Yom Kippur: "A Chance of Further Life, Gift-Wrapped With the String of Forgiveness"

By Joe Bobker

Yom Kippur is the summit of the Jewish calendar, the annual apex of spiritual consciousness, the only day in the year when Jews spend 25 non-stop hours in search of God via abstinence. Yom Kippur is only one day (unlike the other “2-day” festivals) because of the danger of excess fasting. This uninterrupted introspective, a formidable and meticulous “reckoning of the soul,” is achieved through the Torah’s command for self-denial,i a directive that, according to Rav, a 3rd century rabbi, is not intended to turn the Jew away from life’s pleasures ("In the World to Come a person will be called to account for the legitimate pleasures which he denied himself.")

It is a common mistake to (mis)translate "Yom Kippur" into "Day of Atonement." The English verb "atone" is composed of two words, "at" and "one" that, originally, was intended to mean reconciliation, not atonement. The Hebrew root of "kippur" means "to cover, or "hide," with a secondary meaning, "to obliterate" (as in ‘sin,’ and thus to expiate).ii Yet no matter what one calls it, no other day in the Jewish year is as spiritually intense and as demanding, as Jews deprive themselves (the Rambam prefers the term lishbot, “to rest,” rather than “abstain”) of the five fundamental physical requisites of their lives by not eating,iii drinking, bathing (rechitza), no sex, no cosmetics and no wearing of leather shoes (shoes and cosmetics were once considered superficial possessions and pleasures, a "luxury," and thus, unbefitting). Kabbalists compare this custom to Moses arriving at the Burning Bush and being ordered to remove his shoes because he stood on holy ground. Yom Kippur, as a sanctuary in Time, is also considered “holy ground.” How do we know about these "five?" Only indirectly. The Talmud extrapulates them from the Torah’s repetitive request (5 times) that the Jew "deprive himself" (inuy).iv

Does this mean Yom Kippur is a time of anxiety and despair, apprehension and fear? It would seem so, especially when the liturgy uses such solemn language as v’initem et nafshotaichem, “you shall afflict your souls.”v But it is not. Instead the rabbis of the Mishna crown Yom Kippur one of the “more joyous days for Israel,” even suggesting that Kippurim be read as K’Purim, "a day like Purim,"vi and elevating it as one of the two happiest days of the year (the other is Tu B’Av). It is true: during the First Temple Yom Kippur was pensive, sober and serious – but only inside the Temple; outside it was a different ‘ball game;’ a bright and cheery holiday of matchmaking as Jewish girls, dressed in white, danced in vineyards hoping to attract their bashert, “marriage partner.”vii

In that context we can now take a second look at that “ominous” word v’initem. Its Hebrew root is anah (ayin, nun, heh) which means to “sing out,” in discovery that Yom Kippur is not just a day of soul affliction, but a day of souls soaring and singing and searching; proof positive that yirah, “fear,” has a positive side in that it allows the Jew to focus. This word is derived from the Hebrew root ra’ah, which means “to see, apprehend,” as in those pop lyrics, “I can see clearly now.”

What does this new eyesight show us?

That Yom Kippur is a day of spiritual uplift, one that forces us to “see” (and appreciate) what life has to offer. This new vision makes this day one of a cathartic refocus, away from the frivolities of existence and towards a New Year with renewed priorities, jubilant in the knowledge that God has just granted us the Mother of all Presents, a chance of further Life, gift-wrapped with the string of forgiveness. As Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt so aptly put it: "On Tisha B’Av with its tragic memories, who can eat; on Yom Kippur with its spiritual elevation, who needs to eat?"

Many Jews, no matter how indifferent they are to Judaism, still view Yom Kippur as the primary Jewish religious experience. When the opening day of the October 1965 World Series fell on Yom Kippur, the Dodgers, thanks to the great pitching of Sandy Koufax, were ready. But instead of playing he gave up his spot on the mound for a seat in a synagogue. Why? Was Koufax orthodox? No. But he understood that all Jews, regardless of their level of religiosity, simply don’t work or play sports on this sacred day, known, during the Second Temple period, as “The Great Day,” or simply “The Day.”viii When Sammy Davis Jnr, the most talented and mesmerizing of all African-American entertainers and a convert to Judaism, was told one of his London concerts in the 70s fell on Yom Kippur he refused to perform until the fast was over and spent the day in shul.ix

Koufax and Davis Jnr were simply following secular tradition: the philosopher Philo, who lived in Alexandria before the Temple’s destruction, described how non-observant Jews suddenly became pious on this day.x

When God announced that “the tenth day of the seventh month [Tishrei] shall be a sacred occasion for you,” Yom Kippur entered Jewish history as Yom HaKodesh, "the" Holy Day of the year, a Day of Atonement and as the Shabbas of Absolute Rest (the “Sabbath’s Sabbath.”)xi Unlike all the other Jewish festivals (except for Shabbas), Yom Kippur prohibits the use of fire, carrying, cooking – and, in the only halachic exception, it allows fasting on Shabbas when the two days coincide.

But Heaven’s date immediately caused a paradox: how could the “10th” of any month be the official “beginning” of the New Year?

Reasons abound. Jewish mystics equated the 10th of Tishrei with the day God gave Moses the second set of Tablets, thus forgiving the folk for a Golden Calf fiasco and creating a “new beginning” for Israel.xii But there is a more pragmatic explanation that has to do with the Jewish calendar itself.

Prior to the incorporation of the leap year and its extra month, there was a 10-day “discrepancy” between the lunar (365 days) and moon year (354 days) which our rabbis reconciled by adding 10 days to the end of the previous year. The result? The beginning of Tishrei remained the month’s “first” day, however Yom Kippur, 10 days later, became Tishrei’s “official first” day. We recognize these 10 days as the aseret yemai t’shuva, Ten Days of Awe;xiii ten “in-between” days of reprieve and penitence,xiv infused with extra supplication as Jews engage in a flurry of activity (and charity) to help improve their grades on Yom Kippur, the only permissible day in the entire Jewish calendar when God’s Name, as originally used at the burning bush, is said out loud.xv During the rest of the year the second line in the Shema is only murmured….but on Yom Kippur the silence is swept aside as the excited masses respond to Aaron’s sweeping confession with mass-triple prostration and some spiritual scream-therapy: the Shem ha-Meforash, the tetragrammaton Name of God, was shouted so loud that it was heard as far away as Jericho.

God’s initial response when Moses asked Him for a name was Ehyeh asher ehyeh,xvi but this is not a name as we know names to be. “I am/shall be/become what I am/shall be/become” is an “essence of being,” an assertion of a new religion, a refutation of other gods-with-names, a rebuttal of idolatry. This was the real beginning of monotheistic Judaism: the unshackling of humankind’s enslavement to gods and their superstitions.xvii When Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin declared that “a person’s name is the very essence of his soul” his choice of the word “essence” was not accidental. It is derived from the Greek word for “being” which is directly traced to the consonants of the four-letters in God’s Name, traditionally voweled as Ah-Oh-Ahee (in Hebrew, Yud Hay Vav Hay), making it grammatically close to the verb be/become.

