Jews praying on Yom Kippur

Based on ancient Jewish Sages, these ideas will illuminate the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, in a new and refreshing light! 

By: Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger

1.The Yom Kippur-matchmaking connection. According to Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, the 6th President of the Sanhedrin (the ancient Jewish Supreme Court of 71 Sages), during 50 CE – 70 CE, a direct descendant of King David and a great-grandson of Hillel the Elder: “Jews never had happier days than the 15th of the month of Av [the beginning of the grape harvest – Holiday of Love] and Yom Kippur [the end of the grape harvest]. On those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing white clothing… dance in the vineyards and say: ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not seek beauty… [since] it is a woman that is God fearing that should be praised.’”

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, from the Hebrew University’s Department of Jewish Thought and Philosophy, suggests that the Yom Kippur-matchmaking connection attests to the centrality of marriage and family in Judaism.  While Yom Kippur focuses the attention of Jews to core values, the marriage institution – which is increasingly threatened by modernity – focuses the attention of human beings to the core cell of the human society, the value-based family.

Yom Kippur aims at bringing one closest to God, while marriage aims at bringing man and woman closest to one another.

Yom Kippur aims at coalescing the entire Jewish public – not just observant Jews – around critical values.  Hence the Hebrew word for “public” – צבור – which is an acronym for Righteous persons (צדיקים), Average persons (בינוניים) and Evil persons (ורשעים).

2. The Hebrew word Kippur, כיפור (atonement/repentance), is a derivative of the Biblical word Kaporet כפורת, the cover of the Holy Ark in the Sanctuary, and Kopher, כופר, the cover of Noah’s Ark and the Holy Altar in the Temple. Yom Kippur resembles a spiritual cover (dome), which separates between the holy and the mundane, between spiritualism and materialism. The Kippah, כיפה (skullcap, yarmulke’), which covers one’s head during prayers, reflects a spiritual dome. Yom Kippur is translated into “the day of Kippur.”

3. The substance of Yom Kippur is reflected through the Hebrew spelling of “fast” (צם and צום) – abstinence from food. צם and צום are the roots of the Hebrew words for “narrowed-down focus;” “concentration of attention;” “reduced consumption” (of food and material elements); miniaturization (צמצום) of one’s wrong-doing; enslavement of oneself (צמית) to an annual process of soul-searching and cleansing, but not to fellow human-beings; and eternal (צמיתות) faith in such values. The Hebrew/Biblical synonym for “fast” צם and צום is תענית, a derivative of the Hebrew words ענה and עני, which means to torture one’s body through soul-searching and fasting, to respond to spiritual needs, and to identify oneself with poverty during the cleansing process.

4.Yom Kippur, Judaism and #10. Yom Kippur is observed on the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishrei, whose astrological sign is Libra (♎), which symbolizes the key themes of Yom Kippur: scales, justice, balance, truth, symmetry, sensitivity and optimism. Libra is ruled by the planet Venus (Noga, נגה, in Hebrew, the name of my oldest granddaughter), which reflects divine light and love of other people.

Yom Kippur concludes ten days of genuine, heart-driven atonement, repentance and soul-searching – the holiest Jewish time – which begin on Rosh Hashanah, the first day of Tishrei, commemorating the Creation. Ten has special significance in Judaism: God’s abbreviation is the 10th Hebrew letter (Yod – י); the ten attributes of God – Divine perfection – were highlighted during the Creation; the ten Commandments; the ten Plagues of Egypt; the ten reasons for blowing the Shofar; the 10% gift to God (tithe); the ten Martyrs (Jewish leaders), who were tortured/murdered by the Roman Empire; the ten generations between Adam and Noah and between Noah and Abraham; the ten divine tests passed by Abraham (e.g., left his birth place to become a “stranger” in Canaan); the ten-person-quorum (Minyan in Hebrew), which is required for collective Jewish prayer;  etc.

5. Six main annual Jewish fasting days:

(a) The 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishrei is Yom Kippur, an annual day of repentance for one’s misconduct toward fellow human-beings – in order to minimize future missteps – the cleansing of one’s behavior, recognition of one’s fallibilities and forgiveness of fellow human-beings’ misconduct. Therefore, Yom Kippur is a day of hope, optimism and improved relations with one’s family, friends and community. It requires a deep level of personal, focused concentration through humility, soul-searching, thoughtfulness, magnanimity, accepting responsibility, consideration, compassion and faith, which are facilitated by avoiding food and most forms of luxury.

(b) The 10th day of the Jewish month of Tevet commemorates the 589-586 BCE siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar;

(c) The 17th day of the month of Tammuz commemorates the 586 BCE and 69 CE breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by the Babylonian and Roman Empires, and the breaking of the Tablets by Moses upon confronting the Golden Calf lapse of faith;

(d) The 9th day of the month of Av commemorates the destruction of the first (586 BCE) and second (70 CE) Jewish Temples, by the Babylonian and Roman Empires respectively, the beginning of Jewish exiles, and the Ten Spies’ bankruptcy of faith;

(e) The 3rd day of the month of Tishrei commemorates the murder of the Jewish Governor of Jerusalem, Gedalyah Ben Achikam, by another Jew, Yishmael Ben Netanyah (586 BCE);

(f) The 13th day of the month of Adar is the Fast of Queen Esther – whose Hebrew name was Hadassah, which means righteousness – the day before the Purim holiday, commemorating Queen Esther’s three-day-fast prior to her appeal to the Persian King Ahasuerus to refrain from exterminating the Jews (around 480 BCE).

6. The Shofar (the ritual ram’s horn). The Ten Days of Repentance are launched by the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. They are concluded on Yom Kippur by the blowing of the Shofar, which represents humility, determination, optimism and peace-through-strength (the ram).

The blowing of the Shofar is a reminder of the Binding of Isaac (which was averted by a ram) – the highest level of faith in God.  It is a reminder of the receipt of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which was accompanied by the first Biblical blowing of the Shofar (Exodus 19:17). It is, also, a reminder of the conquest of Jericho by Joshua, when the sound of seven Shofars brought the walls of Jericho tumbling down (Joshua 6:1-20; Paul Robson’s Joshua Fit De’ Battle of Jericho). In addition, it is a reminder of Gideon’s victory over the 135,000 strong Midianite military, which was achieved by 300 Jewish soldiers blowing 300 ram horns (Judges, Ch. 7).

The sound of the Shofar – which emanates from the heart, not from the mouth – aims at reaching God, while awakening people to repentance. The Hebrew/Biblical word Shofar – שופר – means to enhance and improve (שפר), top quality, glory, pleasure (שופרא) which are key messages of Yom Kippur.