Day of Atonement


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Related to Day of Atonement: Feast of Tabernacles

Atonement, Day of:

see Yom KippurYom Kippur
[Heb.,=day of atonement], in Judaism, the most sacred holy day, falling on the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishri (usually late September or early October). It is a day of fasting and prayer for forgiveness for sins committed during the year.
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Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement, Day of Judgment)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Jewish)
Date of Observation: Between September 15 and October 13; tenth day of Tishri
Where Celebrated: Europe, Israel, United States, and by Jews all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Kapparot Ceremony, Kol Nidre, Scapegoat, Shofar
Colors: Yom Kippur is associated with the color white. The rabbi, cantor, and married men of the congregation wear the kittel or long white robe of purity. It is also customary to drape the scrolls of the Torah in white, to cover the ark or closet in which the scrolls are kept with a white curtain, and to spread white cloths over the cantor's reading desk and the pulpit. For this reason, Yom Kippur is sometimes known as "the White Fast."
Related Holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot

ORIGINS

Yom Kippur is a significant and solemn time in Judaism, one of the oldest continuously observed religions in the world. Its history extends back beyond the advent of the written word. Its people trace their roots to a common ancestor, Abraham, and then back even farther to the very moment of creation.

According to Jewish belief, the law given to the Jewish people by God contained everything they needed to live a holy life, including the ability to be reinterpreted in new historical situations. Judaism, therefore, is the expression of the Jewish people, attempting to live holy (set apart) lives in accordance with the instructions given by God. Obedience to the law is central to Judaism, but there is no one central authority. Sources of divine authority are God, the Torah, interpretations of the Torah by respected teachers, and tradition. Religious observances and the study of Jewish law are conducted under the supervision of a teacher called a rabbi.

There are several sects within Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is characterized by an affirmation of the traditional Jewish faith, strict adherence to customs such as keeping the Sabbath, participation in ceremonies and rituals, and the observance of dietary regulations. Conservative Jewish congregations seek to retain many ancient traditions but without the accompanying demand for strict observance. Reform Judaism stresses modern biblical criticism and emphasizes ethical teachings more than ritualistic observance. Hasidism is a mystical sect of Judaism that teaches enthusiastic prayer as a means of communion with God. The ReconstrucYom Kippur

tionist movement began early in the twentieth century in an effort to "reconstruct" Judaism with the community rather than the synagogue as its center.

The ten-day period of penitence in the Jewish calendar between ROSH HASHANAH , the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is typical of similar periods in other cultures marking the transition between the old year and the new. It was a period during which all normal activities were suspended. It was regarded as being "outside time," because extra days were often inserted between the end of one year and the beginning of the next to bring the lunar and solar calendars into harmony. In Judaism, this ten-day period was dedicated to examining the soul.

The last of the ten High Holy Days, Yom Kippur is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar. It is the day on which God examines people's lives and writes down His final decision concerning their future in the Book of Life, which is then sealed until the following year. Because it is their last chance to acknowledge their sins and ask God to forgive them, Jews often spend the entire twenty-four hours at the synagogue, where five services are held. They also abstain from food and water during this period, which keeps their minds clear for prayer and repentance.

God is said to open three books on Rosh Hashanah. The first contains the names of the virtuous, whose lives will be blessed during the next twelve months. The second contains the names of the wicked, who are doomed to death and disaster. In the third, however, are the names of those who still have a chance to redeem themselves and determine their own fates, because this book isn't sealed until twilight on Yom Kippur. If a person is genuinely sorry for what he or she has done and asks God to forgive and correct his or her wrongdoing, God will put a "good signature" next to the person's name and the coming year will be a happy one. When Jews meet each other in the synagogue on this day, they often say, "May you end this day with a good signature."

The celebration of Yom Kippur begins in the evening at the synagogue, where the prayer known as the KOL NIDRE is recited. Worshippers then read prayers from the Yom Kippur prayer book and spend the entire period of the holiday praying that they will be forgiven for their sins and thinking about how they might become better people. Many of these prayers are said out loud, with everyone in the synagogue joining in. On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the story of the prophet Jonah and the whale is read from the Jewish scriptures as a reminder that God is eager for people to repent. The end of the service is marked by a long blast from the SHOFAR or ram's horn, after which people go home to eat their first meal following the day-long fast.

