With the festivities of Rosh Hashanah behind us, we have completed five of seven appointed times, or convocations, of the biblical calendar as set out in Leviticus 23.
The sixth one, Yom Kippur, begins at sundown on Friday. Unlike the other six feasts, this one has a unique character that sets it apart from all the other commanded days of the Lord. It is the most somber of them all — the Day of Atonement.
Known in the Hebrew scriptures solely by its plural identification of Yom HaKippurim (Day of Atonements), it is a solemn commemoration. As suggested by the various meanings of its name, the day emphasizes mercy, pardon, cleansing and forgiveness of sins. Many people use what is known as the 10 days of awe — the time from the Feast of Trumpets through Yom Kippur — to pursue reconciliation between their fellow man and God.
Leviticus 16, 23 and Numbers 29 state clearly that this is a day of rest and of presenting an offering by fire to the Lord. In addition, the verses pertaining to Yom HaKippurim specify that this is a time to humble one’s soul since atonement is being made by the high priest for collective and individual sin.
“The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the tent of meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the members of the community.”
With God’s added warning that anyone failing to humble oneself or doing any work on this day will be cut off from their people and destroyed, even a majority of non-religious Jews observe Yom Kippur. Whether it be out of superstition or respect, or merely a forced day off from work, Yom HaKippurim is observed country-wide throughout Jewish neighborhoods.
In a surreal phenomenon, hard to imagine but typical of the day’s somber mood, Israel comes to a virtual stop. From midday on the eve of the holy day both public and private transportation wind down including planes. No aircraft lands or takes off for the duration of the holy day. All restaurants, supermarkets, businesses and places of entertainment shut their doors. Once people get home, they will not use their vehicles until the following sunset.
Then, the roads become an open playground. Thousands of children and even adults cycle, rollerblade and push strollers freely on streets and highways. Sales of bicycles, puncture repair kits and spare parts increase in the weeks prior to this day. The chatter of children and the accompanying ringing of their bicycle bells can be heard from the moment the Day of Atonement begins to well after the sun goes down and the next day.
Others maintain that enjoying the day is quite sacrilegious.
Sacrifice by fire — also commanded on the other appointed convocations — is synonymous with eating meat, and God did not specifically command fasting for this day, however as tradition evolved “introspection” and “soul-searching” was replaced with a severe fast for Yom HaKippurim after the Torah was given. Thus, denying oneself all liquid and food for 25 hours (to include two sunsets) became associated with the afflicting or humbling of one’s soul.
In the religion of Judaism, fasting on Shabbat is forbidden, so whenever a religious fast day coincides with the Sabbath, the holiday is postponed. Yom HaKippurim, however, is known in the Bible as a Shabbat Shabbaton — a Sabbath of Sabbaths — if it falls on a Shabbat, as it does this year, the rabbis do not postpone it.
Two special meals are eaten before Yom HaKippurim begins. The fast is broken with a light meal.
It is traditional to dress in white. Many people attend evening services for Kol Nidre, “all vows” in Aramaic. During the service, the Aramaic declaration is chanted or sung, asking to be absolved of any future vows made that one may not be able to uphold in the coming year.
Rabbinic instruction for this day forbids brushing teeth, bathing, applying any lotions or oils to the body, wearing leather and engaging in sexual relations. Most men will spend the whole day in the synagogues praying and reciting liturgy.
Ambulances and emergency vehicles are on alert for biking accidents and medical emergencies including child birth, dehydration or low blood sugar. Statistics are published afterwards regarding the number of those treated for various ailments and women went into labor and had to be taken to hospital.
It is customary to greet people with, G’mar Hatima Tova, which is an abbreviation with an idiomatic meaning: “May you be sealed in the Book of Life.” It is based on a traditional belief that God judges on Rosh Hashanah and the judgment is sealed on Yom HaKippurim. It then links the coming holiday of Sukkot by saying the judgment is sent out on the Hoshana Rabba (Great Hoshana/Supplication), the rabbinic name for the seventh day of Sukkot.
Messianic Jews in Israel may gather at their congregations or in groups across the country to fast and pray in solidarity for the nation. They also enjoy the vehicle-free highways and byways as they ride bikes or rollerblade with their children.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the Lord. Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God. Those who do not deny themselves on that day must be cut off from their people. I will destroy from among their people anyone who does any work on that day. You shall do no work at all. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. It is a day of sabbath rest for you, and you must deny yourselves. From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your sabbath.’”