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Yom Kippur at Holy Temple

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The moving tunes used for the Yom Kippur prayers, some of them dating back 2,000 years to the days of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, are a main priority in the service, arousing our souls to a higher level of spirituality.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinical Director, United with Israel

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. There is little more than total immersion in prayer that is appropriate on this day. Even Torah study takes a back seat. Socializing is essentially a non-starter. There is no food or drink. This is Yom Kippur, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” The goal of Yom Kippur is to seek atonement for our sins and pray that God seal us for a good year.

Although prayer is primary, there is another item that shares an almost concurrent priority, and that is the tunes used for the prayers. The tunes used for the High Holiday prayers are sacred, even revered. They are ancient, with some tunes claiming to have originated in the Holy Temple over 2000 years ago! It is essentially forbidden, a spiritual crime, to tamper or change the traditional Yom Kippur tunes.

We are taught that one’s soul derives great benefit and pleasure from the traditional tunes of the prayers. The Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) teaches that the angels also praise God with their own tunes, and as such, our souls unite with the angels on this holy day through the tune of prayer. Similarly, the tunes used for the Yom Kippur prayers are said to arouse our souls to a higher level of spiritual sensitivity. Prayers recited in this state are even more effective and beloved before God.

Although it is certainly beautiful that many of the Yom Kippur prayers are sung in unison by the congregation in very moving melodies, there is one place that such singing seems out of place, and even inappropriate. I am referring to the Yom Kippur Confessional where we list off the many sins that we might have done in the course of the past year. And some of these sins are not complimentary, to say the least!

But yes, the Confessional is sung aloud by the congregation. And no, it is not sung with bitter tears and emotion, it is sung in an exciting, almost celebratory type of tune! How can that be?

It is explained that although one might legitimately believe that a confession of sins should be sung in a more serious type of tune, the Yom Kippur Confessional is different. This is because the recitation of the confessional is a mitzvah (commandment).

That’s right. The Torah commands us to confess our sins on Yom Kippur, and as such, it is a mitzvah of the Torah! And how are mitzvot supposed to be performed? With happiness! Of course, we are not proud of our sins, but we are happy that we are fulfilling a mitzvah of the Torah by confessing and repenting for them, and it is the primary mitzvah of Yom Kippur, no less!

Our sages teach us that when we repent for our sins out of a sense of love rather than through a sense of fear, our sins are transformed into merits. By singing the Confessional, we are expressing our love for God.

May our repentance on Yom Kippur be from a sense of love, and may all our sins be turned into merits. And remember, no matter what mitzvah you ever do, do it with a sense of happiness!!

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