Reflections on the Days of Awe and Yom Kippur

We are nearing what is considered to be the Holiest Day of the Year on the Jewish calendar, the 10th day of the 7th month, Yom Kippur, or Yom Hakippurim as the Hebrew Bible refers to it, literally translated as “The Day of the Atonement/s.” Traditionally, we begin our preparation for this most awesome festival 40 days prior on the 1st of the month of Elul with deep soul searching and a heartfelt desire to be brought to our knees in t’shuvah. As we attempt to right our wrongs, we pray to be enabled to reconnect with HaShem, our G-d and Creator, and to return to the pure souls He created us to be, b’tzelem Elohim, in the very image of G-d! (Gen 1:26)

The Ten Days of Turning– A Coming Home Experience

Having entered the Jewish Year of 5782 with the Festival of Rosh Hashanah biblically referred to as Yom Teruah, on the first day of the 7th month we currently find ourselves in the Ten Day period between Rosh Hashanah on the 1st day and Yom Kippur on the 10th day. These days between the two festivals are referred to as the Ten Days of Teshuvah or Repentance. In Judaism they are termed Yamim Nora’im, ימים נוראיםThe Days of Awe, as they are ‘awe-filled’ with a heightened sense of t’shuvah as the Day of Yom Kippur draws nearer and nearer!

Jewish tradition tells us that these ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur correspond to the last ten days of the 40-day period Moshe was on Mount Sinai receiving the second set of tablets and that it was on Yom Kippur that he descended the mountain and delivered the commandments to the people, signifying that HaShem had forgiven them for their worship of the Golden Calf.

Among the many symbols that represent this all-important 10 day time period, one of the most impressive is that chilling plaintive sound of the shofar calling us back home…it takes us back in our mind’s eye to that most awesome one-time event in all of human history…to Sinai when HaShem, the One and Only G-d and Creator of the Universe, descended upon the mountain amidst the smoke and fire, thundering and lightnings and spoke pey el pey, face to face to His people and brought them into Covenant relationship with Him!

If we have truly taken this opportunity to delve deeply into our hearts and souls, during the month of Elul (which means searching in Aramaic), and have allowed the call of the shofar to resonate within us as we once again reach the day of day of Yom Teruah, referred to as Rosh Hashanah on the Jewish calendar, and stand before our G-d, then perhaps we are ready for a fresh start, a “good change.” According to some scholars this phrase “a good change” is actually reflected in the traditional greeting, “shana tova” for this day.

The Connecting Bridge 

As we come to the last stretch of our 40 day journey, we are very cognizant of this last 10 day period. Arthur Waskow in his book entitled “Seasons of our Joy “likens these Ten Days to a “conscious bridge” (p 32).  It is a physical bridge connecting the two festivals together, but it also serves as a “spiritual bridge,” because as we travel this bridge…the sense of t’shuvah is heightened as we see the veritable day of Yom Kippur fast approaching! It is during this time period that the poignant words of the Prophet Isaiah come strongly to mind.” Seek HaShem when He is to be found; call on Him when He is near” (Isa. 55:6).

It follows that a brief “stop” on this bridge between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would be in order…the Jewish sages therefore proclaimed that the Shabbat immediately preceding Yom Kippur would be termed Shabbat Shuvah.

Shabbat Shuvah – Sabbath of Return שובה שבת

In the middle of the ten day bridge comes Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Return, so named because of the special Haftorah reading that begins with the moving words from the prophet Hosea…

Hosea 14:2   ”Shuvah Yisrael, Return O Israel to HaShem your G-d for you have stumbled in your iniquity. Take words with you and return to HaShem.”

Joel 2:12 “And even now, says HaShem, return to Me with all your heart and with fasting and weeping.”

Micah 7:18-19   Who is a G-d like You forgiving iniquity and passing over transgression of the remnant of His heritage; He does not retain His wrath forever for He desires kindness. He shall return to grant us mercy; He shall subdue all their iniquities; and You shall cast into the depths of the sea all their sins.”

