to request and receive a piece of honey cake, so that if, G‑d forbid, it was decreed that we need be recipients, it be fulfilled by requesting honey cake and being blessed with a sweet year
- We eat two festive meals, one in early afternoon and another right before the commencement of the fast.
- Many have the custom to immerse in a mikvah on this day.
- Extra charity is given. In fact, special charity trays are set up at the synagogue before the afternoon service, which contains the Yom Kippur Al Cheit prayer.
- Just before the fast begins (after the second meal has been concluded), it is customary to bless the children with the Priestly Blessing.
- Holiday candles are lit before the onset of the holy day.
On Yom Kippur: Like Shabbat, no work is to be done on Yom Kippur, from the time the sun sets on the ninth of Tishrei until the stars come out in the evening of the next day.
On Yom Kippur, we afflict ourselves by avoiding the following five actions:
- Eating or drinking (in case of need, see here and consult a medical professional and a rabbi)
- Wearing leather shoes
- Applying lotions or creams
- Washing or bathing
- Engaging in conjugal relations
The day is spent in the synagogue, where we hold five prayer services:
- Maariv, with its solemn Kol Nidrei service, on the eve of Yom Kippur;
- Shacharit, the morning prayer, which includes a reading from Leviticus followed by the Yizkor memorial service;
- Musaf, which includes a detailed account of the Yom Kippur Temple service;
- Minchah, which includes the reading of the Book of Jonah;
- Neilah, the “closing of the gates” service at sunset, followed by the shofar blast marking the end of the fast.
What we do after:
After night has fallen, the closing Neilah service ends with the resounding cries of the Shema prayer: “Hear O Israel: G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is one.” Then the congregants erupt in joyous song and dance (a Chabad custom is to sing the lively “Napoleon’s March”), after which a single blast is blown on the shofar, followed by the proclamation, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
We then partake of a festive after-fast meal, making the evening after Yom Kippur a yom tov (festival) in its own right.
Indeed, although Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of the year, it is suffused with an undercurrent of joy; it is the joy of being immersed in the spirituality of the day and expresses confidence that G‑d will accept our repentance, forgive our sins, and seal our verdict for a year of life, health and happiness.
Torah Readings for Yom Kippur:
Erev Yom Kippur Ma’ariv Service
The opening prayer of Yom Kippur is the Kol Nidre (or Kol Nidrei) “annulment of vows” recited at sundown of Yom Kippur eve. For a free PDF version of the Prayers of the Evening Service with the Kol Nidre Click here.
The Kol Nidrei service consists of the opening of the Ark and taking out the Torah scrolls, reciting the Kol Nidrei and returning the Torah scrolls to the Ark.
What Is Kol Nidre?
Kol Nidrei, the prayer which ushers in the holy day of Yom Kippur, is perhaps the most famous one in our liturgy. Ironically, it is not really a prayer at all, but rather a statement. A statement that deals with promises, vows and other sorts of verbal commitments commonly made in the course of the year. The Torah places strict demands on keeping one’s word, and not fulfilling a vow is considered a serious misdeed.
Kol Nidre, which means “all vows”, nullifies the binding nature of such promises in advance. One declares all future vows and promises invalid, by declaring that all vows are “absolved, remitted, cancelled, declared null and void, not in force of in effect.”
On Yom Kippur when the essence of the soul is fully revealed, we express our real attitude towards the imperfections which might slip into our behavior, in the coming year. They are thus denied and declared insignificant.
Light is sown for the righteous
and for the upright in heart—joy
(The following declaration is made by the cantor and repeated three times:)
With the consent of the Almighty,
and consent of this congregation,
in a convocation of the heavenly court,
and a convocation of the lower court,
we hereby grant permission
to pray with transgressors
and things we have made forbidden on ourselves,
and items we have consecrated to the Temple,
and vows issued with the expression “konum,”
and vows which are abbreviated,
and vows issued with the expression “kanos,”
that we have vowed,
and made forbidden upon ourselves;
from the previous Yom Kippur to this Yom Kippur,
and from this Yom Kippur until next Yom Kippur—
may it come to us at a good time—
We regret having made them
may they all be permitted
and may they not be valid
or exist any longer.
Our vows shall no longer be vows,
and our prohibitions
shall no longer be prohibited,
and our oaths are no longer oaths.
