By Dr. Richard L. Benkin
Yom Kippur, in English “the Day of Atonement,” is considered by most Jews to be the holiest day of the year. Together, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur are known to Jews as the High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the ten intervening days (often called the Ten Days of Repentance); are a time when Jews everywhere are to consider their actions during the past year and think about how to be better people in the coming year. It is not only the Jewish people who act, however, but the Jewish God, as well.
A common greeting on Rosh Hashanah is “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet year.” Jews believe that on Rosh Hashanah, God writes everybody’s name down for either another year of life or for death. Jews have a chance to change God’s decree by what they do during the High Holiday period. Because God might inscribe His judgment on Rosh Hashanah, but He does not seal it until Yom Kippur.
In the Torah, the Jewish holy book, God commands Moses to tell the Hebrew people, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations.” That is the origin of Rosh Hashanah, and it is why Jews are to do no work on that day. Instead, they are to devote themselves to prayer and contemplation; to reflect on their behavior over the past twelve months and how it might seem in the eyes of God. Traditional Jews spend most of the day in the synagogue. As for Yom Kippur, the Torah tells us that God said, “Mark, the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall practice self-denial…you shall do no work throughout that day.”
The point for us on both holy days is that we are to set aside this time, not work or engage in our common leisure activities and such. Traditional Jews do not even kindle fires or any kind or use electricity. God wants us to do that so our entire beings are turned toward the meaning of the holidays. In the above quote from the Torah, we are told to “practice self-denial” on Yom Kippur. That has come to mean fasting, and Yom Kippur is one of seven fast days on the Jewish calendar. But Judaism suffers from the same problem other religions suffer from these days; most people observe it only marginally. But the vast majority of Jews observe the High Holidays. So, Yom Kippur is by far the most observed of the fast days.
Contrary to what some people think, however, the purpose of fasting is not punishment or repentance. Judaism has no tradition of such things. God does not want us to withdraw from the pleasurable things he has provided us. (That is why, for instance, many religious Jews will have sex with their wives every week on the Shabbat to celebrate the miracles that God creates for us.) The reason we fast (or “practice self-denial”) is so we are not distracted from the gift that God has given us for the day—that if we are truly introspective, we have a chance to soften His judgment. But what a wonderful gift. God has relieved us of our worldly burdens for the day so we can take that time to examine ourselves and become better people.
Our prayers tell us that we can soften God’s decree with “repentance, prayer, and charity.” The Hebrew word for repentance is tshuva, which really means “return.” In the Jewish religion, repentance is not about saying you are sorry—although sometimes that is necessary—but it is about returning to the way God wants us to be. Just words are not enough; it takes action. So if we show this between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God will see it. Even if we have not yet done it, but it is in our hearts and we will do it, God sees that, too. Repentance for Jews is about returning to God. Prayer can be offered with the lips only but no heart. That is the case in all religions. God, however, can tell the difference (we simple people can never expect to fool Him). If we offer prayers from the heart, God will listen; but if our prayer is false and our hearts are set on continued misbehavior, God will see that, too. The Hebrew word for charity is tzedekah, which means “righteousness.” In the Jewish tradition, giving charity is only doing what is demanded of us. If we are wealthy, we should help those in need; most importantly, we should help them help themselves. If we are safe, we should help those who are in danger. If we are strong, we should help the weak. As much as we give to others in these situations, they are giving to us because they allow us to act as God wants us to act. But it must be done with a true spirit of righteousness, understanding that it is the correct thing to do in God’s eyes, or it means little.
God also tells us that we can come to Him and ask for His forgiveness, and he can grant it. But, he tells us, for sins that man commits against God, God can grant forgiveness. For sins that a man commits against his fellow man, God cannot grant forgiveness. We must get that forgiveness from the man against whom we have trespassed. That is a wonderful value because it recognizes that if we have wronged another, true tshuva can come only when we have taken the actions that brought us closer (returned us) to our fellow man. We cannot wrong another and expect to be forgiven without making things right with that other person.
Because the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, all observances begin at sundown the evening before the day of the observance; and they end at sundown on the day of the observance. So, in 2008, the Jewish date of 10 Tishre, on which Yom Kippur falls, corresponds to the date of October 9. That means Yom Kippur begins at sundown on October 8 and ends at sundown on October 9. At that moment, in every congregation all over the world, the great shofar or ram’s horn is sounded as it was in ancient days at our Temple in Jerusalem, letting all Jews know that the time of the observance is over, that God has sealed our fates, and that it is now up to each of us to go forth in the world and live in accordance with the moral principles that God has set down for us and which are now in our hearts.