Based on this reading in the Book of Micah, it has become a widely practiced Jewish tradition on the day after Rosh Hashanah to go to a flowing body of water such as a river, a lake or the sea, with bits of bread and symbolically “cast” sins their sins into the water. This ritual, called “tashlich,” meaning “to cast,” connects the spiritual aspect of t’shuvah with the physical.

The prominent 20th century Polish Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, z’l in speaking of genuine t’shuvah says, “The foundations of teshuvah are threefold regret, confession and forsaking the committed sin.” (The Book of our Heritage, Vol 1. P.32)

There are two Torah portion(s) designated for this special Shabbat…the one read is dependent upon which day of the week Rosh Hashanah falls. If it falls on a Monday or a Tuesday as it does this year, the Torah portion, Vayelech (Deut. 31:1-30) is read. If it falls on a Thursday or a Shabbat, then Haazinu (Deut 32:1-52) is read.

Each is reflective of this theme of the need for t’shuvah as HaShem in His wisdom knew that after the death of Moshe that His people would fall away and go after other gods and break the covenant He had made with them at Sinai. Therefore he instructed Moshe to gather them together shortly before his death and speak plainly to them. We read in Deuteronomy 31:29 his somber words in the first of the last two addresses he gave to the people…

“For I know that after my death you will surely become corrupted, and turn aside from the way in which I have commanded you and evil will befall you in the latter days; because you will do evil in the sight of HaShem, to provoke Him to anger through the work of your hands.”

Yet HaShem in His mercy always provides a path of return and a way back to Him. Three times in this Torah portion, we read, “Be strong and of good courage” (Deut. 31:6, 31:7, 31:23). In verse 31:8 we read the encouraging words stating that HaShem will go before them, be with them and not forsake them and that they should not be dismayed.

These encouraging words are for not only for the children of Israel…they are for us today for there is an ancient path laid out in Jeremiah 6:16 that we must seek…a path that has been laid out before us …it is called the ‘path of return’ that leads us through what the rabbis refer to as “The Gate of Tears.”

The Gate of Tears…and Brokenness                                                                                                                                                                     

The renowned Rabbi Yitzkak Luria of blessed memory, known as the Ari who lived in the 16th century states that, “One who doesn’t cry during Ten Days of Teshuvah – his soul is not complete” (Likkutei Sichot vol. 9, p.206).

So cry we must… Rabbi Jacobson compares our tears to a spout on a kettle that serves to release the internal pressure within us and that our tears “can pry open any door.” He says that according to the sages, tears actually “bathe the soul;” and that when we cry out to HaShem with all our hearts, that we are washing away “the muck that obscures our pure essence” (60 Days, A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays, p.50). I might also add that we then come closer to the pure souls that He created us to be. An ancient Jewish proverb says, “What soap is for the body, tears are for the soul.”

The well-known Chofetz Chaim teaches that that nothing is as whole as a broken heart…for when we have a broken heart, we are vulnerable…stripped of any false pretense.

Rabbi Jacobson poses a poignant question these lines…”Why is a broken wall the holiest place for Jews? Why do Jews stand and pray at a broken wall when there are such beautiful edifices around? Because Jews know that this isn’t a perfect world. As long as the world is not perfect, Jews cannot stand in a beautiful edifice. Jews can only stand and cry at a broken wall.” He PHOTO continues by pointing out that our world is a “broken place full of broken people whose job is to mend what is broken” (page 52 of A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays).

So as we shed our tears and pray our prayers we endeavor to ready ourselves to enter into the awesome day of Yom Kippur, having come to the culmination of the Ten days of Turning.

Yom Kippur- It’s Origin, Meaning and Purpose

In Hebrew Yom Kippur is called “Yom Hakippurim,” meaning the Day of the Atonement/s”). The name Yom Kippur is based on the biblical verse which states,” And HaShem spoke to Moshe saying, Also on the tenth day of this seventh month, there shall be a day of atonement, ‘kippurim’  for you (Leviticus 23:27). 