How was the ‘Name’ pronounced in its original form? No one knows. Why? Because it has been forbidden for so long. Interestingly, after having asked and gotten an answer, Moses never repeats it ever again, not even to the Hebrews despite having asked God on their behalf. Why then was it OK to say the Name of God on Yom Kippur?

The original custom of saying Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va-ed, “Blessed is the Name…” in a silent manner arose from sheer unadulterated anti-Semitism. With hostile neighbors peeking over their shoulders in exile, Jews were simply too terrified to openly declare allegiance to Sinai, especially when the ruling elite, usually Catholic, considered this accolade to a God (or leader) other than their god (or Emperor) an act of treason. One day a year though, entire Jewish communities openly and defiantly prostrated themselves in proclamation that this day belonged entirely to their God; and that they were ready, willing and able to serve Him in a communal transformation.xviii

In ancient days, there was no spectacle as elaborate, magnificent and impressive, and no moment as moving as the Temple’s Yom Kippur ritual of atonement, known as the avodah, that was adorned with all the art that olden Israel knew The colorful ceremonial was carried out by a well-rehearsed high priest who gingerly approached the Almighty in awesome loneliness within the Holy of Holies, on solemn behalf of himself, the priestly order, and the whole House of Israel. After the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish mind adopted the declaration of Hosea, "We shall offer, instead of bulls, the words of our mouth,"xix a spiritual battle cry that resulted in the liturgical heights of Yom Kippur majesty, wherein the Temple procedure was retained as a vivid memory and meticulously reconstructed from such ancient Mishnaic records as the tractate Yoma ("The Day"), intricate piyyutim (religious poems), and the rich imagery of Meshulam ben Kalonymus, a 10th century Italian rabbi, who describes the mysterious ritual known as kapporah.

Kapporah, which means “to wipe out,” as in to “wipe out” Israel’s sins via sacrifice, was a ceremony that was the focus of an entire nation. It was based on an enigmatic Mosaic law that ordered a special offering of an unblemished bull and two he-goats (of equal size, cost and appearance)xx chosen via the drama of lottery plates (goral echad la-Shem). One goat was inscribed with the words "for God" and sacrificed; the other was used as a "confession vehicle" and then sent (sa’ir la’azazel) “into the inaccessible wilderness”xxi as a symbolic courier of the iniquities of the people. This “escaped” goat became the “scapegoat,” a term still used in westernized society to censure or castigate one for the sins of others.xxii

What does sa’ir la’azazel mean? I don’t know; nor does anyone else. We do know that la means “no” and sa’ir means “hair” – but azazel? It’s a mystery. Why? Because this word appears nowhere else in the Torah and, unlike all other Hebrewisms, it has no crystal-clear etymology. Remember: The ancient Proto-Sinaitic letters of the Hebrew alphabet are named after objects resembling them. For example: The second letter bet is derived from the Hebrew word bayit, a "house," the letter dalet comes from the Hebrew word delete, a "door;" and so on. But there is nothing to match the word azazel to. Rabbi Ishamel thought it was the means by which the goat itself atoned “for the sin of Aza and Aza’el,” two wicked angels who misled the “sons of God” prior to the Flood. This is the source of the contemporary Hebrew phrase lekh la’azazel, which means “Go to hell!” – the linking of azazel to se’irim (“devil”) which is found in the very next chapter. Perhaps this is why so many ancient drawings show the devil as a goat!?xxiii

‘Azazel’ falls into the category of hapax legomena, Hebrew words that were only used once and have therefore been misunderstood down the generations, inspiring that great yiddish saying ven Got vil bashtrofn an am-orets, leygt er em a loshn-koydesh vort in moyl arayn, “If God wants to punish an ignoramus, he puts a Hebrew-Aramaic word into his mouth.” Even the ancient midrashic anthology of Sifrei, a work which is nearly as old as the Talmud itself, shows frustration with Jewish scholars who mix “ayin and aluf” and confuse “the tsadik and the gimmel." The Mishna, the first source that describes this ceremony, uses the expression sa’ir hamishtalei’akh, "the goat that is sent away," causing some scholars to the maskana (conclusion) that azazel is a combination of ez ("goat") and azal (“went"); others suggest that az meant "strong, rugged, harsh" and therefore azazel referred to "the harsh mountain" over which the animal was thrown.

This custom survived in the form of kappora shlogging when Babylonian Jews, desperate for a symbolic non-sacrificial act of sin-cleansing, sought to “wipe out” the past via a transfer to another living creature. And so they used a fowl, swinging it over ones head, whilst saying a little prayer that asked (naturally) that the fowl be killed instead of the Jew. In my home, at dawn on the day before Yom Kippur, my father and mother would each shlug kapporas by swinging a chicken three times over their head, each time saying zeh califasi, zeh temurosi, zeh kaporosi, "This is my substitute, this is my exchange, this is my atonement." Why a chicken? Why not a fish or a house pet? Because of an old Polish superstition: that when roosters crow in the early morning to announce the first lights of day, they scare away the evil spirits who shun daylight. Why “3” times? In Judaism this number is representative of something permanent, as the yiddishists would say: a triple braid is not easily undone. That is why the obligation to ask another for forgiveness must be done three times, after which one has fulfilled the requirement (whether or not there was a response).

I was too chicken to swing a live chicken around the kitchen. So my father would let my sister and I “swing” money tied in a handkerchief instead, whilst saying the same invocation. How much money? Any amount as long as it was in multiples of chai, “18” (which means Life). We then donated the money (but not the handkerchief) to charity, because this was one of the three mitzvas that mitigated God’s decree.

Many great rabbis abhorred this custom, concerned that it would undermine the seriousness of the whole idea of vows. The 13th century Rabbi Shlomo ben Adrath prohibited it in his Barcelona community; the Ramban called kappora shloggers “idol-worshippers;” Rabbi Joseph Karo of Shulchan Aruch fame called it a stupid custom. All to no avail: it was wildly popular, especially in eastern Europe.

Whereas some Yom Kippur customs have survived the ages (eg; kneeling, kappora, mikveh,xxiv viddui), others have not, including malkut, “flogging,” which is a classical Hebrew term for Biblical punishment. In the shtetlach of eastern Europe this job of lashing was given to a poor person who would then get “tips” from his “victims.”

This practice existed as late as the 12th century during Rashi’s time and was a form of symbolic atonement that was executed (pun intended) just prior to entering the synagogue for Kol Nidrei. This is not to be confused with the Rosh Hashana tradition wherein Jews, in groups of four, perform hatarat nedarim, wherein three Jews act as a beth din whilst the fourth asks for exoneration of unfulfilled vows. Places are then swapped so each Jew gets his turn for absolution.xxv The Yom Kippur ritual involved one Jew lying on the ground and being struck by another Jew three times (Jewish women were excluded for reasons of modesty). Why only three? Doesn’t the Torah require 39 blows for malkut? The rabbis did not actually want to hurt any Jew who had voluntarily come seeking repentance so they devised a substitute formula: whoever was administering the three blows had to recite Psalm 78:38. Why? Because it contained 13 words. So? Well, 13 x 13 = 39, the required number. Once again, gematria to the rescue!

