Yom Kippur Guide for the Perplexed, 2017
1. Yom Kippur is one of the six main annual Jewish fasting days:
(a) The tenth day of the Jewish month of Tishrei is Yom Kippur, an annual day of repentance for one’s misconduct toward fellow human beings — in order to minimize future missteps — the cleansing of one’s behavior, recognition of one’s fallibilities, forgiveness of fellow human beings’ misconduct. Therefore, Yom Kippur is a day of hope, optimism and improved relations with one’s family, friends and community. It requires a deep level of personal, focused concentration through humility, soul-searching, thoughtfulness, magnanimity, accepting responsibility, consideration, compassion and faith, which are facilitated by avoiding food and most forms of luxury.
(b) The tenth day of the Jewish month of Tevet commemorates the 589-586 BCE siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar;
(c) The 17th day of the month of Tammuz commemorates the 586 BCE and 69 CE breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by the Babylonian and Roman Empires, and the breaking of the tablets by Moses upon encountering the golden calf collapse of faith;
(d) The ninth day of the month of Av commemorates the destruction of the First (586 BCE) and Second (70 CE) Jewish Temples, by the Babylonian and Roman Empires respectively, the beginning of Jewish exiles, and the ten spies’ bankruptcy of faith;
(e) The third day of the month of Tishrei commemorates the murder of the Jewish governor of Jerusalem, Gedalyah Ben Achikam, by another Jew, Yishmael Ben Netanyah (586 BCE);
(f) The 13th day of the month of Adar is the Fast of Queen Esther — whose Hebrew name was Hadassah, which means righteousness — the day before the Purim holiday, commemorating Queen Esther’s three-day-fast prior to her appeal to the Persian King Ahasuerus to refrain from exterminating the Jews (around 480 BCE);
2. The substance of Yom Kippur is reflected through the Hebrew spelling of “fast” (צם and צום) — abstinence from food. צם and צום are the roots of the Hebrew words for “narrowed-down focus;” “concentration of attention;” “reduced consumption” (of food and material elements); miniaturization (צמצום) of one’s wrong-doing; enslavement of oneself (צמית) to an annual process of soul-searching and cleansing, but not to fellow human beings; and eternal (צמיתות) faith in such values. The Hebrew/Biblical synonym for “fast”צם) and (צום is תענית, a derivative of the Hebrew words ענה and עני, which means to torture one’s body through soul-searching and fasting, to respond to spiritual needs, and to identify oneself with poverty during the cleansing process.
3. Yom Kippur concludes ten days of genuine, heart-driven atonement, repentance and soul-searching, which began on Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Tishrei, which commemorates the Creation. Ten has special significance in Judaism: God’s abbreviation is the tenth Hebrew letter (yod — י); the ten attributes of God — divine perfection — were highlighted during the creation; the ten commandments; the ten plagues of Egypt; the ten reasons for blowing the shofar; the ten percent gift to God (tithe); the ten martyrs (Jewish leaders), who were tortured/murdered by the Roman Empire; the ten generations between Adam and Noah and between Noah and Abraham; the ten-person quorum (minyan in Hebrew), which is required for collective Jewish prayer; etc.
4. Yom Kippur is observed on the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tishrei, whose astrological sign is Libra, which symbolizes the key themes of Yom Kippur: scales, justice, balance, truth, symmetry, sensitivity and optimism. Libra is ruled by the planet Venus (Noga, נגה, in Hebrew, the name of my oldest granddaughter), which reflects divine light and love of other people.
5. The Hebrew word kippur, כיפור (atonement/repentance), is a derivative of the Biblical word kaporetכפורת ,, the cover of the Holy Ark in the Sanctuary, and kopher, כופר, the cover of Noah’s Ark and the Holy Altar in the Temple. Yom Kippur resembles a spiritual cover (dome), which creates separations 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.
6. Yom Kippur is concluded by the blowing of the shofar (the ritual ram’s horn), which represents humility, determination, optimism and peace-through-strength. The Hebrew/biblical word shofar — שופר — means to enhance and improve (שפר), which is a key message of Yom Kippur.