Yom Kippur – The Jewish High Holy Day

  • During Yom Kippur the Jewish people pray for forgiveness.
  • Yom Kippur in Biblical times was the only day of the year in which the High Priest was allowed to enter into the place in the holy temple called the Holy of Holies.
  • The Arab coalition launched a surprise attack on Israel positions which had been captured during the six-day war in 1967. 

On Wednesday October 9, the Jewish people celebrate the high holy day of Yom Kippur, a fast day beginning at the night until the next evening 24 hours.  On the day of Yom Kippur the whole Jewish nation would gather in Jerusalem at the holy temple for the ceremonies and prayers.  One of the miracles of the Holy temple was that the whole nation of all the men of Israel were able to fit in the four corners of the temple and worship together include prostrating themselves on the ground.  Yom Kippur is a one day high holiday representing the faith in the one God the creator of the universe.

The place of the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

The high holy days began with the first two days called Rosh Hashanna New Year days.  Between Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur are ten days called the ten days of repentance. Yom Kippur is the culmination of these ten days of repentance.  The goal of repentance is to bring a good year materially and spirituality for Israel and the world.

On Yom Kippur all the men wear white garments to represent sanctity and purity which is the goal of fasting and prayer on this day. Scriptures relate that the Jews on this day are on the level of angels.  After Yom Kippur when the final forgiveness is received from God for all the sins committed during the year, each person now has a clean slate. There is no person that has no sin.

One of the most difficult conflicts in life for mankind is to recognize that there is sin.  People try to avoid the issue of sin, divine punishment, and hell.  Sin is not emphasized but it is a factor.  Forgiveness is most important in religion.  During the services several times is recited a prayer where each of the sins in life are singled out. The Jews gently tap on their hearts and recite the words, We have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have spoken slander, we have caused perversion, we have caused wickedness, we have sinned willfully, we have extorted, we have accused falsely, we have given evil counsel, we have been deceitful, we have scorned, we have rebelled, we have provoked, we have turned away, we have been perverse, we have acted wantonly, we have persecuted, we have been obstinate, we have been wicked, we have been corrupted, we have been abominable, we have strayed.

Then comes a request for forgiveness followed by acceptance of sin in the prayer called “for forgiveness of the specific sin.”  In this prayer again is gently tapped the heart recognizing each of the many sins which are committed in Jewish life.  There are many categories of sins which are mentioned in the prayer “for forgiveness of the sin.”

The prayers of Yom Kippur begin with the prayer of nullification of vows called Kol Nidrei a beautiful melody when sung by the Cantor.

People say that they will do many things and don’t do them. In the Orthodox Jewish temples the Morning Prayer lasts until after midday.  It is followed by the afternoon service and finally the closing prayer called Neilah.  During the week there are three prayers morning, afternoon, and evening. On Jewish holidays and the Sabbath there are four prayers one added in the morning called Musaf “additional prayer.”  On Yom Kippur there are five prayers including the final prayer called Neilah when the Arc of the covenant is opened for the entire length of the prayer. The  Zohar, the book of splendor relates that in the final prayer called Neilah the world will reach Messianic peace when the hatred between Esau and Jacob will be healed. Jacob is the representative of the Jewish people.  Esau is Rome and the Latin world. Esau is the representative of freedom and democracy in the world. The Jews are the representatives of the Law of God.

Yom Kippur in Biblical times was the only day of the year in which the High Priest was allowed to enter into the place in the holy temple called the Holy of Holies. He entered this place the closest place to God in the world as the representative of the Jewish people and all of mankind. There were also special sacrifices made in the holy temple on Yom Kippur.  Moses the prophet gave the instructions to the Jewish people including the works of the temple on Yom Kippur.

Egyptian forces attacking Israel on Yom Kippur Day.

Today there is no longer a holy temple and Jews observe the holiday of Yom Kippur in synagogues throughout the world.  In the prayer books is included prayers relating to the services of sacrifices in the temple.  In another important part of the morning service is the prayer related to the ten martyrs of Israel.  At the time of the destruction of the second temple, the Romans maliciously killed ten of the great scholars of Israel.  The names of these scholars, the Ten Martyrs are mentioned and their tortures.

In October 6, 1973 on the holiday of Yom Kippur while all the Jews were fasting and praying in synagogues in Israel and the world, was received news that Israel was under attack by a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria. The Arab coalition launched a surprise attack on Israel positions which had been captured during the six-day war in 1967.  Egypt and Syria crossed ceasefire lines to enter the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. The Israeli Defense Forces launched a four day counter offensive deep into Syria. Israel counter attacked against the Egyptian forces and crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt. On October 22, a United Nations brokered ceasefire unraveled. Finally on October 25 came an end to the war. The war had far reaching implications.  The Arab world had experienced humiliation and frustration since they had failed their mission to destroy the State of Israel.

The final service of the holiday Neilah is the hope of all mankind that there should be an end to war and sadness.  All the sins of mankind should be forgiven; the light of God should shine in the whole world, like it says in Zechariah the Prophet, In this day God will be one in the whole earth, God will be one and his name Shalom should be one.

At the end of the Neilah service is blown the Shofar the ram’s horn, symbolic of the words of the prophesy of Isaiah 27:13, And it shall come to pass on that day, that a great shofar shall be blown, and they shall come who were lost in the land of Ashsur, and the outcasts in the land of Egypt, and shall worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.”

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David Wexelman

Rabbi David Wexelman is the  author of five books on the topics of World Unity and Peace, and Progressive Jewish Spirituality. Rabbi Wexelman is a member of the American Friends of Maccabee, a charitable organization helping the poor in the United States and in Israel.  Donations are tax deductible in the USA.

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