But on the tenth day of this seventh month it is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation unto you, and you shall afflict your souls, and you shall bring a fire-offering to the Lord. And you shall do no work on this very day for it is a day of atonement to atone for you before the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:27-28)
Honest self-examination, communication with one's Maker, commitment to become a better person — all these are encouraged throughout the year in various religious systems, but there is one day on the Jewish calendar that is tailor-made for such activities: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Yom Kippur is celebrated on the tenth day of Tishri, i.e., ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
It is the culmination of ten days marked by increased levels of prayer, charity and other good deeds, and the seeking of forgiveness from anyone one has harmed, purposely or inadvertently, during the previous year.
This day, the holiest and most solemn in Judaism, is also among the most joyous, as it affords one the opportunity to rectify past wrongs and face the future with a slate wiped clean. Some people have the custom of wearing white as a symbol of purity. Some stay awake all night; others refrain from all unnecessary speech.
On Yom Kippur, so exclusive is the emphasis on one's inner life that there are five prohibitions designed to help reduce the focus on physical needs and thereby shift the spotlight to spiritual pursuits:
Eating and drinking
Those for whom following these requirements would present a health risk are exempt. The traditional restrictions on labor that apply to the Sabbath apply to Yom Kippur as well.
The bulk of the day is spent in prayer, of which there are five separate services — one on the eve of Yom Kippur and four the following day (in contrast, normal weekdays have three prescribed prayers and Sabbaths and holidays, four). The liturgy focuses on the enumeration of personal and communal shortcomings, pleas for Divine forgiveness, and reminders of the special relationship between God and His chosen people.
Yom Kippur services begin in the evening with the Kol Nidre prayer, which casts the congregation as petitioners in a court seeking to have their vows of the preceding year — unheedingly made and imperfectly fulfilled — annulled. Such is the consciousness of the human inability to live up to stated goals that in most versions of this prayer, a preemptive annulment of vows that will be undertaken during the coming year is requested as well.
Another noteworthy element of the liturgy, recited in the afternoon, is the verbal recreation of the Yom Kippur avoda — the ceremonial service performed in ancient times by the High Priest in the Holy Temple. This ritual included the sacrifice of two goats, one that was sacrificed to God in the Temple and another that became a scapegoat symbolically carrying all of the Israelites' sins out to the desert till he tumbled to his death off a rocky cliff.
The biblical book of Jonah, which recounts the prophet Jonah's encounter with a whale and the repentance of the entire city of Nineveh, is read in the afternoon as well.
At the end of services at nightfall, the shofar (ram's horn) is blown. As the sound of the blast fills the synagogue, so does the feeling of having been cleansed both by the physical deprivations of the day and by the certainty that a merciful God has granted the longed-for atonement. The age-old wish of Jews around the world, "Next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem," is proclaimed.
Gmar chatima tova! May you be sealed in the Book of Life.