Image by Lina Trochez
The Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur
Themes and Moods

Both Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are referred to as יום הדין - the Day of Judgment but the mood between the two is totally different.

On Rosh Hashana we gather as a family (except during Corona times), buy new garments, have festive family meals, eat apples and honey, recite שהחינו – the prayer thanking God for enabling us to reach this joyful occasion, gather together for the Tashlich ceremony and wish all a שנה טובה ומתוקה – a sweet new year.

However, on Yom Kippur, the mood of this יום הדין is more solemn. The atmosphere in the synagogue, where we (usually) spend many hours, is serious. Worshipers engage in a spiritual day of soul searching hoping and praying to wipe clean the slate of life and to begin anew. Yom Kippur is a long and exhausting day from which, nevertheless, we emerge refreshed and energized and ready to face a new year.

Yom Kippur Prohibitions

The prohibitions of eating and drinking add to the solemnity of the day. In addition, one is not permitted to bathe, anoint oneself with perfumes or scented oils, wear leather shoes or engage in marital relations. These restrictions are the halachic (Jewish Law) elaboration of the biblical command found in Leviticus 23:27 to afflict oneself on this day.

These prohibitions serve the function of eliminating the distractions of everyday life. Abstinence on Yom Kippur from food, drink and other sensual pleasures demonstrates our ability of self control but also the possibility of gaining a meaningful perspective on life through introspection.

While fasting is often considered a central mitzvah of Yom Kippur, if fasting presents a possible health issue, a physician must be consulted and if the physician says that fasting can – or is likely to – cause an individual significant harm, then the patient should observe Yom Kippur without fasting. It is essential to point out that the tendency for people to be overly pious and to insist on eating/drinking is a violation of Jewish law! Furthermore, if a patient truly feels unable to fast, he/she should listen to his/her instincts over the advice of the physician. Pregnant women and nursing mothers may be permitted to eat and drink at the instruction of their doctor.

The prohibition against bathing is also a fulfillment of the biblical injunction to “afflict oneself” on Yom Kippur. However, those who are ill are released from this prohibition. Washing hands for hygienic purposes is permitted.

Leather shoes are not worn on Yom Kippur because they are considered inconsonant with the spirit of the day. Some authorities connect this prohibition with the biblical moment when Moses saw the burning bush on Mt. Sinai and heard God’s voice telling him that, because he was standing on holy land, he had to remove his shoes (Exodus 3:5).

The Confessional

While fasting is perceived to be the central observance of the day, the truly central occupation of this remarkable day is confession (viddui/וידוי). In some religions, confession requires a human intercessor. However, in Judaism, it does not! The possibility exists for each Jew to turn to God and personally request forgiveness for his/her own sins.