Yom Kippur

  Even more than Rosh HaShanah, the focus of Yom Kippur is in the synagogue. Nonetheless, there are a number of customs that characterize the day before Yom Kippur that are done at home.  These customs and rituals include:

     1. Kapparot

      2. Seudat Mafseket

      3. The five abstinences

It is important to remember that Yom Kippur is a holy day and a serious day, a day of reflection and self-examination, but it is not a sad day.  Nonetheless, by comparison, the day before Yom Kippur has an almost festive air because of our confidence in God’s mercy.


  The word Kapparah (plural, Kapparot) means a scape-goat, in the sense of a substitute who will bear the punishment which we deserve and who will thereby atone for our sins. The morning before Yom Kippur, it was customary to take a chicken and swing the chicken around one’s head and the heads of members of the family as a means or symbol of expiating sins.  Each time the chicken was swung around the head (feathers flying, squawking very loudly), the head of the family would say, “This is my atonement, this is my scapegoat; let this chicken die and let me and my family enter into a year of goodness and long life.” The chicken was then taken to the Shoychet, slaughtered, and given as a gift to the poor.

This custom of Kapparot (Schloggin Kappores in Yiddish) goes back to the Middle Ages, but runs counter to our sensitivities towards cruelty to animals, let alone being counter-intuitive to how we think as moderns.  No longer do most of us believe that we can transfer our sins and our guilt to a chicken or a goat and in that manner be relieved of any culpability for what we have done wrong.

Nonetheless, putting our words into some sort of ritualized behaviour is very powerful and if we seek atonement and expiation, let alone forgiveness from God and reconciliation with God, Kapparot has some great underlying potential. Today, it is more common to wrap coins (often multiples of 18, Chai) in a scarf or handkerchief and then swing the coins over our heads. The money is pledged to Tzedakah, the act of giving Tzedakah being just one of the ways to avert God’s penchant for punishing sinners. While it is ideal to ShloggKappores in the morning, in our house we usually do it just before eating our dinner or Se’udat Mafseket.

Se’udat Mafseket

The final meal before the fast is called Se’udat Mafseket. It should be both festive and satisfying. The meal appears to have all the trappings of a festival meal - white table cloth, Hallah, - but with one difference.  It is not yet Yom Tov. Therefore we do not recite Kiddush nor do we light the festival candles before we eat. Rather the order of the meal is reversed by comparison to Shabbat or Rosh HaShanah.

1. Wash our hands and recite the Berakhah.

2. Recite HaMotzee over the Hallah and dip it into honey.

3. Eat and recite the weekday Birkat HaMazon

4. Light a Yahrzeit candle.

5. Light candles for Yom Kippur.

6. Go to Shul for Kol Nidre

The meal ends while it is still day, since not only is it a Mitzvah  to start a festival a little earlier than  sunset, but also because Kol Nidre, the annulment of vows and promises, is technically a legal procedure, which, according to Jewish law, must begin before sunset.

Candle Lighting

Candle lighting takes place after dinner, just before leaving for Shul. Yahrzeit candles are lit before the Yom Tov candles because once the Yom Tov candles are lit, Yom Kippur has begun and we are no longer permitted to light a fire or even transfer a flame. There is no Berakhah for lighting a Yahrzeit candle, although many people recite a private, personal, and spontaneous prayer. Some people light one Yahrzeit candle for all the members of the family; others light a separate candle for each deceased member. The lighting of the Yahrzeit candle symbolizes the presence of the souls of the deceased in our homes, especially at those festivals when we memorialize them by reciting the Yizkor prayer.

The Yom Tov candles are lit next and after they are lit, we recite the Berakhah.

Barukh Atta Adonuy

Elo-hay-nu Melekh Ha-Olam

Asher Kid-shanu B’Mitz-vo-tav

V’Tzee-vanu, LeHadliq Nair Shel

Yom HaKippurim


This Berakhah is followed by the Sheheheyanu Berakhah (see page 3 for the text).

The Five Abstinences

Once we have lit the Yom Tov candles, Yom Kippur has begun and we are no longer permitted to eat or drink. Indeed on Yom Kippur, there are five things we abstain from:


1. Eating and drinking.

2. Washing.

3. Using oils and perfumes that soften the skin.

4. Wearing leather.

5. Engaging in sexual relations.

The restriction on eating and drinking is absolute. From the lighting of the Yom Tov candles until the Shofar is blown more than twenty-five hours later to signal the end of the fast, neither food nor liquid, not even coffee or water or a candy or chewing gum, pass our lips.  People who are especially careful do not even brush their teeth until the fast is over.