It is a mitzva to both fast (on Yom Kippur) and to eat (the day before) a meal called seudah ha’mafseket, the “Separation Meal,” which has an air of partial festivity in expectation that our prayers will be answered on the morrow; which is why my mother would bake the challah in the shape of a ladder, based on the prayer "Let our entreaties climb to You."xxvi

Every Yom Kippur we wish each other a tzom kal, “an easy fast,” which is easier said than done, but here’s some tips: drink a lot, eat in moderation with plenty of carbohydrates (pasta, rice, potatoes, etc), avoid salt, sweet foods, coffee or coke (because caffeine is a diarrheic). “It’s good to fast,” goes an old yiddish folk saying, “with a chicken leg and something to drink,” a witty reference to the fact that although eating on Yom Kippur is considered a great sin, the order to fast is not a halachik absolute. Children under the age of nine, sick Jews and pregnant women are not permitted to fast, even if they want to – and may even say the regular Blessing After Meals.

According to Rabbi Moshe Kohn

“A Jew who on Yom Kippur lights a fire to boil himself a portion of pork and washes it down with a glass of milk because his doctor has told him that otherwise he might die, does not require God’s forgiveness, because he is not transgressing a Divine precept. On the contrary: he would be a sinner in need of forgiveness if he ignored the doctor’s instructions.”

When Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, the Brisker Rav, was questioned as to why he was taking the fast-day so lightly by allowing someone to eat, he replied, “I am not treating Yom Kippur lightly. I am treating lifesaving seriously.” Rav Chaim had epitomized the essence of Yom Kippur: taking life seriously, or as the yiddishists would say, "There are no bad mothers, and no good death" – especially in 1848 when a severe cholera epidemic hit Vilna where the saintly Rabbi Israel Salanterxxvii lived. He not only ordered the entire town to eat on Yom Kippur but, in a dramatic show of leadership, ate to set an example. His courage is reflected in David Frishman’s classic story, “Three Who Ate.”

“If one were given five minutes warning before sudden death, five minutes to say what it had all meant to us,” theorized Christopher Morley, “every telephone booth would be occupied by people trying to call up other people to stammer that they loved them.” On Yom Kippur all empiricism falters before the certainty of death, as synagogues around the world become the “telephone booths” to God by Jews who are reminded that when they die they leave behind all they have and take with them all they are.

The priest was preparing a dying man for his long day’s journey into night. Whispering firmly, the priest said, “Denounce the Devil! Let him know how little you think of evil!”
The dying man said nothing. The priest repeated the order. Still the dying man said nothing. The priest asked, “Why do you refuse to denounce the Devil and his evil?”
The dying man said, “Until I know where I’m headin, I ain’t gonna aggravate nobody.”

Judaism’s belief in Olam Haba (the World to Come) found its way into our Hallel prayer; that "the dead praise not God, nor do those who go down to silence," an observation that led Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on Tehillim, to conclude that "The purpose of God’s rule does not consist in death and destruction, but in the advancement of life." If this is so, how, then, can the Psalmist sing, "Precious [yakar] in the sight of the Lord is the death of those who love Him?" – to which our mystics point out that the word yakar is a euphemism suggesting that God grieves over the death of the pious. In other words: death ends a life but it does not end a relationship.xxviii

No subject has fascinated our rabbis more than the great certainty and mystery of death, the great enemy of life. None are immune from its sorrow, none is exempt ("Moses died, who shall not die?")xxix Death is part of God’s pattern for history; without it, says the Midrash, one generation would never make way for another. But is death an end, a transition? The Torah’s axiom is that there is a life after this one, but our Sages discourage speculation about its nature.

Dylan Thomas’s poetic anti-death lyrics, "rage, rage against the dying of the light" (from his famous "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night") is a frenzy against death as being the one great adventure in life of which there are never any surviving accounts, no eyewitness testimonies, no reliability of facts or experiences. Death, by its very definition, is what happens to somebody else; however Thoreau left the woods not wanting to die feeling he hadn’t lived, Tibetan Buddhists meditated about it over images of dancing skulls, and ancient Egyptians had skeletons brought to their tables during their meals to remind them of where they were heading. Rabbi Yisrael Meir haKohen (Chofetz Chaim)xxx describing attendees at a funeral as "live-ers" or "die-ers," claimed that everyone present thought they belonged only to the former, unwilling to face the reality that all "live-ers" are die-ers who will one day be unable to plead atheism as a defense.

There is no reality like mortality; death’s popularity coming only by abstraction. According to tradition, on Yom Kippur, with the hover of mavet (death) in the air, even the Temples themselves tremble with awe and veneration as their inhabitants ponder the meaning of existence, tehiyat hametim, the resurrection-of-the-dead (once a bitter controversy between the Pharisees and Sadducees) and the abruptness of mortality (1-in-5 Americans die without warning) that Bob Toben describes as “a change in cosmic address.” This is why we wear a plain white robe in shul (a kitel) and a white yarmulke, angelic reminders of the white burial shrouds of death itself. "When they fast on this day they become like the angels," goes the poetic lyrics of Yehudah HaLevi, "The fast is marked by humbling themselves, lowering their heads, standing, bending their knees and singing hymns of praise. Their physical powers abandon their natural functions, as if they had no animal nature."xxxi (White also symbolizes purity and acts as a reminder to God of His promise that our sins shall be as white as snow.)xxxii

There was once a distinguished non-Jewish Senator who had picked up the practice of saying L’Chaim, “to Life!” at Jewish events, without ever asking anybody what the term meant. When he was asked to give a eulogy at the funeral of Senator Jacob Javitz he found himself inside a shul surrounded by Jews, so he instinctively began his eulogy with "L’Chaim Jack." He was not that far off.xxxiii

Judaism has a unique view to death and dying, one often based on humor and wit – despite, or perhaps in spite of, the Torah view that death is (sometimes) a punishment for sin.xxxiv “This world is only a hotel, the World-to-Come is our home,” was a favorite theme of the Ba’al Shem Tov whose philosophic leaning was: “I am exiting through one door, and am entering through another.” That is why the Hebrew word for a funeral is levayah, or halvayat hamet," which means, "accompanying the dead." The Midrash Tanhuma tells the story of a peddler hawking the elixir of Life outside the window of Rabbi Yanai’s daughter. The agitated rabbi suddenly appears and demands to see the drug of Life. The quick-thinking peddler opens the Book of Psalms and reads: “Who is the man who desires life? Guard your tongue from evil” – which left the rabbi speechless.xxxv

“There’s only one [death] per customer so it must be a real bargain,” cracked that famous Jewish philosopher Milton Berle, whose classic joke recalled how an old Jewish man lay dying in his bedroom when he suddenly smelt the aroma of freshly-baked cookies coming from the kitchen.

“Can I have one?” he calls out to his wife?
“No,” came the reply. “They’re for after the leveya [funeral].”

The relationship between Man and his destiny resembles that of Mrs. Gutle Schnapper,xxxvi the renowned matriarch of the Rothschild dynasty who, at the age of 96, complained to her doctor that she wasn’t feeling well. Tests were done and nothing was found. But Gutle persisted and persisted.

