During the ten days between Rosh Hashanah from
Yom Kippur, God decides on what human fate will be. This period when the
future is under consideration is known as the Days of Awe (Yamim
Noraim). In synagogues, prayers of repentance are said, to which are
added appeals for one�s sins to be forgiven and acts of penance.
True, deep religious repentance, teshuvah, is simultaneously an
admission of one's own guilt and sins, as well as complete awareness of
the moral collapse that led to this reprehensible behavior. The only
path to ethical renewal is to ask for forgiveness. For sins committed
against God, one asks Him directly for His forgiveness in prayer. For
wrongs committed against people, one should ask those who were wronged
directly for forgiveness. If the person forgives, then so does God.
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, the peak of penance, repentance,
contrition, and taking account of one's life up to this time. On this
day, washing oneself is banned, as is wearing leather shoes, anointing
oneself and engaging in sexual relations. There is also a strict,
twenty-four hour fast, during which one may not eat any food in bites
larger than the size of a date, and may not drink more than a single
draft of water. For this reason, the evening when the holiday begins one
should eat enough so that one�s body does not grow too weak during the
next day's fast.
Yom Kippur is also a day to remember the dead.
In the evening, just before the holiday begins, memorial candles are lit
for the souls of the closest family members.
The service in the synagogue begins with the transferring of the
Torah scrolls from the Ark (Aron Kodesh) to the bimah. Men, in addition
to talliths, also wear a white kittel symbolizing the death shroud. A
special prayer is sung, the Kol Nidre, which is usually repeated three
times in the culture of the Ashkenazim. After Kol Nidre, beating their
breasts, Asahmnu is said (Hebrew, "We Have Sinned"). This is a public
confession, a listing of all the kinds of sins that a person may commit.
This is followed by prayers praising God's mercy and expressing the
hope that God will be merciful towards the weak sinners.
Prayers for the souls of the dead, Izkor (Hebrew, "Remember") also takes place during this service.
On the next day, the service lasts from dawn until dusk and consists
of reading the chapter of the Talmud about the temple service held on
this day. When the passage describing when the priest speaks the name of
God, all those present in the synagogue fall prone to the ground. This
is the only moment in the liturgical year when people fall to their
knees-all other prayers are said while sitting or standing. The service
concludes with the Neila prayer (Hebrew, "Closing of the Gates"). This
is the last moment to express one's contrition and repentance. After the
words: "Our Father, Our King, inscribe us into the Book of Life and
forgive us", the shofar sounds and people call for the gates of mercy be
Yom Kippur ends when the first star appears.
Then one can return home and eat the first meal after the day's
fast-comprised of cake (usually a spice cake sweetened with honey),
fruit and fish prepared in a sweet way, with nuts and dried fruits.
The Ashkenazim maintain a lively tradition of kapparot, or symbolic
atonement. It alludes to the holiday service, during which the rabbi
transferred the sins of the entire Jewish people to the sacrificial goat
meant for Azazel. When the ritual has ended, the animal is taken beyond
the city walls and chased into the desert. As part of kapparot, men
hold a white rooster above their heads (women hold a white hen) and
recite the formula: "This is my substitute, this is my penance. This
bird will go to its death, I will be granted life in peace." The bird is
then killed or given to the poor, or later becomes a meal after Yom
Kippur, and the amount of money it represents is given to the poor.
It should be added that the Day of Atonement is so emotionally
charged that even people who do not normally follow religious laws will
go to synagogue on that day. For many people, participating in the
day-long, contemplative service makes such a strong impression that they
begin the new year with the awareness of having purified their souls
and an earnest desire to improve and make changes in one's life.