Fasting is obligatory for boys over the age of thirteen and for girls over the age of twelve (the ages when boys and girls respectively assume personal responsibility for fulfilling the Mitzvot). The exception to the rule of fasting is that those who are sick and under doctors’ orders to eat, must eat. Certainly this includes all diabetics, women who are pregnant and nursing, the elderly for whom fasting could have serious repercussions and even those who are sick, but whose doctors say they are well enough to fast. Nonetheless, the amount of food eaten should be limited to just the amount that it takes to satisfy the hunger or to meet the diabetic’s required intake of food to prevent going into diabetic shock. People who take prescribed medicines must take their pills with water as they normally do. When in doubt, consult your physician.

Bathing for pleasure is not permitted on Yom Kippur. Most rabbis would agree that this restriction includes our daily shower. Showering before Yom Kippur should be adequate for most of us to remain socially acceptable for the next twenty-five hours or so. Washing our hands and face for hygienic purposes is permitted.

Leather shoes were a sign of comfort in antiquity and already two thousand years ago, the rabbis included wearing leather shoes among the restrictions and abstinences for Yom Kippur. Over the centuries, some authorities have argued that the restriction was limited only to leather shoes, to provide yet one more way for us to be physically uncomfortable on Yom Kippur. Other authorities have argued that the restriction applies to all leather products, including belts, pocket books, and other leather accessories, because on Yom Kippur, when all Creation stands in judgment before God, we should not be so arrogant as to use products that require us to slaughter an animal. RabbiMoshe Isserles, who lived in Cracow in the sixteenth century, noted that while the use of leather on a daily basis is perhaps a necessity, on Yom Kippur we should strive to reach a higher level of concern for God’s living creatures and not use leather at all. One day I hope to see members of Shaare Zion dressed in tuxedos and tennis shoes on Kol Nidre.  Who knows?  It may even become a fashion statement.

Why this emphasis on abstinence from food and beverage, from bathing and wearing leather shoes?  Perhaps it begins with the biblical commandment that on Yom Kippur we mortify the body. Some argue that fasting in some ways purges the body. But others argue that on Yom Kippur, we strive to get so close to God that we forget about our bodies and concentrate exclusively on our souls and the spiritual elements of our lives.

Kol Nidre

Kol Nidre is perhaps the best known prayer of the entire High Holyday season.  Technically Kol Nidre is not a prayer in that Jewish prayer is directed to God and functions either to praise God, to thank God or to petition God for something.  Instead Kol Nidre is a legal formula, taken from the judicial and legal system of ancient Judaism and not from its religious and spiritual dimension.

Nonetheless, Kol Nidre remains the most powerful “prayer” of the High Holyday liturgy.  People who never come to synagogue crowd into the building.  Doors are flung open to allow those who are unable to get a seat to hear Kol Nidre.  Certainly its plaintive chant, expressed in a minor key, recited softly at first and rising to a powerful crescendo during the third repetition, combined with a wide-open Ark, a Cantor dressed in white like the High Priest in the ancient Temple and a synagogue filled to capacity with all the men and even some women wearing Tallitot, creates a dramatic moment quite unlike any other during the year.

Kol Nidre is a legal formula to cancel vows and promises.  The Torah is very insistent that pledges and promises that we make must be fulfilled

Motza S’fatekha Tishmor V’Aseeta

 “That which you have said you must make certain to fulfill just as you have vowed to the Lord, you God” (Deuteronomy 23:24).  So scrupulous is our tradition about honouring our word that we are held responsible for oaths and vows, pledges and promises, that we made without thinking or about which we have even forgotten.

There remain, however, promises and vows that we are unable to fulfill.  If the pledge was to a person, only that individual can release us from our obligation.  If the promise was made to God (especially if it was made as an oath invoking God’s name) the rabbis can offer us an absolution from the vow, if we ask for release from its obligations three times in the presence of a panel of three judges, a Beth Din.

Effectively this is the central idea of Kol Nidre.  The Hazzan, flanked by two people holding Torah scrolls, form a Beth Din of three judges.  Then the Hazzan, acting as our collective voice, asks for an absolution of all our vows, promises, oaths, pledges, consecrations and prohibitions.  The very terms used, Nidray, Esaray, Sh’voo-ay and so on are themselves based on the language of the rabbis in the Mishnah.  The rabbis realized that not only were there common words for oaths and promises, but there are also substitute terms and euphemisms like Konam and Konas that have the same force as a vow or an oath.  Thus the Kol Nidre opens  by listing the various terms used for vows and pledges, as well as some of the better known euphemisms for vows and the general catch-all phrase, Kinoo-yay, a word that simply means “euphemisms” for vows.