“Madame,” the medic finally exploded, “I can’t make you any younger!”

“I don’t want you to make me younger,” she snapped back. “I want you to make me older!”
This is exactly what all Jews want: for God to make them at least one year older so they can return to Him the following Yom Kippur. But how?

Judaism tells us that there is something we can do about death, without dwelling on it or trying to penetrate its mystery. It was best said by Nuland: "The art of dying is the art of living;" and the Torah’s “art of living” requires fidelity to the Laws of Moses whilst its “art of dying” requires rectifying character blemishes, especially on Yom Kippur, in a powerful process called t’shuva.

To achieve this, the Rambam advised a spiritual diet, which required over-exaggerating a “bad” trait in the opposite direction and then moving back to the middle. For example, if a Jew wanted to cease being a miser the solution was to overdose on charity and then move back to the required amount (10%). The Chazon Ish advised that one should focus on a specific mitzva to overcome a specific fault (eg; the Jew who displays “hate” should begin concentrating on hospitality); while the great ethicist Rabbi Yisroel Salanter advised that one select one character trait in need of improvement and rectify it, slowly.

But all rabbis agree on this: the mitzva of tzeddaka must be elevated and spiritually magnified at this time of the year because, goes a yiddish proverb, the heaviest burden is an empty pocket, adding that if your outgo is greater than your income, then your upkeep will be your downfall. This is why community charity appeals occur at Kol Nidrei and/or Yizkor.

In Hebrew tzeddaka means “righteousness,” which should not be confused with zedek (which means justice) or chessed (which means “loving kindness”), nor “charity,” an act for which there is no Hebrew word. Chessed is a mitzvah but it is not ipso facto tzeddaka or charity. Nor is “compassion” technically righteousness. It is a popular fallacy that a mitzva occurs each time you give someone money. It doesn’t. For the mitzva of tzeddaka to take place, there are several very specific halachik imperatives, ranging from the resources of the giver, the needs of the recipient, certain moral priorities (eg; placing female orphan needs ahead of males). Thus it is possible to do an act of chessed, motivated by compassion, and yet not have performed the mitzvah of tzeddaka.

In Latin the term “charity” is derived from “caritas” whose etymology means love and endearment. In Hebrew it encompasses compassion, good deeds and social justice – acts that fall within the general theme of righteousness. When Rabelais, the French satirist died, his entire will read: "I owe much. I possess nothing. I give the rest to the poor," an attitude not reflective in a Torah that advises: don’t give till it hurts, give until it feels good. When the Rambam codified Jewish law in his Mishneh Torah, he defined charity by way of eight levels. The highest? If you want "dough" remember the word begins with "do." In other words: help a poor person become self-sufficient. The lowest? Giving money "with a sad face."

Giving charity has been built into every Jewish community since the Biblical times of an agrarian Jewish society. A sign over a community soup kitchen in my mother’s little Polish shtetl read: “When you feed strangers you occasionally feed angels.” But why was tzeddaka plucked out of the 613 mitzvas to be given such erev Yom Kippur prominence? Because the entire thrust of Torah is towards “the multitude of the people,” preferring the prayers of family and tribes, society and clan. That is why Judaism demands a minyan of ten Jews as a minimum quorum of prayer. In a metaphysical sense, the idea of a group of people getting together has a positive effect both on the individual and on the general spirituality of the world; and why all the Bible’s blessings and curses, rewards and punishments are directed to Jews as a community. Remember: Jewish history is collective, never personal.xxxvii

In the past when sinners felt a longing to join their brethren in worship the Jewish community ostracized them, yet the religious authorities were loath to repel them, heeding the warning of Koheles, "There is no human being in the world so righteous who does [only] good and never sins.” When Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz declared that "a prayer which is not said in the name of all of Israel is not a prayer, he was bluntly reaffirming the teshuvah betsibbur, the “collective return” of Jews to Judaism,xxxviii as laid out by the machzor which is designed to stop individual spontaneity (ie; it may be “I” who has sinned, but it is “We” who atone!) The Hebrew word amen means “so be it” and is derived from the root “truth.” When Jews couldn’t read Hebrew, they would listen to a cantor and simply respond “amen” and be considered as having participated fully.xxxix The earliest known form of Jewish communal worship was the saying of the Sh’ma, which declared the Oneness of God, and was first muttered by Jacob’s children to their dying patriarch father as he gave them a deathbed blessing. Our rabbis later affixed the words El Melech Ne’eman, “our trustworthy King,” as a silent three-word introduction.

During the year we pray for ourselves. On Yom Kippur we pray in plural, even begging pardon for sins that most Jews have never even experienced. Why? Because remorse may begin as a private emotion but God wants it ended as a communal exclamation of contrition. “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” may be a Beatles’ lyric but its yomtov-style theme is not. It comes from the Torah, from the first words ever recorded by Biblical man: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The reply? “Yes,” a one-word statement that summarized Israel’s philosophy kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh, that “all Jews are guarantors for each other.”

Although Martin Niemoeller was not Jewish, his famous Holocaust diary neatly summarized the universal concept of arevim zeh lazeh:

“When the Nazis first came for the Communists, I didn’t speak up, because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, but I didn’t speak up, because I was not a Jew. They came for the unionists, but I didn’t speak up because I was not a trade unionist. They came for me…and by that time there was no one to speak up for anyone.”

The expressions Klal and Am Yisrael mean the “Totality of [and the] People of” Israel, permanent reminders that Jews are not a Nation as others understand the word to mean, but members of one family. This Heavenly insistence on assembly-type activity serves many purposes: it discourages isolation; it keeps Jews together as a group; it reminds us that we are not alone in our needs. That is why tzeddaka is such a perfect “mitzva match” to Yom Kippur, for it is an act that bonds and deepens the Jew’s awareness of community.
And how man acts, God reacts. "As a father is compassionate to his children, so will God be compassionate to us," says the Yom Kippur text in which the term “our father” is emphasized by appearing over 150 times. The link is obvious: God decides the character of a Jewxl by how the Jew treats those less fortunate than he. Years before US President J.F. Kennedy made his famous “Ask not what your country can do for you,” the Chofetz Chaim was teaching “Do not ask God for what you want, ask God for what he wants from you.”

I recall as a child that the most emotional aspect of Yom Kippur didn’t even occur on Yom Kippur, nor in the synagogue. It took place in our humble home just before we left for Kol Nidrei.

“May God bless you and guard you…
May God shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you…
May God turn His face toward you, and grant you peace."

It is only a few words but when my father recited this Priestly blessing over my sister and I, as my mother wept silently by his side, he was blessing the “left-over” children of Adolf Hitler’s crusade. The main difference between the Yom Kippur of my youth and that of today is the absence of crying, sobbing and genuine tears from the women’s section. My sister and I responded with thanks and honor to parents, in accordance to a Fifth Commandmentxli that, according to Simeon ben Yohai, was “even more important than honoring God.”

