Yom Kippur: The Cycle Starts Up Again
Author’s Note: There’s a famous aphorism that if you ask three rabbis a question, you will get four answers. We Jews tend to be an expositive lot. The post below describes my experience of the High Holidays over several decades, multiple states and a medley of congregations from conservative to reformed. Not everyone’s experience will be the same and my explanations may be different from what others have heard. Everyone’s mileage varies, but that is especially true when we dip into religion.
For some Jews, the fast begins a few days beforehand. When I was a postdoc, a friend, whom I’ll call Joseph, would show up at afternoon coffee looking increasingly jittery. He was a coffee fiend and would slowly titer down his addiction in the weeks preceding Yom Kippur. To not do so was to invite the terrible wrath of caffeine withdrawal, not a thing you want to be dealing with when you’re repenting.
But for most of us, it begins before sundown. One of the secrets to getting through a 25-hour fast is that your last dinner should be substantive but not heavy. A heavy meal makes for a growling stomach the next day. You’re going to need some protein, some carbs and plenty of water. Fish is good. My most memorable pre-fast meal, oddly enough, are scallops in my mom’s house (the oddness being that scallops are not kosher). You want to enter the fast sated, but not full.
As the sun is setting, the synagogue fills for Kol Nidre, possibly the most well-attended service of the year. Attendees are dressed well but many will forgo leather shoes, belts or jewellery because those are proud ornaments and you’re supposed to be humbling yourself. The Kol Nidre declaration, a thousand-year-old chant which is at the center of the service that bears its name, is not really a prayer nor is it in Hebrew. It is in Aramaic and calls for the annulment of vows. 1. The origin, lost in the mists of early medieval history, is thought to have been to allow Jews who’d been forcibly converted to annul those vows and re-enter the faith.
In modern times, it serves more to relieve us of rash promises we have made or will make to ourselves and to God. The classic example would be a woman who, after the ordeal of childbirth, swears to not have any more children and then changes her mind. Or a father who disowns a child in a moment of anger and then wishes to recant. It can also pre-empt vows we are unable to fulfill for various reasons, such as vowing to donate blood but being unable to do so because of an unplanned Rabies vaccination.
Kol Nidre is short (about an hour in reformed congregations; longer in more orthodox ones). The tunes for the prayers are unique and beautiful. Congregations often use that moment to solicit pledges for fund-raising. And afterwards, you go home, realize you can’t have a midnight snack and go to bed early.
According to a legend, God first created a world that was defined entirely by strict justice. This world did not work as even accidental wrongs were punished with the utmost severity. He then created a world defined entirely by mercy. This world did not work either since people knew they could do wrong without consequence. So he created the world we live in — one that is in a balance between the divine attributes of justice and mercy. And it is Yom Kippur where those two aspects of God find their most important interface.
This concept is something I think about a lot, not just on the High Holidays. Judaism does not teach that your sins are automatically forgiven. Nor do they pursue you for eternity. Forgiveness is available … but it must be earned through prayer, repentance and good deeds. The tradition teaches that on Rosh Hoshana, the New Year, God writes the fate of every human in the Book of Life. As the prayer says — who shall live and who shall die, who shall suffer and who shall thrive. The ten days of repentance culminating in Yom Kippur are our chance to appeal the decree. To show that we can be better. To try to cleanse ourselves of the sins of the past year and obtain forgiveness. In the Bible, this was represented by the scapegoat, upon which the Priest would confess all the sins of Israel and send off into the wilderness.
But people look at you strangely when you say that Yom Kippur is your favorite holiday of the year. I mean … it’s important. But favorite? All that fasting and praying and feeling bad about yourself? Who would take that over Passover or Hanukah or even a secular or Christian holiday?
And the answer is: I’m not really sure why I look forward to it so much. Faith qua faith is something I have always struggled with. I’m a natural skeptic and belief is not something that comes easily to me. But religion — defined by tradition and ritual and community — is something I find both interesting and comforting. Perhaps my affinity for Yom Kippur is a subconscious guilt complex and I derive some masochistic satisfaction in thinking about what a bad person I am. Or it might be the solemnity. Or it might be that it’s one of the only times of the year where I feel something even vaguely spiritual. It is a time when I feel the need to tread lightly, to think more deeply about my actions and words, to set goals for who I want to be at the next Yom Kippur and think about who I’ve become since the last one. But it’s also a time to think about the balance of those scales — justice and mercy. When is a sin too grave to be forgiven? How does one balance atonement against wrong? How does one forgive those who have wronged him while asking for forgiveness for the wrongs he has done them?
These are weighty matters. And one of the purposes of the fast — perhaps the most important one — is to focus our attention upon those questions by denying our more mundane needs.
Jewish prayers are very structured, at least in the more conservative branches of the faith. Each service is built around a central prayer called Amidah. It is preceded by a set series of prayers (including the Sh’ma, probably the most important prayer in Judaism). And it is followed by another set sequence of prayers. There are generally three services a day — morning, afternoon and evening. On Monday, Thursday and Saturday, there is a reading from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses, with sections slated to cover the entire five books over the course of a year). On holidays, there is an extra service added to the morning services called Musaf, which is to represent the extra sacrifices made on holidays during the Temple Era.
