Customs and Laws

A. Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov, a festival day, which is observed like Shabbat.

B. Afflicting your soul – “…on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict your souls and do no work at all…for on that day will G-d forgive you and cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before G-d” (Leviticus 16:29-30). How does one afflict one’s soul and why? The oral law enumerates five prohibitions as the way to “afflict your soul” on Yom Kippur: eating and drinking, washing, anointing, wearing leather shoes and marital relations. By refraining from these actions, one is reminded that it is the spirit that must be the focus, not the body. It may seem the opposite is true, that a person would focus on being hungry or thirsty or uncomfortable from not washing, but such discomforts are temporary and on Yom Kippur one can transcend physical discomfort to connect with the spirit of the day.

1) Eating and Drinking – From sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur until nightfall the next day it is forbidden to eat or drink.
Pregnant and nursing women also fast. However, they should consult both a doctor and a rabbi about fasting, if they feel that fasting will create a dangerous situation.
One who is ill must consult a rabbi. If the rabbi says (s)he may eat, they should only eat that which is necessary and should refrain from delicacies.
Girls below the age of 12 and boys below the age of 13 are not required to fast.

2) Washing – During the fast, one may not wash for pleasure.

If one is dirty, one is permitted to wash away the dirt.
Upon rising in the morning and after using the bathroom, one should wash one’s hands, but only up to the knuckles.
One may wash one’s hands when preparing food.
One may bathe a baby.

3) Anointing – It is forbidden to anoint oneself with oil, thus the use of perfumes, make-up, suntan lotion, and other such items is prohibited.

4) Wearing Leather Shoes – During the fast it is forbidden to wear leather shoes. Some people wear only socks, but others wear shoes of canvas or other non-leather materials.

5) Marital Relations – It is forbidden to have marital relations during Yom Kippur.

C. Wearing White – Many people have the custom of wearing white on Yom Kippur. Some men, wear a kittel, a simple white robe, over their clothing. On Yom Kippur evening, men wear their tallit, prayer shawl, which is usually worn only during the day. Wearing white serves several purposes:

1) One’s burial shroud is white and one is therefore reminded of one’s mortality and the need to do teshuvah, repentance.

2) On Yom Kippur one wishes to resemble an angel, and therefore one symbolically dresses in white.

The Yom Kippur Prayers

Yom Kippur night – Kol Nidre This most famous of prayers is the opening of the Yom Kippur service. It begins before sunset, when the ark is opened and two Torah scrolls are removed to the bimah where the cantor is standing. The Kol Nidre service is an annulment of vows that one took in the past year or that one may take in the forthcoming year. This annulment refers only to voluntary vows between man and G-d and does not remove one’s obligation to repay debts or fulfill personal agreements.

    • Vidui/Confession- One aspect of the teshuvah/repentance process is to verbalize one’s sins. This takes place during the confession.
    • The confession must be with a true heart – one must truly repent the action (s)he is confessing.
    • Vidui is recited during every Yom Kippur service, including the afternoon service (mincha) preceding Yom Kippur.
    • The Vidui service is made up of a list of 22 sins (one for each letter of the aleph-bet). Examples of the confessional lines are:

i) For the sin that we have sinned before You under duress and willingly…

ii) For the sin that we have sinned before You with harsh speech…

The confession is recited standing up, head bowed in humility. As each confession is stated, one strikes the left side of his/her chest with his right fist.

Focusing on Vidui

* On first reading through the Vidui, one may think “I didn’t do that!” Each time one reviews the Vidui lines, however, one can gain a deeper insight into what is being said. For instance, one confession reads:For the sin that we have sinned before you by causing subservience through bribery.
“Subservience through bribery” does not necessarily mean giving a judge money to change a verdict. Every day people bribe each other with promises or flattery. When reading the Vidui, perhaps one may realize that they have coerced someone into doing something not quite right by promising them something or by encouraging the continuation of a negative character trait.

