September 24, 2004

Yom Kipur

Tonight is Yom Kipur (יום כיפור), the Day of Atonement. It is the other bookend to Rosh Hashana – the culmination of the Ten Days of Repentance (`Aseret Y’mey Hatshuva) which began on that day. On Yom Kipur we fast (no food or drink) from sundown tonight, till the stars come out tomorrow (about 25 hours). The Yom Kipur service takes up pretty much the whole day – depending on how quickly you go. Usually there’s about a two-hour break in the afternoon. It’s just as well, I don’t feel like doing anything else when I’m fasting, and the Yom Kipur liturgy is particularly beautiful.

Yom Kipur is often described as the most solemn day of the year, and it is. It is a time of introspection and atonement, which is why Egypt and Syria took advantage of this day to attack Israel in the Yom Kipur war. But it is also a day of joy, for it is assumed that we will atone, and we will be forgiven. Indeed, it is paired with Tu B’av as one of the happiest days of the year (There were no days so good for Israel as the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur – Ta`anit 4:8). It is also compared to Purim, a time when we celebrate the rescue of Persian Jewry from massacre – Yom Kipurim (Yom Kipur) is Yom K’purim (a day like Purim).

Nevertheless, it is a long, hard day. Because of its significance, many Jews who otherwise would never set foot in a synagogue are there – it is particularly difficult for them, being unfamiliar with the lay of the land. Like music from a foreign land, you can hear it as well as anyone, and understand it in a way, but totally miss its beauty and significance, unfamiliar with its idiom.

At the end of the day is final service: N`ila (נעילה) – the closing of the gates. The day is coming to an end. The sun is low; you can feel it getting darker. And the gates of heaven are closing. All day you’ve been praying with the same group of people, and last night too. The N`ila service fairly short. A particular effort is made to find a respected elder of the community to lead it. (The leaders of other parts are selected more for their voice, and are usually middle-aged.) There is a special intensity in the air. Over and over we cry out:

ה' ה' אל רחום וחנון
ארך אפים רב חסד ואמת
נוצר חסד לאלפים
נשא עון ופשע וחטאה

A-donay a-donay el rahum v’hanun
Erekh apayim rav hesed v’emet
Noser hesed la’alafim
Nose’ `avon v’fesha` v’hata’a

O Lord, O Lord, God, compassionate and merciful
Long-suffering, abundant of kindness, and true
Preserver of kindness for thousands (of generations)
Forgiving iniquity, and crime, and sin
And cleansing (our sins) 

Over and over, not repetitively, but as a refrain that we keep coming back to. Each time it gets louder. We are exhausted from the long day, and from not eating or drinking, but we know that this is it. A continual theme for the last week has been being written into to the Book of Life, such as the following:

וכתוב לחיים טובים כל בני בריתך

Ukhtov l’hayim tovim kol b’ney britekha

And write for a good life all the children of your covenant

But now in this last hour, the theme has subtly changed:

וחתום לחיים טובים כל בני בריתך

Vahatom l’hayim tovim kol b’ney britekha

And seal for a good life all the children of your covenant

Finally, we get to the end and say seven times: The Lord is God! (ה' הוא האלהים), and that’s the end. The prayer leader says a celebratory qadish, and then:

לשנה הבאה בירושלים הבנויה

L’shana haba’a birushalayim hab’nuya

May next year be in Jerusalem, rebuilt!

I have never failed to feel a sense of elation at this point. I feel like I can fast forever.

May you be written and sealed in the book of life for good and sweet year!

Posted by David Boxenhorn at September 24, 2004 08:20 AM
Comments & Trackbacks

Wonderful explanation of the liturgy. I'm going to link to it later for any of my readers who may be curious.

Posted by: RP at September 24, 2004 02:16 PM Permalink

What a beautiful explanation. You have such a nice way with words.

Posted by: RobinP at September 25, 2004 07:58 PM Permalink

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