Today, Jewish people around the world will be commemorating Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. It is the day where our fate is sealed for the New Year and where the 10-day-period of judgement where G-d judges our actions over the past year comes to an end. As a result, it is the Jewish custom to pray to G-d to ask him to forgive us for all of our sins, both intentional and unintentional, and to make peace with all of the people in our lives. While making amends with people is harder, G-d is usually forgiving except for the worst of sinners if we are willing to regret our sins and do a proper Teshuva (return to the faith), promising to do better for the next year. As Leviticus 16:30 stresses, “On this day, He will forgive you to purify you that you be cleansed of all your sins before G-d.”
In the Jewish religion, Yom Kippur represents the day when G-d forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf. After the entire Jewish people were told by G-d at Mount Sinai “you shall have no other gods in my presence; you shall not make for yourself a graven image,” the Jewish people built a golden calf because they did not know what happened to Moses and sought to find a new leader. A group of Egyptians that accompanied the Jewish people on their Exodus known as the Erev Rav enticed them to build a golden calf and what was supposed to be a ceremony to attract G-d’s attention quickly deteriorated into idolatry. For three months, Moses pleaded with G-d to forgive the Jewish people and on Yom Kippur, he did. Ever since then, Yom Kippur has served as a day of atonement for the Jewish people, a day that represents the special relationship between G-d and the Jewish people, a unique covenant that is powerful enough to withstand our human errors and outward behavior.
As a result of our desire to have G-d forgive our sins over the past year so that we can be written in the Book of Life for the year to come and look forward to a year full of joy, happiness, and a stronger faith in G-d, most Jews usually fast throughout Yom Kippur, refraining from eating food and drinking water. It is also the custom to not wear leather shoes, to not have sexual relations, to not bathe, and to dress in white. Jews also are not supposed to drive, to use electricity or to light fire on Yom Kippur. Writing and working is also forbidden. It is supposed to be a day of prayer dedicated to seeking forgiveness for our sins and to try to return to the ways of G-d and being good people.
Prior to the holiday beginning, it is the custom to eat and drink a lot so that Jews can be ready for the holiday. One festive meal is at lunch and another one occurs right before the holiday starts. Jews perform a special kapparot ceremony. In the past, a chicken was waved around the head to atone for our sins but today, most people use money that is given to charity to atone for their sins. In addition to asking G-d to forgive our sins in the slichot prayers leading up to Yom Kippur, Jews often approach the people that they hurt within the last year and ask them to forgive them as well so that they can have a clean slate for the New Year. Before sunset, the women of the house usually light candles.
Five prayers are conducted over the course of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur evening starts with the famous Kol Nidrei prayer, which is considered the most important Jewish prayer service of the year. According to some, the significance of this prayer finds its roots in the Spanish Inquisition, when conversos used to conduct secret prayers on Yom Kippur evening in hidden synagogues, where they asked G-d to forgive them for all of the anti-Jewish statements they were forced to make over the past year: “By the authority of the heavenly tribunal and the earthly tribunal, we hereby grant permission to pray with those that have transgressed.” However, Kol Nidrei predates the Spanish Inquisition by 500 years. Thus, the Kaballah explains that the significance of the prayer is rather to ask G-d to release all harsh judgements against the Jewish people and instead to bring us happiness for the year to come.
The Morning Prayer and the Mussaf occur the following day. The Mussaf prayer includes a detailed account of how Jews used to commemorate Yom Kippur in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. While today Yom Kippur is dedicated to personal atonement, Yom Kippur when the Temple stood was a priestly holiday and individuals merely accompanied the High Priest, who made atonements for the people of Israel. As Leviticus 16:29-33 states, “The priest who has been anointed and ordained to serve as priest in place of his father shall make expiation. He shall put on the linen vestments, the sacral vestments. He shall purge the inmost Shrine; he shall purge the Tent of Meeting and the altar; and he shall make expiation for the priests and for all the people of the congregation.”
Following Mussaf, the Jewish people have the Afternoon Prayer, which includes the reading of the Book of Jonah. Jews traditionally read about Jonah on Yom Kippur because the story teaches that no one is beyond the reach of G-d and G-d is forgiving. G-d asked Jonah to go to Nineveh and to help the people there remorse for theirs sins; otherwise, he would destroy the place. Jonah did not want to go. While trying to escape G-d, he was swallowed by a gigantic sea creature. In the end, Jonah was forced to go and G-d forgave the people of Nineveh. Thus, the story of Jonah teaches us that even if we sin, G-d will be merciful if we regret.
Yom Kippur concludes with the Neilah Prayer, when the gates of heaven that were open all day long are closed and our fate is finally sealed. The climax of the service is when the Jewish people shout: “Here O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one.” Towards the end, the Jewish people dance and sing as the shofar sounds and the worshippers proclaim: “Next year in Jerusalem.”