One year Rabbi Israel Salanter hadn’t arrived for the Kol Nidrei services. After waiting until the last possible moment his congregants started services without him. Rabbi Salanter showed up as they finished davening. His hair was disheveled, his clothes creased.
     “What happened?” asked his astonished congregants.
     “Nothing,” replied the rabbi. “On my way to shul, I heard a baby crying. Its mother had gone to Kol Nidrei services and the baby was all alone. I stayed by the cradle and rocked it until the mother returned.”

What was so magnetic about Kol Nidrei to cause Jewish mothers to leave their babies unattended?

Kol Nidrei, originally penned in Aramaic, stands for the “absolution of all vows” and is the best known liturgy amongst all Jews, whether affiliated or unaffiliated. Its popularity hides the fact that it is a late-comer to Jewish history, entering our tradition sometime between the 2nd and 6th centuries, during the time of the Geonim.xlii Believe-it-or-not: many rabbis were against it. Some called it a foolish custom, others said it was halachikally problematic. The great Yeshiva Academies of Babylon and Spain simply ignored it, which explains why it doesn’t appear in any of the writings of the Rambam or the Alfasi.

But all their objections came to naught.

Kol Nidrei took on a religious life of its own, destined to become Yom Kippur’s singular, most extraordinary moment of drama. With the poet’s refrain, Hass kategor v’kach sanegor m’komo – Accuser, silence! Defender, take his place!", all Jews silently rise, all sefer Torahs are solemnly taken out of the ark, an eerie nigun begins with a whisper and a whimper, and then rises to a crescendo of near-shouting as Jews remind God of His promise to forgive. God’s reply? “I have forgiven – as you asked.”xliii

This melody first appeared in Southern Germany around the 15th and 16th centuries. In 1825, after Beethoven was asked by the Viennese Hebrew Community to write a cantata on the occasion of the opening of their synagogue, his composition, in C-sharp Minor Quartet, no. XIV, op. 131, movement 6 (Adagio quast un poco andante, measures 1-5) bears a remarkable resemblance to the Kol Nidre melody and suggests that Beethoven was acquainted with Jewish music.xliv In his memoirs, Leo Tolstoy recalls hearing this tune for the first time in a Russian shul and being both “sad” and “uplifted” by its haunting, yet rousing rhythm. This is not surprising. The poetry of Kol Nidrei is majestic, its imagery powerful, its scripture intense and penetrating.

Kol Nidre is not a prayer per se but a dry confession which must begin before sundown because Jewish courts are prohibited from making decisions at night. It is a legal proceeding, an earthly session of the Bes Din Shel Mala, the Court on High, where God adjudicates between angels pleading on our behalf and a prosecutorial satan who is agitating for the death penalty. This is why two Jews flank the chazan,xlv to symbolically represent the three Jews that are needed for a traditional beis din, court of justice. I was once in Jerusalem with my wife visiting one of my sons studying at the Mir Yeshiva. As an architect, I wanted to see the new High Court of Justice building so the three of us hopped into a cab. I figured my son knew better Hebrew than I and asked him to tell the cab driver (who spoke no English) where to go. Unfortunately my son only knew yeshivish-Hebrew (a dialect picked up from studying Torah-Scriptures and not from the street). After struggling to find the right words he instructed the driver to take us to the Bes Din Shel Mala (the Heavenly High Court). The cab driver thought we were making fun of him, stopped his cab, and kicked all three of us out onto the street.

To begin Yom Kippur with Kol Nidre seems to be a contradiction in terms. Why? Because Yom Kippur is supposedly a day of asking forgiveness for the previous year, whereas Kol Nidrei begs for “absolution and retraction” for the upcoming year, from “this Yom Kippur till the next.” What’s going on? Is this an attempt to cancel the “future?” The answer lies in the halachik difference between an oath (a shevuah) and a vow (a neder), with the former being limited to statements made within the Jewish judiciary; the latter to words made in the open, amongst nonJews.xlvi

A vow was so sternly discouraged by our rabbis, because of its potentially broad and negative impact on all Jews, that the Jews of eastern Europe would pepper their conversations with the expression beli neder, “this is not a vow.” The past-future tension in Kol Nidrei’s absolutions is a reflection of the brutality of Jewish history. From year to year Jews never knew what their hostile political and spiritual adversaries would demand of them: conversion, expulsion, suicide? Anything was possible. If you were a Jew, for example, in medieval Spain, Italy or Turkey the odds were that you would be asked to deny Torah and pledge allegiance to the Cross – or meet your Maker via the stake; and if you were a Jew in Eastern Europe, during the abominable Holocaust, safety sometimes came via the local monastery.

The Jews who accepted baptism openly and Judaism privately fell into the halachik category of being “unwilling sinners,” sometimes called Marranos, a contemptuous term meaning “pig.” King Manuel of Portugal simply kidnapped Jewish children, baptized them and waited to see if their parents would follow suit. Those that did were called anusim, the “forced ones;” yet, although “forced,” many of these 15th century Jews covertly clung to Judaism, as did thousands in the Byzantine Empire, who survived horrible massacres by pretending to convert. Entire Jewish families led desperately troubled lives trying to cling to shreds of their heritage as full-time spies of a hungry Inquisition lurked around every corner. To abstain from pork or keep Shabbas was a death sentence. Jewish women would light candles on Friday nights in pitch-black cellars and spend the following holy day at their spinning-wheels pretending to work.

The Kol Nidre terminology was devised for these unfortunate Jews, acting as an annual halachik exit strategy; a mechanism that provided a release, in advance, to annul any future vows of apostasy that Jews were forced to declare just to “stay alive.” Because their court oaths were not to be trusted, Jews in the Middle Ages were expelled from legal proceedings. In 1240, King Louis IX summoned French rabbis to explain the Kol Nidre procedure which resulted in the degrading act of the rabbinate being forced to make another blessing (more judaico) designed to “annul” the previously annulled vows. In 1655, Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam was summoned by London’s Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell and told that England could not let Jews reenter if the Anglican Church was unable to trust the promise of any Jew who kept Kol Nidre.

Kol Nidrei is a poignant moment in honor of those thousands who suffered terribly as they clung bravely to their faith; and since we do not know who they are, we symbolically cling to this night on their behalf, those invisible scapegoats of history.

Unlike many synagogues today that take “breaks” in-between, our Yom Kippur services seemed like an open-ended meditation, going all-day, non-stop, on the belief that when pleading for one’s life and family’s well-being, not a perpetual moment was to be wasted. Even when we went home after Kol Nidrei and returned the next morning, it felt like the prayers we left behind were still hovering in mid-air awaiting our return, like an immediate continuation rather than “starting again.”

As such, Yom Kippur blurred into one long prayer day.

I remember admiring those men who slept overnight in shul so as not to “break” the atmosphere of reconciliation, not necessarily for themselves but as agents of the kehilla to show God that His mini-Temple never formally closed. (I noticed that those who did go home always left quietly.) The primary ritual for Yom Kippur, after all, is simply to be there; and participate in five separate amidah services (the largest number of any day in the Jewish calendar): in the evening (Kol Nidrei-Maariv), morning (Shacharit) additional morning (Musaf), afternoon (Minchah) and late afternoon (Neilah).

