Yom Kippur - the Day of Atonement
From: Thursday, September 20 2007, 7:00 pm
to: Friday, September 21 2007, 6:59 pm
Yom Kippur marks the closing of the Judaic 'High Holy Days', or the 'Days of Awe', a period of ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah, during which the sins and failures of the previous year are contemplated and repentance is made before the end of the year.
Yom Kippur is the day when the divine records for the past year are finally sealed, finalising the judgement that was passed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. As such it is the final chance for the individual to seek forgiveness for his or her transgressions against God (sins and transgressions against other people are to be resolved before Yom Kippur; this day is devoted to reflection on Man's relation to God). The day is thus consecrated to prayer, fasting and other self-denying practices.
This important holy day is woven deeply into the fabric of Jewish customs and traditions. A relatively obscure practice associated to the 'Days of Awe' is the 'kapparot'. The ceremony is rarely practiced today and is observed in its true form only by Chasidic and occasionally Orthodox Jews. The practice consists of taking a live fowl (or alternatively a sack of money) and swinging it around over one's head, while reciting a specific prayer for forgiveness. The fowl is then given to the poor, or its equivalent value in money is donated to charity.
The practice has its origins in the years of exile in the desert, when the Kohen Gadol or High Priest would cleanse the people of sins by laying his hands on the head of a goat, called the Azazel or the scape-goat. He would then confess the collective sins of the people and push the animal off a cliff, transfering the blame on the animal and purifying the people.
Goats may have little to fear these days, but the theme of purification and atonement for past sins is still central to the holiday. The fast that is kept on Yom Kippur is both the strictest and the most solemn of the year. There are five prohibitions, namely eating and drinking, washing, anointing one's body, wearing leather shoes and having marital relations. Men customarily wear a white garment called a kittel, the whiteness of which both represents the purity of angels and evokes the mortality of mankind.
Yom Kippur is also a full Sabbath, which means that no work may be undertaken on that day. The holiday is normally spent in prayer, contemplation and solemn ritual activities, at home or in the synagogue.
The first Yom Kippur is said to have taken place on the return of Moses from Mount Sinai with the second set of tablets on which were engraved the Ten Commandments (the first one he broke when he found his people worshiping the Golden Calf). In his absence, the nation fasted in repentance for its transgression.