The cantor and congregation say three times:
Forgive the entire congregation,
the children of Yisrael,
and the stranger amongst them,
for the entire people sin unintentionally.
Please pardon the sins of this nation
in accordance with the greatness
of Your lovingkindness;
and as You forgave this people
from when it left Egypt until now.
(And then it is said by the Congregation says three times from Numbers 15:26:)
And Adonai said “I have pardoned [them] as you have asked”
Yom Kippur Evening Service
The evening service which follows Kol Nidre consists of the Half-Kaddish, the Shema, the Amidah, the Al Chet confession of sins, and special additional prayers (piyyutim) which are said only on the night of Yom Kippur.
Many have the custom to recite the entire Book of Psalms after the evening service.
Yom Kippur Morning Torah Readings Overview
FIRST TORAH: Shacharit Service: Leviticus 16:1-34; 18:1-30
The Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning describes the service performed on this day by the Kohen Gadol (high priest) in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
A special feature of the Yom Kippur service was the casting of lots over two he-goats — equal in age, size and appearance — to determine which shall be offered to G‑d in the Holy Temple, and which shall be dispatched to carry off the sins of Israel to the wilderness.
The climax of the service was when the Kohen Gadol entered the innermost chamber in the Temple, the “Holy of Holies.” Wearing special garments of pure white linen, the Kohen Gadol would enter the sacred place with a pan of burning coals in his right hand, and a ladle containing an exact handful of ketoret in his left. Inside the Holy of Holies, he would place the ketoret over the coals, wait for the room to fill with its aromatic smoke, and hastily retreat from the holy place.
“This shall be an everlasting statute for you,” the Torah reading concludes. “…For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before G‑d… once a year.”
SECOND TORAH: Mussaf Service: Numbers 29:7-11
The longest and most intense of the Yom Kippur services is called Mussaf. It corresponds to the additional sacrificial offerings that were brought in the days of the Temple (see Numbers 29:7-11).
The intensity of Mussaf reaches its most climactic moment at the prayer called the Kedushah, in which we raise our voices in concert with the angelic multitudes who constantly surround God throne, crying, “Holy, holy, holy!” Thus we sanctify God’s name on earth just as it is sanctified by the angels in heaven.
Here, at the Kedushah, is the moment that catches you by surprise. The prayer leader (called the chazzan) suddenly begins to describe how the Messiah, through his intense suffering, piercing, and wounds, procures forgiveness for our sins.
The rabbi does not stir or act alarmed. The congregation continues in fervent prayer as if nothing unusual has happened. That is because this is a portion of a common Yom Kippur prayer called Az Milifnei Vereshit that has been used in synagogues for centuries.
The passage can be found in volume two of the famous Machzor Kol Bo:
Then, prior to creation,
he established the Temple and Yinnon.
The Talpiot above from the beginning,
he prepared before any people or language.
He decided to let his presence reside there,
to guide the mistaken in straight paths.
If the wicked are reddened (by sin),
let them wash and be cleansed beforehand.
If (God’s) fierce wrath is incited,
the Holy One will not awaken his full rage.
So far, our wealth has depleted,
but our Rock has not touched us.
Our righteous Messiah has turned away from us;
we have acted foolishly and there is no one to justify us.
Our iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions
he bears, and he is pierced for our transgressions.
He carries our sins on his shoulder,
to find forgiveness for our iniquities.
By his wounds we are healed,
forever a new creation; the time of his creation.
Bring him up from the circle; lift him out of Seir.
To summon us to the mount of Lebanon
a second time through Yinnon.
This prayer elaborates on a concept found in the Gemara, in b.Pesachim 54a and b.Nedarim 39b: “Seven things were created before the world was created: the Torah, repentance, the Garden of Eden, Gehenna, the throne of glory, the Temple, and the name of the Messiah.” This prayer also alludes to the assertion of the Sages (b.Sanhedrin 98b) that Yinnon is one of the Messiah’s names (based on a creative interpretation of Psalm 72:17).
The themes of the suffering Messiah found in this prayer are not only heavily drawn from Isaiah 53, but they are in keeping with several midrashic texts, in particular Pesikta Rabbati 36.
