In Jewish tradition, the Lord opens His Book of Life on Rosh Hashana and keeps it open for 10 days. During that time, Jews reflect on the past year, hoping that on balance the good will outweigh the bad. On Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — the Lord closes the Book, determining the fate of everyone for the next year. Jews mark this auspicious and awesome occasion with 24 hours of fasting and prayer.
In 2016, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Oct. 11 and lasts until sundown Oct. 12.
This is the most solemn day in Jewish life. It begins with the chanting of the Kol Nidre (literally, "all vows") prayer. This haunting, melodic prayer declares that all vows made during the past year are null and void.
This may seem strange, since the past 10 days following Rosh Hashanah have been marked by intense reflection over how well Jews have kept the 613 commandments inscribed in the Torah — the Five Books of Moses. One of these is Deuteronomy 23:22-24, requiring that all vows must be kept.
Kol Nidre is neither Biblical nor Talmudic in origin. Its earliest mention is in rabbinical literature in the 8th century CE.
Persecution of Jews in Christian and Muslim lands had led to many Jews vowing to follow the dominant religion, but covertly maintaining their Jewish identity. Rabbis adopted the Kol Nidre prayer to absolve these secret Jews of such vows. These are the only vows absolved by Kol Nidre. All other vows, pledges and contracts must be honored.
After Kol Nidre, Yom Kippur focuses on the sins of the past year. The Al Het (literally “on the sin") prayer, which is recited several times during Yom Kippur, implores God to forgive, pardon and grant atonement for these sins.
This prayer enumerates 44 separate transgressions, followed by a list of the penalties that would have been imposed during the days of the Temple.
To be certain that no sin is overlooked as we pray for atonement, the prayers cite that both positive and negative commandments are included, as well as those of which we are aware and have confessed, and those of which we are unaware and have not confessed.
The sins enumerated vary from those involving violence to slander. These are all sins, but some are more egregious than others. Why, then, are all lumped together?
Jews must follow the 613 commandments in the Torah to live the life the lord demands of them. This is similar to the Christian objective of living a life that mirrors what Jesus would prescribe. It is also like the Muslim desire to live according to the just and righteous demands of Allah as defined in the Quran.
Jews seeking pardon from the sins listed in the Al Het prayer are seeking forgiveness for missing the target of following Holy Law. This is the failure of all at some time every year. Yom Kippur demands that we focus on the target of avoiding sins next year.
Readings and remembrance
The readings from the Torah are from Leviticus 16 and 18. The first describes the ceremonies in the Temple performed during Yom Kippur, while the second prescribes some of the positive and negative commandments in the Torah. The Prophetic readings are from Isaiah and Jonah.
Solomon Schechter, a 20th-century Jewish philosopher, noted the contrast between the Torah and Prophetic readings. The first emphasize ritual and sacrifice, while the second focus on ethical precepts and conduct. Both are important in Jewish life, which has a legal code tempered by equity in administration.
On Yom Kippur, Jews pray that the Lord will be kind as He administers His judgment.
The Yizkor, or Remembrance Service, is offered during Yom Kippur as during other sacred days in the Jewish calendar. In addition to remembering fellow congregants who have passed in the last year, the Jewish martyrs of all ages, the righteous of all nations and beliefs, the Yizkor includes special prayers and meditations for fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons and daughters who have passed, not just in the last year, but in all years past.
The prayer that concludes Yom Kippur expresses the hope that when the Lord closes His Book of Life, we are in it for a good year. It is only at the close of Yom Kippur that the shofar, or ram’s horn, is sounded with one long, loud blast.
The traditional greeting throughout the Rosh Hashana period is "L’shanah tovah u’m’tukah" — "For a good and sweet year."
May it be so for us all.
Daniel E. Spector is a member of Temple Beth El in Anniston. He has a doctorate in history, focusing on Jewish history and the Middle East.