Just Because: Celebrating Yom Kippur

By Lauren Cohen

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year began at sundown on Sept. 15 and concludes at sundown tonight (Sept. 16). Work is forbidden, and atonement for sins of the previous year is expressed through fasting and refraining from washing or bathing, wearing leather shoes, and applying lotions or creams, all of which are forbidden to prevent worshippers from focusing on material possessions and superficial comforts. Though not all Jews observe all aspects of the holiday, it’s known as the one holiday in which many non-observant Jews attend synagogue. However, this year it looks very different. 

With consideration of the Covid Delta variant, most synagogues are at limited capacity with mask requirements, or are broadcasting live services. Typically, a family would gather on the eve of Yom Kippur, known as Kol Nidre and have a large meal before the fast starts. The purpose of the Kol Nidre fast is to gather strength for 25 hours of fasting. In previous years, many Jews around the world (also known as the diaspora), would gather in synagogue on the day of fasting to reflect on the past year and ask for forgiveness for anyone they may have wronged. The elderly and those with health conditions often choose not to fast but still observe the holiday. The fast is believed to cleanse the body and spirit, not to serve as a punishment. At sundown, many families and communities gather to break the fast, often with a lighter fare, such as a dairy meal. 

The 10-day period leading up to Yom Kippur is known as the Yamim Noraim, or “Days of Awe”. These are the first 10 days of the year, according to the Hebrew calendar, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year. Because the Days of Awe adhere to the Hebrew month of Tishrei, Yom Kippur falls on a different Gregorian calendar day each year. This year is 5782. In the Hebrew calendar, a “day” begins and ends at sunset, rather than at midnight.

For many, Yom Kippur is an opportunity to bring families together and reminisce on the past year. It begins with the singing of a prayer called Kol Nidre, a deeply spiritual prayer that marks the opening of the Book of Life. Observant Jews then atone during their fast and hope to have their names inscribed in the book for the upcoming year. Rosh Hashanah is a joyful occasion, where people eat apples dipped in honey, along with other sweets to celebrate a sweet and happy new year. Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is a more somber day, where Jews fast to atone for their sins. The blowing of a shofar (ram’s horn) during Neilah, the closing ceremony, marks the end of Yom Kippur and the official start of the next Jewish year. Oak Hall (OHS) freshman Shyla Akri shared, “I take Yom Kippur as a day to relax and think about what I can do to become the best version of me I can be.” During a prayer known as Tashlikh, many observant Jews symbolically throw their sins into a source of water. “When I was younger, I would always throw pieces of bread into a body of water asking for forgiveness from G-d,” Akri added.

Courtesy of the Britannica website

The blowing of the shofar during Yom Kippur services.

Many non-religious Jews also find significant meaning and comfort from the ancient traditions of Yom Kippur. “For me, it is just a time to spend reflecting on myself more than anything,” shared OHS senior Asher Dobrin. “My family isn’t really religious, but we make sure to show our gratitude for each other on this day as well,” he added. During the days reaching up to Yom Kippur, Jewish people are encouraged to approach anyone to whom we have done something wrong, repent, and ask forgiveness. “We try to begin with 10 new things in our lives, could be people, habits, anything really,” shared Oak Hall junior Hannah Streeter. “Yom Kippur is very special to me because I love the meaning of the holiday, the action of repentance,” she added. Regardless of one’s religiosity, this holy day provides an opportunity to bring people together to ask for forgiveness and reflect on the past with hope for an even better year.