We have a half-day tomorrow because Yom Kippur will begin at sundown. This time of year is known as the High Holy Days. When we’re in elementary school, and we’re learning all about the holidays of different cultures, we’re taught that Hanukkah is extremely important to Jews in the way that Christmas is important to Christians. We learn about the Festival of Lights, the miracle of the oil that lasted for 8 days instead of one. We didn’t learn about Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is probably the most important Jewish holiday. Hanukkah has become, in the eyes of many non-Jews, some type of Jewish version of Christmas. Maybe we feel badly about all that Christmas spirit floating around. We don’t want anyone to feel left out, so we point out Hanukkah, and we say, “look, they have this holiday just like it… sort of… well, not really, but there are presents involved.” Ever notice, though, that Jews do not observe Hanukkah by taking days off work or school? I did, but I didn’t think about it. I do have a winter break in December, but it doesn’t coincide with Hanukkah. It coincides with the same winter break every school takes — let’s just admit it — to give families the opportunity to celebrate Christmas.
If you have Jewish friends, however, you will notice they do take off work or school for the High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Even Jews who normally don’t observe any other Jewish customs will observe Yom Kippur, even if it is only refraining from work and going to synagogue.
From the Bible or Torah:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people. And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath.”
This is the beginning of Yom Kippur.
On Yom Kippur, one must not eat or drink, even water. No work may be performed, as is made very clear in the verses above. Some Jews also adhere to additional restrictions in the Talmud: washing and bathing, anointing one’s body (perfume, cosmetics), wearing leather shoes, and having sex.
Most of the holiday is spent in prayer at synagogue. White, representing purity, is traditionally worn on this day.
Interestingly, one component of the liturgy on Yom Kippur is confession of sins. Not confession like Catholics view it — confessing specific sins — just general confession for wrong-doing, especially for wrong people do to others through their speech. The idea that words harm and must be atoned for is something that really speaks to me. Lashon ha-ra, or the evil tongue, is considered a grievous sin in Judaism. Wouldn’t it be nice if more people thought about the evil they speak, even if only one day a year?
One must never make the mistake of wishing their Jewish friends a Happy Yom Kippur. It is a day of serious, prayerful introspection. At the beginning of the year, on Rosh Hashanah, God decides who will suffer for their sins over the coming year. In the 10 days after Rosh Hashanah leading up to Yom Kippur, there is a chance to atone for one’s sins. During these “Days of Awe,” it’s possible to act in such a way that can change God’s mind, if you will. On Yom Kippur, God’s judgment is sealed.
I just opened my school e-mail account. I don’t do that a lot from home. I had an e-mail from the mother of one my students. We have a meeting scheduled after school on Monday. She said she hoped she was not out of line in wishing me a Happy New Year and an easy fast. It touched me, because I felt included — such a part of the community. It’s easy, being a Christian working in a Jewish school, to feel as if I don’t really know what’s going on sometimes. I didn’t understand, for instance, what the significance of the different sizes of kippot meant. I was shy about asking, because I didn’t know if it was a dumb question or not. Finally, on Curriculum Night, I asked Pamela. She is a rabbi, and she wears a kippot when she is teaching (she teaches Rabbinic Literature). She explained there is no significance. Traditionally, the kippah should be the width of your four fingers when folded into quarters. She showed me how hers was four fingers. I said I had wondered if it had some other signficance — did it, for example identify one as Orthodox or Conservative? No, she said. I asked why the different sizes then — why did Andy wear such a large one? She said it was because he’s balding. We laughed. I don’t know that many rabbis, but I think I work with two of the coolest ones in the world.
By the way, you may or may not know this, but Jewish holidays begin at slightly before sundown on the day before the actual holiday. So my students and friends will begin fasting and prayerful contemplation tomorrow evening. No, I don’t think I’m going to fast on Saturday. For one thing, you don’t just do that without preparing for it. That prayerful contemplation and atonement, though. That… that sounds like a good idea.