I remember how my father would stand all day and I wondered where he got the energy. The truth is he didn’t have it physically, but spiritually. Why stand? Because angels don’t sit.

“Just as angels (so to speak) stand upright, so too we spend most of Yom Kippur standing in the synagogue. And just as angels (so to speak) wear white, so too we are accustomed to wear white on Yom Kippur. Just as angels do not eat or drink, so too we do not eat or drink.xlvii

Yom Kippur is also unique in two other ways: Unlike most other Jewish festivals, there are two full Torah services. The morning service describes the High Priest’s special Yom Kippur sacrifices, followed by the haftora reciting Isaiah’s confrontation and challenge to examine the inner meaning of the day.xlviii And this is the only time of the year (musaf on Rosh Hashana and alenu on Yom Kippur) when Jews kneel as a dramatic re-enactment of a time, both Biblical and in the Temple, when Priests and common folk prostrated themselves on hearing the name of God. In our shul we place a newspaper (some place sand) on the floor to kneel on so as to emphasize the Leviticus 26:1 order that Jews not bow down to stone.

It is no coincidence that the number of days in the aseret yemai t’shuva (10) equals the number of times on Yom Kippur that we recite the confessional viduy, a lengthy admission of past wrongs that is a primary halachik obligation of atonement. To admit human weakness takes courage; to do something about it takes even more. Most of the time we rationalize our shortcomings and stay in blissful denial.

Full atonement on Yom Kippur consists of two parts: between man and God (bein adam la-Makom), and the much more difficult task known as bein adam la-havero, which is between man and man; neighbors, friends, acquaintances and family members.

Even the rabbis of the Talmud were traumatized by this requirement.

After Rav had baleidicked (insulted) R. Hanina it took him 13 Yom Kippurs before he could seek forgiveness. What exactly did Rav do? One day he was teaching Torah when R. Hanina entered, and instead of showing derech eretz by starting again, Rav continued his teaching which Hanina took as a sign of disrespect. On another occasion R. Yirmiya went to R. Abba’s house to apologize but didn’t have the courage.xlix As he hesitated at the front door a maid accidentally poured her dirty dishwater over him which the rabbi interpreted as a penalty from God for his weakness.

Does t’shuva atone for all sins? No. The one exception is chillul Hashem, the desecration of God’s name, an act of gross disrespect that can potentially cause a negative chain reaction among Jews.l According to Rabbeinu Bachya, a 14th century Torah commentary, the only way to (partially) reverse a chillul Hashem is with a kiddush Hashem, publicly sanctifying God’s name. Rabbenu Yonah attaches "the choiciest repentance to that of one’s youth, when one subdues his evil inclination while he is yet in possession of his energies;"li yet death-bed repentance is acceptable ("Even if one is a complete evildoer all his days"),lii summed up succinctly in the service, Ad yom moto t’chakkeh lo lit’shuvah, "To the day of one’s death God waits for a person to repent."

Judaism considers t’shuva not a right but a privilege, an act of mercy which defies natural law. But why allow t’shuvah in the first place? Why not be punished for harm caused? Because God’s “all-mercifulness” is based on logic. The Torah recognizes that it would be unfair to judge a Jew on one bad act here, one mistake there. The Heavens thus view the entire gestalt of a person with the focus on the whole and not on the parts. And so Judaism does not “count” the first two sinsliii but requires a pattern of behavior (called a chazakah), which comes into play if any bad act is repeated three or more times, an indication of the person as a whole.

This explains the Torah’s emphasis on remorse and regret; human emotions that reveal that “evil” is not inherent; that whatever bad was done does not manifest the person.

Giving another Jew “the benefit of the doubt” eliminated enmity, and was explicitly mandated by the Torah b’tzedek tishpot amitecha, "Judge your fellow righteously"liv that even went a step further dan le-kaf Zechut, that Jews act as defense attorneys ("sanegoria") for other Jews who act improperly. Why? Because by praising someone else, you uplift yourself as well. This resembles Avraham’s pleading on behalf of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah.lv

This belief constitutes an enormous leap in the theology of forgiveness; that full repentance can be achieved by mitigating the offender’s transgressions in our own mind. This does not mean that “everything is good” but that we must see “good in everything.” Yet it is a common mistake to assume that forgiveness (s’licha), atonement (kippur) and repentance (t’shuva) are all the same. They are not. Each has its own specific and separate halachik function. During the days of the Second Temple the entire Yom Kippur service focused on repentance; today, its focus has shifted to atonement, an act which is not absolute but conditional.

Heinrich Heine’s smug attitude of certainty (“Naturally, God will forgive me, that’s his business”) is exactly the type of conceit that the rabbis of the Mishnah repeatedly warn against.

“If someone said, "I will sin and repent, and sin again and repent," he will be given no chance to repent. If he said, "I will sin and Yom Kippur will effect atonement," then the Day of Atonement effects no atonement.”lvi

These are unacceptable thought processes that make a mockery of moral realism and the Divine compassion for forgiveness. Trickery, deceit and the exploitation of the repentance mechanism, described by our Sages as nothing less than “a fierce fight with the heart,”lvii was not tolerated. What was tolerated was the approach of Rabbi Eliezer in Pirkei Avos, to “repent one day before you die!” You may ask the obvious: “But I do not know when I am going to die” and get the answer, “Exactly, that is why we are enjoined to repent every day of our lives.”

The Psalmist was not the only Jew ignored by God when he begged, “let me know mine end and the measure of my days.” Mankind has always wanted to know but is denied the knowledge.

Which leads us to another obvious question: If we follow Rav Eliezer and repent each day as though it’s the last, who needs a Yom Kippur? The answer lies in the structure of the prayers.

The Hebrew verb for prayer is hitpallel,lviii and its stem phl means “to judge, intercede, hope.” This signifies intercession, a religio-bridge between the Heavens and Earth; and, most importantly, the conviction that God not only exists, but also listens and answers.

There is a story about the two people who came to heaven at the same time: One was a cantor the other an Israeli bus driver. After a short session, both were allowed into heaven. However, the cantor was given the second floor suite while the bus driver got the penthouse.
     "Why?" complained the cantor; "Why should he have a better place than I?"
     "Simple," replied God. "When you prayed, everyone went to sleep. When he drove, everyone prayed!"

All prayers are answered, sometimes even with a brutal “no!” A father in Israel once cried at his sons funeral who was murdered by a terrorist, "God, I asked you to save my son and you answered me, and your answer was no."

But our rabbis understood that prayer, which Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Hassid defined as, "the rejoicing of the human heart with God, was a complex one that needed moods and patterns. And so, during the normal weekday the Jew seeks forgiveness via the “softer” scrutiny of the daily amida prayer. This is why we need a Yom Kippur, a day when the liturgy suddenly turns serious and solemn; when forgiveness is sought via the “harder” scrutiny of the dramatic vidui, al heit’s, and ashamnu’s; which contain the powerfully poetic ki anu amecha, v’atah eloheynu, “we have sinned,” which assumes collective responsibility for the individual within.

