Yom Kippur Guide for the Perplexed, 2015
1. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is a major Jewish holiday of individual self-enhancement spiritually and perpetually, transforming acrimony and vindictiveness into forgiveness, peace of mind and peaceful coexistence between God and human beings, but especially between fellow human beings. While Yom Kippur prayers request forgiveness for sins committed against God, it is customary to dedicate Yom Kippur’s eve to repentance for sins committed against fellow human beings.
2. Yom Kippur constitutes a cement of the highly diversified Jewish people, inviting criminals and sinners to participate in Yom Kippur services. It emphasizes soul-searching and underscores humility and tolerance as the key features of one’s character. It commemorates God’s covenant with the Jewish people, and God’s forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf.
3. Maimonides, the 12th century preeminent Jewish philosopher, Torah scholar and physician, whose bust features in the chamber of the US House of Representatives, considered genuine repentance (walk and not mere talk) a central axis of Yom Kippur, in particular, and life, in general. Moreover, repentance is one of the 613 statutes of Moses – a derivative of inherent human fallibility, which produces transgressions. The recognition of one’s fallibility requires humility.
4. Judaism opposes ascetism and self-torment, and therefore views genuine repentance as a critical engine of elevating individuals from despair to hope, abuse to assistance, intolerance to tolerance, violence to comity, isolation to integration, ignorance to knowledge and forgetfulness to commemoration (of roots and values). According to Judaism, the tongue can be a lethal weapon, and therefore, speaking ill of other people (“evil tongue,” Le’shon Ha’Ra, in Hebrew) may not be forgiven.
5. The five brief chapters of the Book of Jonah (the fifth in the Book of the Twelve Prophets) are read on Yom Kippur, underlying three universal pillars of Yom Kippur’s personal stock-taking/soul-searching: Repentance (“Teshuvah”), Prayer/Faith (“Tefilah”), and Justice (“Tzedakah”), which trigger a fourth pillar – Forgiveness. The Prophet Jonah (“dove” in Hebrew), son of Amitay (“truth” in Hebrew) sailed to a faraway land, transformed a sinful society into a pious society, while displaying communal responsibility. It has been suggested that the Book of Jonah (as well as Noah’s Ark) inspired Christopher Columbus, whose last name is a derivative of Columba – “dove” in Latin.
6. Why the name Yom Kippur? The Hebrew word Kippur, כיפור (atonement/repentance), is a derivative of the Biblical word Kaporet כפורת, the cover of the Holy Ark in the Sanctuary, and Kopher, כופר, the cover of the Holy Altar in the Temple and of Noah’s Ark. Yom Kippur resembles a spiritual cover (dome), which separates between the holy and the mundane, between spiritualism and materialism. The Kippah, כיפה (skullcap, Yarmulka’), which covers one’s head during prayers, reflects a spiritual dome.
7. Fasting is a major feature of Yom Kippur. The Hebrew spelling of “fast” (צם/צום) – abstinence from food – reflects the substance of Yom Kippur. The Hebrew word for “fast” is the root of the Hebrew word for “reduction,” “shrinking” and “minimizing” (צמצום) of one’s wrong-doing, food, materialism, egotism, arrogance and one’s perspective (private, rather than communal, soul-searching). “Fast” is the root of the Hebrew word for a camera’s aperture adjuster (צמצם). Yom Kippur re-entrenches a lesson from The Ethics of our Fathers: “Who is a hero? He, who controls his urges!” “Fast” is also the root of the Hebrew words for “slave” (צמית) and “eternity” (צמיתות): eternal enslavement to God, but not to human beings. “Fast” is also the root of עצמי (being oneself), עצום (awesome), עצמה (power), עצמאות (independence), which are gained through the process of fasting, soul-searching, spiritual-enhancement and faith in God.
8. Yom Kippur is observed on the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tishrei, whose astrological sign is Libra (♎), which symbolizes key Yom Kippur themes: scales, justice, balance, truth, symmetry, sensitivity and optimism. Libra is ruled by the planet Venus (Noga, נגה, in Hebrew), which reflects divine light and love of the other person. Noga is the name of my nine year old granddaughter. The numerical value of the Hebrew letters of נגה is 58 (נ-50, ג-3, ה-5), just like the numerical value of אזן, which is the Hebrew word for “ear,” as well as, the Hebrew root of “listening,” “balance” and “scale.”
9. Yom Kippur is observed on the tenth day of the month of Tishrei – an Acadian word for forgiveness and Genesis. Ten has special significance in Judaism: God’s abbreviation is the tenth Hebrew letter (Yod – י); there are ten attributes of God – Divine perfection – which were highlighted during the Creation; the Ten Commandments; the Ten Plagues; there are ten reasons for blowing the Shofar; The Prayer of Veedooi – וידוי (confession/reaffirmation in Hebrew), is recited ten times during Yom Kippur; one is commanded to extend 10% of one’s earnings as gift to God (tithe); Ten Martyrs (Jewish leaders) were tortured/murdered by the Roman Empire; there were ten generations between Adam and Noah and between Noah and Abraham; a ten worshipper quorum (Minyan in Hebrew) is required for a collective Jewish prayer; there are ten parts in this document; etc.
10. A Memorial Candle, in remembrance of one’s parents, is lit during Yom Kippur. This reaffirms the “Honor Thy Father and Mother Commandment,” providing another opportunity to ask forgiveness of one’s parent(s), as well as, asking forgiveness on their behalf.