By Edith Morgan
Rosh Hashanah has come and gone, the 10 days of repentance are ending – the culmination of all that soul-searching is Yom Kippur, which falls on the tenth day of Tishri in the Jewish calendar. All Jewish holidays begin on the eve before, a tradition that has survived in Christian tradition on Christmas: Christmas Eve.
Preparing for Yom Kippur involves remembering and repenting for the errors and sins of the past year and resolving to do better in the coming year. Most Western religions have some version of these rites. There is confession among Catholics and the universal New Year ritual of making resolutions.
The actual preparation for fasting begins with a hearty meal just before the evening of the start of Yom Kippur – in preparation for the whole day following when we are enjoined to give up pleasurable activities. The Torah enumerates them as follows: 1) no eating or drinking; 2) no bathing; 3) no anointing the body with oils; 4) no wearing of leather shoes (this is a reference to the fact that leather shoes long ago were much more comfortable than going barefoot; and 5) no sexual relations. These were the activities that were considered pleasurable at that time. I think we could probably add to that list, as we have far more self-indulgences available to us now …
There are, of course, services … and this highest of holidays is treated as a Sabbath service (the Sabbath is the highest holiday).
Because I had moved around so much while growing up, my family never really got bonded with a particular congregation. But my parents, as much as possible, observed the holidays, though my father came from a Reform Jewish background and my mother was a convert to Judaism. So we practiced an interesting mix of traditions in our home!
The beginning evening service in the synagogue is called “Kol Nidrei” – and I still have recollections of a chant by that name which we heard on that evening. I think its sad and haunting melody helps to put us in the right frame of mind – to begin the day of fasting and repenting.
Without the daily distractions, we can then spend the day putting our spiritual and physical house in order: making plans for an improved year, creating an improved self and making certain that our word is good. This is a time also for re-examining our relationship to God and remembering what it is that is expected of us.
I would like to close with a quote from Michael Strassfeld’s book “The Jewish Holidays”:
“Open for us the gates of light, blessing, joy, knowledge, splendor, confession, merit, compassion, purity, salvation, atonement, kindness, forgiveness, solace, pardon, assistance, sustenance, righteousness, healing, peace and repentance.”