It is customary to gently beat one’s chest during the viduy, as if to say that your heart may have led you astray in the past but hopefully, this will not happen in the future. Ashamnu lists, in an alphabetic acrostic, general sins; whereas al heit is longer and more specific. Meanwhile, the 44 sections of al heit are not, technically, a list of mistakes, but an attempt to identify the causes of mistakes; remember, the word "heit" does not mean "sin" but to "make a mistake." But who compiled these Yom Kippur confessions? No one person: they simply evolved. Originally, the confessional viddui had no set liturgical format. It began loosely with Cain ("My punishment is heavier that I can bear"), Jacob ("I am not worthy of all Thy true and steadfast love") and David ("I have been wicked, very foolish") setting the general tone, leading to such standard phrases as Tehillim’s "We have sinned, acted perversely, wickedly."lix When the High Priest confessed he used three verbs in his expression chatati aviti pashati ("I have sinned, I have committed iniquity, I have transgressed"), which encompassed, respectively, careless sins, conscious iniquities and rebellious transgressions.lx Todays terminology is based on this precedent, with viddui comprising six main elements: An introductory paragraph leading up to the essential words, aval anachnu chatanu ("indeed, we have sinned");lxi the brief Ashamnu which goes back at least to the 8th century and lists sins alphabetically; the viddui of Rav; the long alphabetical Al Chet which can be traced back to time of Jose ben Jose;lxii the 8-line Ve’al Chata’im passage which dates back to the 8th or 9th century and links which sacrifices were imposed to certain sins; and finally, the viddui of R. Hamnuna.

“There is a time for long services and long sermons,” advise our rabbis, “and a time for short ones.”lxiii Neilah, the fifth and final afternoon service with its stirring tone of desperation is such a time, and is unique to Yom Kippur. The term means the “closing of the gates,” a spiritual acceptance that “the day is done, the sun is setting, soon to be gone.” This open-doorway theme runs through this entire yomtov liturgy. The word neilah was first used in the ancient context when the gates of the Temple were kept open during daylight so all could enter; but at nightfall, the gates were locked. It was later applied to the last service of Yom Kippur, a symbolic tribute that this day was an entrance through a spiritual gate to new relationships; with God, with each other. These "Gates of Repentance" were listed in an alphabetical acrostic prayer, with each gate given a specific Judaic value: beginning with Sha’arei Orah, "Gate of Light" (because orah begins with the first Hebrew letter aleph) and ends with Sha’arei T’shuvah, "Gate of Repentance" (because t’shuvah begins with the last Hebrew letter tav).lxiv

Neilah’s special melody, designed to prick the emotions and bring the congregation to greater devotion, concludes the long day and shifts the mood into a different consciousness. The gates of Heaven are about to shut, God’s final plea about to be admitted. We replace the word ketiva (inscribed) with chatima (sealed), leave the Ark open as everyone stands, symbolically awaiting entry, say Avinu Malkenu for the last time, and then the relieved masses jointly shout

Sh’ma Israel Adonai Eloheynu adonai echad!
Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va-ed!
Adonai hu ha-elohim!

The day ends with a long blast of the shofar accompanied to the rousing hopes for L’shana ha-ba-ah b’Yirushalayim!, “Next year in Jerusalem!”lxv

And then….it’s all over.

Or maybe it’s just begun?


i Leviticus 23:32; Mishnah Yoma 8:1 (back)

ii Is there a link between "kippur" and "kapporet" which means either "mercy seat" or "ark covering?" It has nothing to do with the former phrase ("mercy seat") which comes to us courtesy of the Martin Luther-influenced Tyndale’s translation of the Bible (who uses the word "Gnadenstuhl"); and according to Ibn Ezra the word "kapporet" (which shares a common origin with ‘Yom Kippur’), was not just the term to describe the shape of the Ark’s physical lid but an indication of the holy task of the Ark cover, a symbol of propitiation because the sprinkled blood of Yom Kippur sacrifices went in its direction (Leviticus 16). This is why the kodesh Kadoshin, the Holy of Holies, was called bet haKapporet, "the place of propitiation" (I Chronicles 1). (back)

iii At what age should children begin to fast? Maimonides: "A child that is fully 10 years old and even 9 years old may be trained to fast for a couple of hours. In what way? If a child was used to eating at a certain time, he or she should be fed an hour later. They should be made to fast according to their strength" – based on the Mishnah’s, "Small children should not be made to fast on Yom Kippur, but ought to be trained a year or two before they reach the age of maturity – 12 for girls, 13 for boys – to become used to keeping the commandments" (Yoma 8:4). (back)

iv From the Hebrew root anah, which means "to answer," or "respond;" a recognition that these five "innuyim" require a spiritiual response of self-improvement (Exodus 3; Yoma 74b). (back)

v Leviticus 23:32. (back)

vi Ta’anit. (back)

vii Was this custom practiced on Yom Kippur during the Second Temple? I don’t know (Mishnah Taanis 4: 8). (back)

viii Hank Greenberg did the same during the 1934 stretch drive with the Detroit Tigers; as did Shawn Green, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder, who sat out a pivotal pennant-race game against the San Francisco Giants in September 2001 because it fell on Yom Kippur. (back)

ix Jane and Burt Boyar, Sammy Davis Jnr, a biography; Farrar Straus and Giroux. (back)

x Die Werke Philos, ed. Cohn, II, pp. 161-163; Elbogen, Studien zur Geschichte des juedischen Gottesdienstes. (back)

xi Leviticus 16:29, 23:27, 32; Numbers 29:7. (back)

xii Taanith 30b; Pirke de Rabbi Elezar 46; Rashi on Deut 9:18; Maimoinides, Guide III, 43. (back)

xiii The number 10 appears often in Judaism: there are 10 plagues, 10 Commandments; 10 trials for Abraham, 10 generations from Adam to Noah, and 10 from Noah to Abraham, 10 vidui’s on Yom Kippur, 10 martyrs murdered by Rome, and 10 is the minimum number required to form a minyan (which means "a count, or quorum" of males of thirteen and over), and is traced back to the story of Sodom where God agrees with Abraham to save the city if there are ten righteous men there. Talmudic sources (Sofrim 10:7) refer to a minyan of six or seven Jews, but this is not the normative law. Twelve spies are sent to investigate Canaan yet ten, called a congregation, influenced the course of the entire people. Not that other numbers were not important, such as shivah tuvei ha’ir, the "seven good men of the city," or the "m’zumman", the group of three who combine for a communal grace after meals. (back)

xiv The Shabbas within the ten days is called Shabbat Shuvah, after the Prophetic reading for that day: "Return, O Israel, for you have stumbled…" (back)

xv Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein ruled that the word "God” may be erased from a computer screen or a disk, because pixels do not constitute real letters. According to Jewish law, God’s manifestations in print, must be treated with respect (i.e.; stored or ritually buried when no longer needed). (back)

xvi Exodus 3:14-15 (back)

