Yom Kippur 2009 Guide for the Perplexed
Yoram Ettinger, September 27, 2009
Assembled from various Jewish Sages
1. Yom (Day of) Kippur is a breakthrough Jewish contribution to humanity. It highlights the most essential human attributes, which constitute prerequisites to positive leadership: humility (as featured in the Netaneh Tokef prayer), soul-searching, recognizing fallibility, confessing wrong-doing, asking and granting forgiveness, accepting responsibility, collective responsibility, magnanimity. Yom Kippur is not driven by punishment, but by behavioral-enhancement.
2. The Hebrew spelling of “fast” (צם/צום) – abstinence from food – highlights the substance of Yom Kippur. צום is the root of צמצום (reduction, shrinking), which alludes to one’s “spiritual diet,” aimed at clearing the body and the mind. צם is the root of צמית and צמיתות, the Hebrew words for “slave” and “eternity” (enslavement to G-D only). At the same time, צם is the root of עצמי (being oneself), עצום, עצמה, עצמאות (awesome, power, independence), which are gained through the process of fasting, soul-searching and submission to G-D.
3. The Hebrew word Kippur כיפור (atonement/repentance) is a derivative of the Biblical words Kaporet כפורת – which covered the Holy Ark at the Sanctuary – and Kopher כופר, which covered Noah’s Ark and the Holy Altar at the Temple. The reference is to a spiritual cover (dome), which does not cover-up, but separates between the holy and the secular, between spiritualism and materialism, thus intensifying preoccupation with inner deliberations and soul-searching. The Kippa כיפה (skullcap, Yarmulke), which covers one’s head during prayers (or – in the case of observant Jews – at all times), reflects a spiritual cover (Dome). Thus, Yom Kippur constitutes the cover (Dome) of the Ten Days of Atonement (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), separating them from the rest of the year.
4. Teshuvah-תשובה is the Hebrew word for repentance, sharing the same root of the Hebrew word for Return שיבה – returning to root/positive values, morality, and behavior). Yom Kippur is also called – in Hebrew – Shabbat Shabbaton שבת שבתון (the highest level Sabbath), which has the same root. The last Sabbath before Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Teshuvah שבת תשובה (based on the prophesy of Hosea, chapter 4). While the Sabbath is the soul of the week, Yom Kippur is the soul of the year.
5. Yom Kippur is observed on the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tishrei, which is an ancient word for forgiveness and Genesis. Ten has special significance in Judaism: G-D’s abbreviation is the tenth Hebrew letter, Ten Commandments, Ten reasons for blowing the Shofar, Ten Percent Gift to G-D (tithe), etc.
6. The prayer of Veedooi-וידוי (confession/confirmation/reaffirmation in Hebrew) is recited Ten times during Yom Kippur, re-entrenching the genuine plea for forgiveness. The prerequisites for forgiveness, according to Jewish Sages, are the expression & exercise (talking & walking) of confession (assuming full-responsibility), repentance and significantly altering one’s behavior through the heart as well as through the head (no “buts,” no “ifs” and no plea for mitigating circumstances). King Saul sinned only once – ignoring the commandment to annihilate the Amalekites – but was banished from the crown and killed. King Saul raised mitigating circumstances, while responding to Samuel’s accusation. King David sinned twice (The “Bat-Sheba Gate” and “Census Gate”), but was forgiven. King David accepted full-responsibility and unconditional blame and the death sentence (as expressed by Nathan the Prophet), which was promptly rescinded.
7. Tefila Zaka, תפילה זכה, the initial prayer on the eve of Yom Kippur, enables each worshipper to announce universal forgiveness. While transgressions between human-beings and G-D are forgiven summarily via prayers, transgressions among human-beings require explicit forgiveness. Ill-speaking of other persons may not be forgiven.
8. The Memorial Candle, commemorating one’s parent(s), is lit during Yom Kippur. It reaffirms “Honor Thy Father and Mother,” providing another opportunity to ask forgiveness of one’s parent(s), as well as asking forgiveness on their behalf.
9. G-D’s forgiveness and G-D’s Covenant with the Jewish People are commemorated on Yom Kippur. It reflects the end of G-D’s rage over the sin of the Golden Calf, and it was the day of Abraham’s own circumcision, signifying G-D’s covenant with the Jewish People.
10. Yom Kippur underlines unison, as synagogues become a platform for the righteous and the sinner.
11. The Scroll of Jonas is read on Yom Kippur. Its lessons demonstrate that repentance and forgiveness is universal to all Peoples, commanding one to assume responsibility, to get involved socially-politically, to sound the alarm when wrong-doing is committed anywhere in the world, to display compassion to all peoples and to adhere to Faith and Optimism, in defiance of all odds. It behooves good folks to roll up their sleeves, lest evil triumphs!
12. A long sound of the Shofar concludes Yom Kippur. It commemorates the covenant with G-D (the almost-sacrifice of Isaac), the receipt of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, Liberty and anti-slavery (Jubilee) and the opening of G-D’s gates of forgiveness. The Hebrew root of Shofar שופר means to enhance/improve oneself (שפר). A Hebrew synonym for Shofar is Keseh כסה, which also means cover-Kaporet-Kippur.