The formula is recited in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Jewish world from perhaps 550 BCE until 1000 CE, when it was replaced by Arabic in the East and European vernaculars in the West.  The author of this version of annulling vows is unknown, although some scholars attribute it to the leading scholar of Babylonian Jewry in the ninth century, Rav Amram Gaon, who was the first scholar to organize the prayers in the Siddur.  After listing the various terms used for oaths and promises, the text of Kol Nidre says that we regret having made any such oaths and promises and we ask to be released from their obligations. The vows are declared null and void, as if they never existed. The texts end dramatically “Our vows are not vows.  Our oaths are not oaths.  What we declared prohibited is not prohibited.”

Context is very important with Kol Nidre. The only oaths from which we are released are those that we imposed upon ourselves, not those that have an affect on other people or that other people imposed on us.  Thus if we imposed an oath on ourselves to visit the sick every day for a month or not to eat dessert for three months or to attend Minyan every Tuesday, Kol Nidre is effective in releasing us from such an oath.  But if we promised a particular individual to visit them daily in the hospital or if we pledged a gift to the synagogue or any charitable foundation, Kol Nidre does not absolve us from such past pledges nor does it absolve us from any future ones.  And again if we owe an individual money that we borrowed or that we promised to lend them, Kol Nidre does not grant us absolution.

Considering the limited cohort of vows and promises Kol Nidre can effectively annul, it remains amazing how powerful a pull it has on Jews, young and old, religious or not religious. Clearly the solemnity of the moment, ushering in a great fast that asks us to reflect upon our past and committing us to take seriously our obligations as Jews both to God, community, and family, continues to draw us back to synagogue year after year.  Perhaps with the additional understanding that rather than providing us with a general amnesty and absolution from all our commitments to God and humanity, Kol Nidre instead reminds us that what we say obligates us to do and fulfill our promises, we may now take a harder look at our religious obligations to which we commit ourselves each Yom Kippur and try even harder to fulfill our vows and promises.

The Haftarah for the Yom Kippur Minhah Service

The Haftarah for Yom Kippur afternoon is the entire book of Jonah.  Jonah is unlike any other biblical prophet in several respects. First, he does not leave behind a collection of prophecies.  Like Moses and Jeremiah, he argues with God, but unlike them, he not only refuses to accept his mission; he also runs away from it. He refuses to be the instrument of God’s salvation, yet proclaims: “Deliverance is the Lord’s!” (2:10). Ultimately, when compelled to prophesy, Jonah prophesies only to non-Jews, the people of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria and then pronounces only five Hebrew words to those to whom he is sent (3:4). “In just forty days, Nineveh shall be overthrown.” And in contrast to the other prophets, he experiences immediate success; his warning calls forth an instant response by the people of Nineveh. The people of Nineveh repent and disaster is averted. This, however, leaves Jonah with a sense of distress, not elation, yet another distinction from other Israelite prophets.

The story of Jonah, which purports to be historic, was accepted as such throughout the Middle Ages. Even Ibn Ezra maintains its authenticity, explaining that Jonah’s being swallowed by a “huge fish” took place in a dream. For him, as for the Sages before him, the Jonah of this story is in fact Jonah the son of Amittai (see Jonah 1:1 and 2 Kings 14:25), who prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel (787-748 BCE). But many modern scholars maintain that the story could not have been written during that time. They point to its author’s familiarity with passages in later books of the Bible, including the Book of Jeremiah. This prophet lived at the end of the seventh century BCE, more than a hundred years after Jeroboam son of Joash. They also note the strong influence of Aramaic on the language of the story and the use of late Hebrew terms and grammatical constructions, both of which were current during the Second Temple period.

Scholars call attention to apparent Persian influence in two of the practices cited: A decree is issued in the name of “the king and his nobles” (3:7), and beasts as well as human beings are covered with sackcloth as a way of appealing to God (3:8). The author of Jonah was no doubt familiar with these practices. In addition, Nineveh is written about in the past tense, and it was in fact only destroyed in 612 BCE. All this makes it quite likely that the story of Jonah was written during the Persian period (538-333 BCE), a time when theological issues were major topics of discussion.