      • Reviewing the confession lines and reading them with a slightly different outlook will make the Yom Kippur experience all the more meaningful. Through this service, we realize how important our every action is.
      • The Torah Reading on Yom Kippur- During the Morning Service two Torah scrolls are removed from the ark. An account of the Yom Kippur Service of the High Priest in the Holy Temple is read from the Book of Leviticus, followed by a listing of the special sacrifices of the holiday in the Book of Numbers. The Haftorah is from the Book of Isaiah.

The Afternoon Service

Yom Kippur is the only holiday on which there is a weekday afternoon Torah reading. The section is taken from the portion of Acharei Mot in Leviticus and deals with the laws of forbidden sexual relations. The Haftorah is the story of Yonah (Jonah).Yonah is one of the prophets of the Bible: G-d chooses Yonah go to the Assyrian city of Nineveh and warn them that they will be destroyed unless they change their ways. Instead of following G-d’s command, Yonah flees onto a ship, hoping to avoid this mission. G-d sends a great storm. The people on the ship, fearing for their lives, discern that Yonah is the cause and, at Yonah’s instruction, throw him overboard. Yonah is swallowed by a large fish (commonly interpreted as a whale). He lives inside the fish for three days, praying to G-d and accepting G-d’s will.

When he is returned to dry land, he goes to Nineveh and gives them G-d’s message. The people repent and are saved. Yonah, however, leaves the city depressed that this city of idol-worshipers heeded G-d’s warning when his fellow Jews do not. He sits outside the city waiting to see what will happen. While he sleeps, G-d makes a vine grow over him to shade him from the heat. Yonah awakes and rejoices over the vine; but that night, G-d sends a worm to destroy the vine, causing Yonah to weep. G-d then rebukes him for having pity on a plant that appeared and disappeared in one night, but not having pity on the hundreds of thousands of souls of Nineveh.We read from the Book of Yonah on Yom Kippur because it highlights the idea of teshuvah, repentance.

      • Yonah realized that he had done wrong in trying to run away from G-d’s command. Yonah actually follows the pattern for teshuvah: He recognizes his mistake while on the ship during the storm; He verbally confesses that he was wrong by telling the men on the ship that he is the cause and instructing them to throw him overboard; He regrets his actions as expressed by the prayers he says while in the belly of the fish; and, when once again commanded by G-d to go to Nineveh, he does so.
      • The men on the ship, seeing the power of the G-d of Israel, repent their worship of idols and convert to Judaism.
      • The city of Nineveh heeds Yonah’s warning. The king of Nineveh decrees that his subjects must don sackcloth and repent. G-d sees that the people actually change their actions. The city is saved, highlighting the fact that G-d desires and accepts repentance from all people.

Yizkor – The Memorial Service

The Yizkor Memorial Service is recited on the last day of each festival – Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, and on Yom Kippur (as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are considered like one holiday). The Yom Kippur Yizkor Service, however, is considered more significant than the other holidays.
While those who have passed away are unable to grow spiritually, the deeds of their children earn merit for their souls.

During the Yizkor Service, it is customary for people to offer a pledge to charity in memory of their loved one(s).
In Ashkenazic custom, those whose parents are both living leave the sanctuary during Yizkor. In Sephardic custom, everyone remains in the sanctuary while the cantor recites Yizkor.

Ne’ilah – The closing prayers

As the sun begins its descent on Yom Kippur, the Gates of Mercy, opened during the period of Teshuvah, are closing, and it is the last hour before the sentence is sealed.
Only on Yom Kippur is a fifth Silent Amida added to the day, and this is during the Neilah service.
As the day closes, the Neilah Service concludes with the blowing of the Shofar, heralding the closing of the Heavenly gates and announcing our optimism that our prayers were accepted and that the day will have a positive outcome.

After the Fast

After the Havdallah (separation of holy and weekday) ceremony, everyone returns home and partakes in a festive meal. Because one wishes to extend the holiness of the day, many begin preparing for the next holiday, Sukkot, by starting to build their sukkah right after Yom Kippur.

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