I’ve attended services in six states and nine congregations, at least. And yet, the prayers and the tunes are usually familiar. The diaspora of Jews has created a thousand little communities around the world all joined together by the same, or at least similar, traditions. If I live to be eighty, I will still be able to walk (or at least hobble) into any synagogue in America, possibly the world, and sing many of the same songs and tunes I did when I was eight.
Morning services are the longest. In my current reformed synagogue, morning services are only offered on Sabbath and are about an hour or two long. In the conservative congregation I grew up in, morning services would go 30 minutes on weekdays and about three and a half hours on Saturday morning.
High Holiday services go to the extreme. Morning services alone can be anything up to seven hours long. The structure is similar but entire sections and prayers are added to honor the holiday. Familiar prayers are sung in tunes that are only used at this time of year. Not everyone goes for the whole thing. Some people leave after the Torah reading and sermon. Some people arrive late. During the memorial service, where we remember those whom we have lost, some Jews have the tradition of staying out of the sanctuary if their parents are still alive. And some leave immediately after that. But the service goes on. And instead of ending with the usual closing hymns and prayers, it just stops … an operational pause before the afternoon service.
The idea is that … it’s a high holiday. It’s not like you’ve got anything else to do. And that is especially true on Yom Kippur, where you’re fasting and denying yourself anything other than prayer and repentance.
The holiday can be tricky for families with young children, who don’t fast and don’t have the patience for a seven-hour service (and are usually not in school). I don’t know how orthodox families do it but in my family growing up and in my family today, the mother lightens the fast a bit so that she can keep up with the family. Although feeding kids when you can’t feed yourself can make the fast, even with some easing up, significantly harder.
In the interstice between the morning prayer and afternoon/evening prayer, most people will go home and take a rest. Sleep is the best thing to do on the fast. The real struggle with the fast is not the lack of food or water or the physical toll, although that can be significant. But most healthy adults can do a fast without any physical risk. The real toll is psychological. You realize how used you are to just getting up and getting a glass of water or a snack from the fridge. Without that, and without the other distractions of TV, internet and work, you are left alone with your thoughts. And your ability to think about anything beyond the moment narrows as your brain reacts to the deprivation of sustenance.
People take medicine if they need it. And someone who physically can’t do the fast is allowed out (my wife didn’t fast when she was pregnant or nursing). The idea of the fast is self-denial, not self-destruction.
The afternoon service, which convenes a few hours before sunset, is centered on a Torah reading about the various forms of incest that God forbids (in conservative congregations at least) and the story of Jonah, for which we read the entire book. It’s an odd dichotomy, a series of damnations for behavior that most people wouldn’t even consider and then a story that is the perfect embodiment of the bounding between the two poles of justice and mercy.
Jonah is told to go to the city of Nineveh and proclaim that God has judged them for their wicked behavior. But he knows that they will repent and God will be merciful and therefore doesn’t want to go. He first flees on a ship to avoid Nineveh and then, when God indeed spares the city, sulks in the desert. The former part, involving a brief journey through a fish’s digestive system, is more famous. But the latter always fascinated me more: the very human tendency to see mercy as unjust, the desire to see the wicked punished even if they repent, the resentment of deathbed confessions. This is a dichotomy that plays out even today in our debates about criminal justice reform.
What follows this is Ne’ilah, my favorite service on my favorite holiday of the year. It is not terribly long, usually occupying the last hour of the fast. The idea is that this is the last minute, your last chance to get in prayer and repentance before the gates of Heaven close to further pleas. At this point, we ask not to be written into the Book of Life, but to be sealed in it.
It is also 24 hours into the fast when you are both feeling it and feeling like you can still go. It is the moment in the year when I feel the most spiritual, the most connected, the most humble. It is when my tendency toward self-examination reaches its apotheosis.
The Ark — where the big scrolls of Torah are kept — is opened. Technically, that means you are supposed to stand for the entire service. But every service I’ve been to has emphasized that you can sit if you’re feeling woozy. Again, the idea is self-denial, not self-destruction. It ends with several of the most basic and plain verses of Hebrew prayer repeated multiple times and then a blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn that was sounded on Rosh Hoshana, ten days earlier, to remind God of Zekhut Avot — the merit of our ancestors, as exemplified in Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac.
And then you spend a few minutes on the weekday evening prayer before breaking the fast.
Sometime in graduate school, I began to break my fast with sushi. I would go to a local Japanese restaurant, put in my order and then sit quietly. This was and is still the moment I savor the most. The holiday is technically over but the fast is still going for a few last moments. I sit at my table, looking at a glass of water or a Coke and enjoying that feeling of hollowness before I bring the glass to my lips.
Another year has passed, another holiday season behind, another Yom Kippur survived. I think about how many I have behind me and wonder how many I have left in front of me. I am keenly aware of how quickly each Yom Kippur comes and goes.
And then I take a drink. And the food comes. And I eat. And by late evening, the world has returned to normal. I am often almost euphoric afterwards. But then the brief spiritual interlude of the holiday is gone and we’re back to the routine. Papers have to be graded, kids have to be gotten ready for school and the fish needs to be fed. At least until another 12 or 13 full moons have passed and the cycle starts up again.
- You can hear a sample here; the tune has not changed.