September's holy days: Part III - Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement

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Yom Kippur begins an hour before sundown tonight and lasts for 25 hours. For Jewish communities around the globe, Yom Kippur ends the “Days of Awe”, a 10 day period that began on Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur is also called “The Day of Atonement”. This day is a day for fearless self-examination – for looking back at the past year and seeing how one may have transgressed or fallen short, and how one might best make amends with G-d..

The Orthodox believe that on Rosh Hashanah, G-d writes everyone’s names in the Book of Life. On Yom Kippur, He decides and seals their fate for the year. So, this day is the very last appeal, the last chance to change the judgment, to demonstrate repentance and to make amends.

This is a day that even secular Jews often honor and set aside in some way. It is a hugely important holy day, and the sense of deep and defining obligation to observe it is profound.

No work can be performed on Yom Kippur. One must also must refrain from all eating and drinking. Further, to be fully observant, there must be no washing or bathing, no anointing of the body (with cosmetics, deodorants, etc.),no wearing of leather shoes, and no sex.

Most of the holiday is spent in the synagogue, in prayer. In some communities, it is customary to wear white, which symbolizes purity Some Orthodox men wear a kittel to worship, which is the white robe in which the dead are buried.

Five days after Yom Kippur, Sukkot arrives. Sukkot is a harvest holiday, also known as the "Festival of Booths". I'll write more about that next week. Sukkot is a joyous time.

Because of the deep spiritual importance of Yom Kippur, there is a great deal of very thoughtful writing on the web. And, because the holy day is outside my own tradition, I have included some very long quotations that better address the day than could I. Please do comment on the meaning that this holy day has in your life.

Related Links:
Baroness Tapuzina mentions what to eat before the fast and what to eat while breaking the fast. She is using an Arab recipe for cardamom biscuits to break her fast

The Jew and the Carrot speaks of eating local food when in Budapest and has one less day to enjoy the food because of Yom Kippur.

But this is why local food is so grounding — literally — like a lightening rod captures the electricity and brings it to the earth, eating the food of a place literally connects our living energy with the physical world around us. Eating the food of a place connects us to that place by actually bringing it inside of us — and instead of distancing our relationship to creation (as do the Burger Kings and frozen dinners in fluorescent-lit cases), they bring us closer to the awesomeness of the world, and the awesomeness of being alive.
Hence, clearly, my eagerness to eat Hungarian pastry.
However, if eating is such a profound way to connect to the divine — why do we spend the holiest day of the year davka not eating?
Ostensibly, we fast on Yom Kippur so we can give our full concentration to prayer, repentance, gratitude. But a day of not eating makes two other very powerful points as well: 1. We get to remember how wonderful food is, and 2. we get to realize that even with all its amazing capacity to nourish and connect, food is not the only thing that holds us — and possibly not even the most important, though it may be the most immediately obvious. Our spirituality, while rooted in the earth and its produce, does not actually dwell there. Call it God, call it divine spirit, shechina, as you wish…we do not live by bread alone.

Leah in her blog,Jewliscious, challenges folks to really dig deeply to recall and confront all those offenses during the year.

According to the Rabbis, our fate is written on Rosh Hashana, however it can be changed before it is sealed on Yom Kippur. To influence G-d to change our fate for the better, we use the Ten Days of Repentance in between RH and YK to apologize to everyone we have intentionally or unintentionally hurt during the past year. It is said that we are to apologize three times and if our apology is not accepted by the third offering, we are now owed the apology…
I have a friend who writes down everything in his day planner. Each date has what news story he was assigned at work, if his ex wife dropped off his kids that day, if he jogged and how far, who he ate dinner with, etc., etc.
And on Yom Kippur, when he is in shul all day, he looks through the calendar and tries to recall each and every day clearly in his mind. Each and every single day from the entire year.
When you look back on all 365 days this year, can you remember each day? Have you been keeping track of your successes and your serious f*** ups?

What did you do to hurt your friends, your family, yourself? What are you most ashamed of this year? What is the worst sin you committed?

Judy Balint gives us a whole other perspective on the day at Jerusalem Diaries as she describes the events in her neighborhood in Israel.

Many of the rabbis providing commentary on Yom Kippur in the Israeli media emphasize the festive nature of the day--not only the obvious solemnity. Be happy, we're told, that God grants us this grand opportunity to get a new lease on life--the possibility of teshuva (return) shows that Judaism is optimistic and forward-looking and allows for the reformulation of both our interpersonal relationships and our relationship with God. Singing and dancing are the de rigueur ways in which many congregations here, especially those at yeshivot, end the Yom Kippur day, expressing joy at the soul having been uplifted.

And, for what was probably my favorite post of the many that I read about Yom Kippur, we have Elisheva ,a biologist, mother and home-schooler. In Ragamuffin Studies she discusses how she is learning not to be a perfectionist, and how Yom Kippur is a good time to learn that lesson. The entire blog entry is quite long, but so beautifully written and thought-through, that I hope you do click on over there to read the whole thing.

First: The word "perfect" has a teleological implication. Perfection is something to be attained at the end of something. It is not a state of being and becoming. It is a state of finality. Or to put it more plainly, as the biologist that I am: Perfect is non-living. No living system can be perfect. Since perfection implies lack of growth and change, anything that is perfect cannot be living.
Second: There is no Hebrew word for perfect. Any translation that renders a Hebrew phrase into something like "perfect sacrifice" has been misunderstood. The closest we can come is the Hebrew root, Shin-Lamed-Mem, which gets rendered into words like Shalom, Shalem, and Shleyma. The root meaning has the sense of wholeness or completeness. The greeting 'Shalom aleichem,' often rendered as 'peace be with you,' is really wish for wholeness. Shalem, as in "Ma-shlemcha?" which is often rendered as "How are you?" actually means something like "how is your health/wholeness?" Think about it: the English word health, comes from hale and means whole. And that brings us to the problematic word "shlayma" which is the one that gets translated as "perfect." But the sense of the word is more like "complete" or "whole." As in the phrase "refuah shleyma" which gets translated sometimes as "perfect healing." It would be better translated as something like "complete healing" or "whole healing."
As I said, I am a perfectionist. And perfectionism is death. It is idolatry. So what to do?
Well, the first step is definitely not to apply perfectionism to becoming whole! I am going to become whole and try to do it perfectly! That's a trap!
Do you see where it is, o wise and gentle reader? The trap is in the trying. Trying is stress. Trying is hard. It disarticulates things rather than putting them together.
Our culture is about reductionism. The art of picking things apart into smaller and smaller pieces until nothing means anything. And at Yom Kippur, this is what perfectionists like me tend to work at. Taking it all apart. Trying to find out where we failed at perfection. Resolving to correct it. To be more perfect next year. An impossible task.
Wholeness--well, that's the state of things that are living and being. Completeness.
Somehow, you cannot try to become whole. You either are or are not whole. You either are or are not part of the whole. Wholeness. Oneness with "the Spirit that moves through all things." Completeness.

I seem to be approaching the idea. And I get that getting it is the same thing as being it…

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