The story of Jonah is much more complex than it appears on first reading.  It is by no means a folktale designed simply to entertain.  Nor is it satire intended to poke fun at the prophet. Nevertheless, it does contain elements of irony: Jonah acknowledges that he worships “the God of Heaven, who made both sea and land” (1:9) yet he seeks to escape from God by sea. He criticizes idol worshippers as forsaking “their own welfare” (2:9), but it is these worshippers who in fact first turn to the Lord in the time of crisis (1:14-16;3:8ff) and Jonah does not.  Still, Jonah is depicted as a man of principle, prepared to die rather than see the wicked people of Ninevah go unpunished. That is why God, who refuses to let him escape his mission, ultimately takes the trouble to explain His reason to Jonah, thereby acknowledging Jonah’s integrity.

The story is divided into two parallel sections of two chapters each.  In chapters one and three, Jonah interacts with the pagan world. In chapters two and four, he engages in a conversation with God. It should be noted that the psalm in chapter 2 was most likely inserted into the narrative of chapters 1 and 3 after that narrative was completed, since it contains elements that are at variance with it. The first chapter, for example, depicts Jonah as depressed and unwilling (or perhaps unable) to pray (note the repetition of va-yeired, va-yeired, and yarad in verses 3 and 6, and the word play on them in verse 5, va-yeradam, “he went down and he fell into a stupor”). In the psalm, he is pictured as euphoric, thanking God for having rescued him “from the pit” (2:7). The dissonance, however, actually carries the story further, explaining why God addresses Jonah a second time and why this time Jonah listens.

Word repetitions carry subliminal messages. The word meaning “huge” or “great” (gadol), for example, appears in the text 14 times. The storm at sea is “great” (1:4,12); the sailors “fear a great fear” (1:10,16); the fish is “great”(2:1). This builds to a climax (3:2, 3:3, 4:11) in which Nineveh is described as “great in the sight of God” (g’dolah leilohim). The characterization of the city as “great” three times suggests that it exceeds everything else in size. Compare, for example, the threefold repetition of the word for “holy” that describes God in Isaiah (kadosh, kadosh, kadosh) (6:3). The widespread use of rhetorical devices such as metaphors and puns (see, for example, va-yakei in 2:11 and kikayon in 4:6), as well as vivid language, makes us realize that we do not have ordinary prose before us.

The story contains a variety of messages, including the fact that God controls all of the forces of nature and that it is impossible to resist His call.  Classically, Jewish and Christian interpretations have differed as to the story’s central teaching. Jewish commentators have highlighted the power of repentance, manifest in God’s forgiveness of even the wicked of Nineveh who seek to atone. Christians have seen it as a renunciation of “narrow Jewish parochialism, symbolized by Jonah’s unwillingness to help the gentiles turn to God”. (In the name “Jonah” itself - which means “dove” - they see an allusion to the Jewish people, based on a midrashic interpretation of verse 2:14 from the Song of Songs.)

Both interpretations find support in the text, though they are based only on partial readings at best. Jonah does not rail against the gentiles, but only against the evildoers among them. In fact, the pagan sailors in Chapter 1 are described in very sympathetic terms. As for the power of repentance, though it certainly is a major theme in the story, it is not the central one. If it were, the book should have ended with the third chapter.

The central teaching can be found in chapter four, the climax of the story.  The second verse explains why Jonah had fled from God, why he had refused to carry out his commission to go to Nineveh: “For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.” (This verse is also found in Joel 2:13.  It is not clear which author borrowed from the other, or whether both drew on a earlier source.) Such words describing God appear in other biblical contexts as well (see, for example, Psalms 103:8, 145:8, and 2 Chron 30:9); the classic formulation, however, is found in Exodus 34:6-7: “The Lord! the Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and truth, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” Compare the end of this statement to the one in Jonah: Here, God renounces punishment! Jonah cannot make peace with the fact that the wicked could escape punishment. He refuses to be party to the perceived injustice of God’s remission of well-deserved punishment.  (And here we have an example of how an early biblical teaching can be modified in later times. In the Torah there is no evidence that repentance [t’shuvah] can lead to the remission of punishment).

God does not respond with an intellectual argument. He has to make Jonah realize that he, too, requires God’s grace, undeserved though that may be.  By introducing the gourd (kikayon) and the worm that destroys it within a day (4:6-7), God makes Jonah feel the transitory nature of all life and rouses his sense of pity for all living creatures.  The story ends with a question, one that is addressed not only to Jonah, but also to the reader: “Is the demand for strict justice to override compassion?” It suggests that though repentance is important, ultimately it is God’s concern for all creatures that maintains them in life.

(The Summary of the Haftarah is taken from Etz Hayyim: Torah and Commentary. Rabbinical Assembly and USCJ.  New York 2001.)