xvii Torah commentators never refer to "gods" themselves but to "the gods of others", "what others call gods", "gods made by others", etc. Why? They are viewed as gods only by those who believe in them. Roman philosophers once challenged our Sages as to why would God, being one and ominpotent, allow other "gods" to exist at all. Their reply: "Why should God destroy the essential things like sun, moon and stars merely because there are fools who believe in them?" (Yalkut Shim’oni 288). Does the Talmud advocate killing idolaters? Yes, and no. Over the years the verse "tov sheba’akum harog," usually translated as "Kill the best of the idolaters," has been edited by censors so that "idolaters" reads mitzrim (Egyptians), k’na’anim (Canaanites), or just goyim (gentiles) which is why the original reading is not easy to ascertain. Yes, the statement in its usual translation seems ethically offensive, but perhaps the Hebrew word harog may not mean "kill!" but may be a verbal noun meaning "a killer" (making the verse read, "The best of the idolaters is a killer," a bitter truth considering the Jewish experience with outsiders. (back)

xviii Isn’t kneeling a "Christian" activity?" No. The practice of kneeling was common in Biblical times, a defiant spiritual battlecry that, "No-one will prevent us from acclaiming the true God". This was especially true on Yom Kippur when it represented the dramatic response by the Priests and the people at the sound of God’s Name. Our contemporary kneeling and prostrating (during the Musaf’s aleynu on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur) is a re-enactment of that Temple ritual. It was customary to place sand (or some paper) on the floor to kneel upon in order to avert any suspicion that we are bowing down to stone (Leviticus 26:1). (back)

xix 14:2 (back)

xx The Torah demands that goats be separated from sheep. This separation has to do with the Judaic law of shatnes, which declares it forbidden to mix wool and linen. Very few Jews comprehend its serious significance. It is in fact a Biblical ordinance carrying the same weight as such other Biblical ordinances as "Thou Shalt Not Kill." (back)

xxi Yoma 4:1; Leviticus 16:1-32; Ramban in Acharei Mot (back)

xxii The Testament expression "scapegoat" is incorrect, a mistranslation brought to us courtesy of the 16th century scholar William Tyndale (a disciple of Martin Luther) whose English version of the King James Bible is still the most accepted one. (back)

xxiii Book of Enoch 1; Leviticus 17:7 (back)

xxiv Yoma, the Talmud tractate that covers Yom Kippur, ends with the uniqueness of mikvah. (back)

xxv Rabbi Avigdor HaLevi Nebenzahl, Thoughts For Rosh Hashana, Feldheim, 263 pp (back)

xxvi Yoma 81b; Isaiah 6:2. (back)

xxvii 1810-1883 (back)

xxviii Psalm 115:17; 116:1; Commentary to Psalms, Eng. trans., p. 307. (back)

xxix A Simchat Torah piyyut (back)

xxx 1839-1933 (back)

xxxi Kuzari (3:5). (back)

xxxii Isaiah 1:18 (back)

xxxiii How is the yiddish/Hebrew word khai associated with the lucky number "18?" By reversing two Hebrew letters yod (the numerical value of which is 10) and het (8) we get the combined yod-het (18) which yields the word hai (meaning "alive"). The "luck" associated with this number, or any variations of it (180, 1,800, etc) is why it is widely used in giving tzedakka, as in multiples of, say, "two times chai" (36), "three times chai" (54), and so on. It is not uncommon to see the het-yod symbol worn as charm bracelets, necklaces, etc as emblems of Jewish identity (competing with the Star of David). (back)

xxxiv Genesis 3:22-24. (back)

xxxv 34:13-14 (back)

xxxvi Niall Ferguson, The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets, 1798-1848, Viking. (back)

xxxvii Leviticus 19:9-10, 23:22; 23:29; Deut 24:19; Berachot 28a. (back)

xxxviii Ecclesiastes 7:20; Kerithuth 6b; Shemot Rabbah. (back)

xxxix Berakoth 47a (back)

xl A clue to character is the presence of dignity, kevod ha-beriyot, that tzeddaka be given in a way not to injure the self-respect of any Jew already humiliated and humbled by poverty. Embarrassment, halbanat panim, was considered akin to murder whilst rachmanut, empathy, was what the Heavens expected – unlike that gemach (free-loan society) that sent the following letter to one of its delinquent accounts: "Dear Yitzhack, after checking our records, we note that we have done more for you than our own mother did. We carried you for fifteen months." (back)

xli Exodus 20:12. (back)

xlii Geonim (plural for Gaon) means “eminence, excellency” and refers to the powerful rabbinic leaders of Babylon (589-1038). (back)

xliii Numbers 14:19-20; 15:26. (back)

xliv Macy Nulman, Concepts of Jewish Music and Prayer (back)

xlv Rabbi Nachman of Breslov claimed that the reason a Jewish singer-cantor is called a chazan is because the word means "vision and prophecy," implying that music is derived from the same place as prophecy. (back)

xlvi Oaths and vows are of such importance that two entire Talmudic tractates (Shevuot, Nedarim) are devoted to them. (back)

xlvii Maharal of Prague. (back)

xlviii Isaiah 57:14-58:16. (back)

xlix Yoma 87a. (back)

l Orchos Tzaddikim (back)

li Sha’arei T’shuvah 1:9 (back)

lii Kiddushin 40b (back)

liii Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:5. (back)

liv Leviticus 19:15; Pirkei Avot 1:6. (back)

lv The entire Book of Jonah the Prophet is read at the mincha-haftarah service, recounted God’s command to Jonah to go to the (nonJewish) sinful people of Ninveh, the large city of Asseryia, and exhort them to do tshuva. Jonah refuses and flees (milifney Hashem) to Tarshish from the Divine Presence. The message of Jonah? That the vehicle of tshuva is available to anyone with sincerity and can reverse Heaven’s punishment. (back)

lvi Yoma 85b. (back)

lvii Orhot Tzaddikim (back)

lviii 1 Kings 8:42. (back)

lix Genesis 4:13; Genesis 32:9; II Samuel 24:10; I Kings 8:47; Psalm 106.6; Daniels 9:5. (back)

lx Yoma 3:8 (back)

lxi Yoma 87b (back)

lxii About 600 C.E. (back)

lxiii Mekilta Beshallah (back)

lxiv The "Gates of Repentance" contain an alphabet acrostic of values: atonement, blessing, compassion, dignity, excellence, faith, generosity, hope, insight, joy, kindness, love, melody, nobility, openness, purity, quietude, renewal, simplicity, truth, understanding, virtue, wonder and zest. (back)

lxiv Levush 552:2; Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, Ch. 35; Levush, 552:5. (back)

lxv “Next Year in Jerusalem” entered Jewish liturgy as a protest song. As Babylonian Jewry went into exile one of the captors ordered the Temple musicians to take out their harps and sing a special song of Zion, a religious hymn that was part of the traditional repertoire from the Temple. Instead the musician, knowing this was his last chance to “remember,” cursed his hands and voice that they defiantly remember not Zion, but Jerusalem (Psalm 137). “L’Shana Haba B’Yerushalayim” is a battle call of song for both spiritual and physical redemption. It is also said on Pesach at the end of the Haggada. Why both times? In order to satisfy both sides in a dispute between Rabbi Eleazer and Rabbi Joshua as to when our ancestors experienced redemption – in Spring or Fall (Rosh Hashanah 11a). (back)