Dr. Yvette Alt Miller
Here are nine often overlooked facts about Yom Kippur to enhance your experience of the Jewish day of repentance.
- We eat a holiday meal before Yom Kippur begins.
Yom Kippur is marked by fasting, but before it begins we enjoy a special festive meal. It’s customary to set our tables beautifully the way we would for Shabbat or another holiday and to eat together with family or friends. This special afternoon meal before the fast begins allows us to joyfully celebrate the holiday, as well as strengthening us for the rigors of the fast to come.
This meal – called seudah hamafseket, or meal of cessation in Hebrew – has to be concluded while it’s still light outside and should contain no alcohol, garlic or heavily spiced foods.
- We act like angels.
Jewish tradition records that God first informed the heavenly angels that He intended to create mankind. The angels were horrified and asked God why He would create such flawed beings; weren’t the perfect angels enough? God replied: although mankind is flawed, human beings still have the ability to achieve greatness through their free will, achieving spiritual heights that perfect angels who lack free will can never scale.
On Yom Kippur, we recognize our ability to achieve perfection by acting like angels who do no wrong. Many Jews wear white clothes like angels. We fast as if we were living entirely on a spiritual plane. For one day, we leave behind the physical and focus purely on our spiritual selves.
- Food isn’t the only luxury we give up.
On this holiest day, we give up food and drink. We also don’t bathe or anoint ourselves, nor wear leather shoes and engage in marital relations. It’s a day to downplay our physical needs and pleasures and focus on our spiritual sides instead.
- Some people are obligated to eat.
The mitzvah, or commandment, of saving a life takes precedence over just about all commandments in Judaism. If someone has an illness or other medical condition that makes it dangerous to fast, then not only are they exempt from fasting on Yom Kippur: they are positively commanded to eat to preserve their life. If you have any question about fasting, be sure to speak with a doctor and a rabbi about this imperative to preserve your health.
- Regretting our sins isn’t always enough.
While Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness, when it comes to atoning for things we’ve done to another person, we’re required to reach out and apologize and seek forgiveness to those we’ve harmed. Sins between man and God can be atoned for through prayer and sincere teshuva, repentance, but If the pain we’ve caused another person can be remedied – for instance by paying to fix something we’ve broken – we have an obligation to do that too before we can truly be forgiven.
- Yom Kippur’s deep connection to Purim.
Purim seems to be the opposite of Yom Kippur: it’s a joyous spring holiday marked by lots of spirited singing, dancing, giving presents, eating and drinking. Yet Jewish tradition teaches that Purim is fundamentally linked with Yom Kippur.
Yom HaKippurim means both “Day of Atonement” and “a day like Purim”. Both paths allow us to bring spirituality into our lives and elevate ourselves using radically different methods: Purim through engaging all our physical senses and Yom Kippur by denying and downgrading our physical sides.
- We kneel in synagogue.
While Jews generally do not kneel in synagogue, on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah it’s customary to kneel at several key points in the service. This departure from ordinary custom underlines the specialness of this holy day and recalls the ancient service in our holy Temple in Jerusalem, when the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, would prostrate himself during some points of the service.
- The term “scapegoat” originates on Yom Kippur.
The term “scapegoat” originates with the Yom Kippur service. In ancient times, the Kohen Gadol would take a goat and confess the sins of the entire people of Israel over it before driving it away into the desert and off a cliff (Leviticus 16:1-34). We read of this ancient ritual on Yom Kippur morning, as we pray that our sins will similarly be banished and forgotten today.
- The night after Yom Kippur is a holiday too.
Starting the year with a clean slate, the evening after Yom Kippur is considered a holiday. It’s customary to eat a festive holiday meal and to wish each other holiday greetings.
Many Jews recite a beautiful prayer over the new moon after Yom Kippur services, and Jews all over the world spend the evening preparing for the next big Jewish holiday: Sukkot, just four days away.