The challah or bread baked on Yom Kippur is often made in special shapes -usually a ladder, symbolic of the hope that Yom Kippur prayers will reach heaven, or wings, because the scriptures read on Yom Kippur compare men to angels.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Kapparot Ceremony

In a very ancient ceremony held on the day before Yom Kippur and known as the Kapparah or Kapparot, it was customary to take a chicken (a rooster for a man, a hen for a woman) and swing it around one's head three times while reciting verses from the Psalms and the Book of Job. The chicken served as a kind of SCAPEGOAT : It took on the individual's sins and absorbed any punishment that he or she deserved. The custom of Kapparot is normally practiced only by very pious Jews. Today, many people observe it by swinging money tied in a handkerchief over their heads and then giving it to charity.

The act of making circles appears in many other Jewish customs, as well as in those of other ancient cultures. Making a "magic ring" was originally believed to ward off evil spirits. Some Jewish authorities have condemned the Kapparot ceremony as a display of heathen superstition, but it remains popular among Orthodox Jews.

Kol Nidre

On the eve of Yom Kippur, there is a service at the synagogue known as the Kol Nidre ("All Vows"). It dates back to the sixth century when, during the Spanish Inquisition, Jews were forced to become Christians. They tried to follow their religious beliefs in secret, asking God to forgive them for breaking vows they could not keep because of events beyond their control. The Kol Nidre prayer has also been used during other times in history when Jews have been forced, in one way or another, to abandon the practice of their religion.

To many Jews the Kol Nidre prayer is synonymous with Yom Kippur. Modern Reform Jews no longer recite the Kol Nidre because it has been criticized for providing a "loophole" by which they might avoid fulfilling their obligations. But the haunting melody to which the words of the Kol Nidre are sung, composed between the mid-fifteenth and mid-sixteenth centuries, can be very moving, and many people have tears in their eyes when they listen to it.

Scapegoat

A scapegoat is someone or something that bears the blame for the wrongs committed by others. The idea of using a scapegoat to atone for human sins goes back to the most primitive societies. The ancient Babylonians included in their ten-day New Year celebration a Kapparu day-a day for the cleansing of sins. They would kill a ram and rub its body against the walls of the temple so that any impurities would be absorbed. The next day, they would designate a criminal to act as a human scapegoat for the sins of the community. This unfortunate person would Yom Kippur

be paraded in the streets and beaten over the head. When the Jews took over this ceremony, it became more than an act of purgation; people had to be purified not just for their own sakes, but for the sake of their God. Sin was regarded as an obstacle not only to their material welfare but to the fulfillment of their duty to God. In fact, Yom Kippur gets its name from kippurim, which refers to the various procedures used to remove the taint of sin.

Why a scapegoat? The male goat for pre-Christians was a symbol of virility and unbridled lust. But as sexuality became more and more repressed, the goat's status was reduced to that of an "impure, stinking" creature who only cared about gratifying its own appetites. In portrayals of the Last Judgment, the goat is used to symbolize those who are damned. This is based upon a passage in the Bible describing how Christ on Judgment Day will separate the believers from the nonbelievers as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

In ancient times, two scapegoats were chosen. After special ceremonies were held transferring the sins of the community to the goats, one of them was sacrificed and the other was driven into the wilderness. When the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C . E ., animal sacrifices were discontinued, and Yom Kippur underwent a profound change. The sins that used to be removed by the ritual of the scapegoat now had to be purged by each individual through confession and absolution. At the same time, atoning for one's sins by attending synagogue services on Yom Kippur remains a community experience.

Shofar

In Jerusalem, it was customary to signal the end of Yom Kippur by blowing the shofar or ram's horn at the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall (see TISHA BE-AV ). After the Arabs rioted against the Jewish population of Palestine in 1919, the British administrators ordered the Jews to stop the custom. Defying threats from both Arabs and the British police, certain dedicated Jews continued the practice; many were imprisoned for doing so.

In June 1967, after the old city of Jerusalem was freed from Jordanian control, one of the first things that the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Force did was to blow the shofar at the Western Wall. Since that time, the custom has been restored. Every year on Yom Kippur, thousands of Israelis gather at the wall to listen.

FURTHER READING

Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian Books, 1994. Cashman, Greer Fay. Jewish Days and Holidays. New York: SBS Pub., 1979. Edidin, Ben. Jewish Holidays and Festivals. 1940. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1993. Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Gaster, Theodor H. Festivals of the Jewish Year. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Renberg, Dalia Hardof. The Complete Family Guide to Jewish Holidays. New York: Adama Books, 1985.

WEB SITE

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America www.ou.org/chagim/yomkippur Yom Kippur
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