During the afternoon Minchah service, we read chapter 18 of Leviticus, which details the prohibitions against incest and other deviant sexual behaviors. The Torah reading is followed by a haftorah (reading from the Prophets) which tells the story of Jonah — the prophet who was sent to prophesy the destruction of the sinful city of Ninveh, ran away from G‑d, was swallowed by a fish, and learned the power of prayer and repentance to evoke G‑d’s mercy and annul the harshest decrees.
The final order of service is called Ne’ilah.
Yom Kippur Morning Haftarah:
The Book of Isaiah:
Today’s haftorah discusses the concepts of repentance and fasting, the theme of Yom Kippur.
The prophecy begins with the words “Pave, pave, clear the way; remove the obstacles from the way of My people.” A reference to the Yetzer Hara (“evil inclination”) which must be removed to pave the way for sincere repentance. God assures that He will not be forever angry at those who repent, and that instead He will heal them and lead them. The wicked, on the other hand, are compared to a turbulent sea: “there is no peace for the wicked.”
God exhorts the prophet Isaiah to admonish the people regarding their fasting ways which God finds reprehensible — a message which resonated to this very day:
“Daily they pretend to seek Me, desiring knowledge of My ways . . . ‘Why have we fasted and You did not see?’ they ask. ‘We have afflicted our soul and You do not know?’ Behold, on the day of your fast you pursue your affairs, and from all your debtors you forcibly exact payment. Behold, for quarrel and strife you fast, and to strike with a fist of wickedness. You do not fast in keeping with the spirit of the day, to make your voice heard on high. Is this a fast that I will choose? . . . Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush and spread out sackcloth and ashes beneath him?”
Instead, Isaiah teaches the Jews the proper way to fast:
“Loosen the fetters of wickedness, untie the bands of perverseness, send the oppressed free, and break every oppressive yoke. Offer your bread to the hungry, bring the wandering poor into your home. When you see someone naked, clothe him . . . Then you shall call and the Lord shall answer, you shall cry and He shall say, ‘Here I am.’ . . . God will always guide you and satiate your soul with radiance; He will strengthen your bones and you will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never cease…”
The haftorah concludes with the promise of great rewards for those who honor and take delight in the Shabbat.
Yom Kippur Afternoon Minchah:
The Book of Jonah;
The entire Book of Jonah is read today as it contains an important and timely message on prayer and repentance.
The connection between the Book of Jonah and Yom Kippur.
Two primary reasons are given for reading the Book of Jonah as the haftorah of the Yom Kippur afternoon services:
a) The story of Jonah teaches us how no one is beyond the reach of God‘s hand. Just as Jonah’s endeavor to escape God’s providence was unsuccessful, so, too, we are incapable of eluding divine justice for transgressions we may have committed.
b) On a more uplifting note: God spared the people of Nineveh although He had already decreed that they would be destroyed because of their evil ways. This teaches us that no matter our past behavior, God’s benevolence and mercy awaits us if we only repent full-heartedly.
The Overview of Jonah:
God ordered the prophet Jonah to travel to Nineveh and present its wicked inhabitants with an ultimatum: repent or be destroyed. Jonah refused to comply with this directive, and fled on a boat. Strong winds threatened to destroy the ship, lots were cast among the crew and passengers and the lottery indicated that Jonah was the cause of the turbulent storm. He admitted his guilt and requested to be cast into the sea. Jonah was thrown into the raging sea and the storm abated.
Jonah was swallowed by a big fish, and while in its belly, was moved to repent. The fish regurgitated Jonah.
Jonah proceeded to Nineveh and broadcasted God’s word that Nineveh would be overturned in forty days. The people fasted and repented and the divine decree was annulled. When Jonah expressed his displeasure with this result, God taught him a lesson. As Jonah sat on the outskirts of the city, the kikayon plant which was providing him with shade was destroyed by a worm, and Jonah was very upset. “And God said: You took pity on the kikayon, for which you did not toil nor did you make it grow, which one night came into being and the next night perished. Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand people?…”
The Book of Micah
The haftorah concludes with a brief portion from the Book of Micah, which describes God’s kindness in forgiving the sins of His people. “He does not maintain His anger forever, for He is a lover of kindness. He will have mercy on us, He will grasp our iniquities and cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” Micah concludes with an enjoinder to God to remember the pacts He made with the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
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Torah Parashah teaching with video and audio and illustrations by Rabbi Isaac. © 2021 Assembly of Called-Out Believers. Use by Permission.