Guide for the Perplexed — Yom Kippur
1. Yom Kippur is observed on the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishrei (September 28, 2020), whose astrological sign is Libra, which symbolizes the key themes of Yom Kippur: truth, justice, scales, humility, tolerance, sensitivity, and optimism. Libra is ruled by the planet Venus (Noga – נגה in Biblical Hebrew), reflecting divine light and compassion.
2. The Hebrew word Kippur, כיפור (atonement/repentance), is a derivative of the Biblical word Kaporet כפורת, which was 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. The day of Yom Kippur resembles a spiritual cover (dome), which separates the holy (Yom Kippur) from the mundane (the rest of the year), between spiritualism and materialism. The Kippah, כיפה (skullcap, yarmulke), which covers one’s head during prayers, reflects a spiritual dome.
3. Yom Kippur (the 10th day of the Jewish year) concludes 10 days of soul-searching, atonement, and repentance — the holiest Jewish time — which begins on Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the Jewish year, commemorating the creation of the first human being — Adam.
Ten has special significance in Judaism: God’s abbreviation is the 10th Hebrew letter (Yod – י); the 10 spheres of the spiritual universe were highlighted during the Creation (the word “sphere” is a derivative of the Biblical Hebrew word “sapir,” which means “glowing”); the 10 Commandments; the 10 Plagues of Egypt; 10 reasons for blowing the shofar; the 10% Biblical gift to God (tithe); the 10 Martyrs (Jewish leaders), who were tortured/murdered by the Roman Empire; the 10 generations between Adam and Noah and between Noah and Abraham; the 10 divine tests passed by Abraham; the 10-person-quorum (Minyan in Hebrew), which is required for a collective Jewish prayer service; the 10 sons of Haman, etc.
4. Asking forgiveness of fellow human-beings — and not only of God — is a major feature of Yom Kippur, to go from acrimony and vindictiveness to forgiveness and peace of mind. Hence, sinners and criminals are invited to Yom Kippur services. Asking forgiveness is consistent with Leviticus 19:18 (“Love thy neighbor as yourself”), and with the philosophy of Hillel the Elder, a leading 1st century BCE Jewish Sage: “Do not do unto your fellow person that which is hateful to you. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.” Asking forgiveness of fellow human beings aims at displaying magnanimity, compassion, consideration, responsibility, optimism, and faith. It recognizes one’s fallibilities, learning from one’s mistakes, minimizing future missteps, elevating morality, and enhancing family and community cohesion.
5. Fasting is a key feature of Yom Kippur. The Hebrew spelling of fasting is צום, which is the root of the Hebrew word צמצום for reducing/focusing. Thus, one is recommended to fast on Yom Kippur, while reducing material and egotistic pleasure (spiritual cleansing), in order to focus on one’s soul-searching, examining, and enhancing one’s behavioral track record toward fellow human beings.
6. The origin of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is Leviticus 23:26-32: “The Lord said to Moses, that the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of Atonement. … Do not do any work on that day. … This is a lasting ordinance for generations to come.”
7. Besides Yom Kippur, here are six annual Jewish fasting days:
(a) The 10th day of the Jewish month of Tevet commemorates the beginning of the 589-586 BCE siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar;
(b) 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 confronting the Golden Calf lapse of faith;
(c) 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 exile, and the Ten Spies’ bankruptcy of faith;
(d) 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); and
(e) 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 happy Purim holiday is a fast day, 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).
8. Blowing the shofar (ritual ram’s horn) launches the Ten Days of Repentance on Rosh Hashanah and concludes them at the end of Yom Kippur. It represents humility, determination, optimism, and peace-through-strength (the ram). It is a reminder of the binding of Isaac (which was averted by a ram), the receipt of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the conquest of Jericho by Joshua, and Gideon’s victory over the 135,000 strong Midianite military.
9. A memorial candle in memory of one’s parents is lit on Yom Kippur, reaffirming “Honor Thy Father and Mother,” providing an opportunity to ask forgiveness of one’s parent(s) and asking forgiveness on their behalf.
Yoram Ettinger is a former Israeli ambassador.