Kippurim means cleansing in Hebrew and has the connotation of becoming purified, forgiven. In Jewish circles, this day is the culmination of an intense 40 day period of teshuvah. After having gone through the painful process of searching our inner thoughts and our outward actions and done our utmost to correct our misdeeds, with sincere hearts we gather together as His children to come before our Gracious G-d to repent and ask His forgiveness and His Help to atone for our past transgressions by resolving to correct and not repeat them.

In addition to a day of cleansing, Yom Kippur is also a Sabbath of solemn rest and a day of afflicting one’s soul. It is referred to as a Mikrah Kodesh, a Holy Convocation or Gathering (Leviticus 16:29, Numbers 29:7).

Repentance in Judaism according to Joseph Telushkin a well-known and widely published American rabbi, lecturer and bestselling author of numerous books including Jewish ethics, is “ethical self-transformation “(A Code of Jewish Ethics: Volume 1 – You Shall Be Holy. New York: Bell Tower, 2006. p. 152-173)

This ethical self-transformation is actually the key to understanding the true meaning behind Yom Kippur. With neither a temple nor a sacrificial system in place, our own bodies become transformed into a temple, a temple dedicated to HaShem our G-d and Creator and our prayers, through the words of our lips, become our sacrifices to offer Him our highest praise…and once we have discovered this concept, like a “hidden spark beneath the surface,” we can let it grow and build on its meaning…not just on Yom Kippur, but all year long!

Arthur Waskow says that as we enter Yom Kippur, “it becomes a kind of tallis (or tallit) in time—a prayer shawl to cover the confusions of the year. As worshippers walk into shul and pick up the tallis, they cover their heads for a moment so as to wipe away the pointless, pathless wandering of the world. Under the tallis, with the world invisible, it is possible for a moment to look towards God. So we could look at Yom Kippur as the prayer shawl that God spreads over all the people Israel, if we will take the trouble to pick the tallis up. Under the tallis we can stand face to face with God.”(Seasons of our Joy, p.27-28)

Customs and Traditions

On the Jewish calendar the ninth day of Tishri is known as Erev Yom Kippur or Yom Kippur eve. Yom Kippur itself begins before sunset and continues into the next day until after nightfall, lasting about 25 hours.

In keeping with the understanding of afflicting our souls, Observant Jews will fast on Yom Kippur and observe it as a Sabbath by refraining from work. According to the Oral law, there are five additional prohibitions…1) eating or drinking  2) bathing 3) anointing the body with oil 4) wearing leather shoes and 5) sexual relations.

The Jewish sages assert that even though Yom Kippur is a fast day, unlike Tisha’ba Av, it is not a day of mourning, but rather a day of joy, for on this day we come together with a desire to rise above our physical limitations and rid ourselves of physical concerns that might serve to distract us.

It is customary for Jews all over the world to gather together in synagogues or shuls for prayer services that last most of the day. Some wear kittles or white robes, others dress in white garments to resemble purity and who, like the angels, have no need for food or drink.

There is a pristine sense of holiness as one enters the synagogue on Yom Kippur. In the front of the shul is the Bimah, a raised platform with a reading desk from which the Torah and Hafṭorah are read on the Sabbath and festivals and behind it is the Ark. The Bimah along with the Torah scrolls in the Ark are covered in white. The Ner Tamid or Eternal light hangs high above the Ark and the Menorah sits to one side.

As the Ark is opened to reveal the Torah scrolls, there are blessings and praises to HaShem, and among them are the familiar words taken from Exodus 34:6-7, which have come to be known as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy of our Blessed G-d and Creator of the Universe…these 13 attributes speak of His mercy, His power, compassion, grace, forgiveness and lovingkindness. Thirteen is the sum of the three Hebrew letters making up the Hebrew word “echad, ”or one, indicating that although there are  13 distinct attributes of HaShem’s mercy, they add up to one perfect unity…Echad! These attributes are chanted numerous times during the Nehilah or closing service on Yom Kippur.

Although the blowing of the shofar is not mentioned in connection with Yom Kippur in the Biblical text, the oral tradition states that it is to be blown at the end of last prayer service which marks the end of the fast followed by the loud chanting of the entire congregation of the words, L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerusalayim…Next Year in Jerusalem!  This custom is also practiced at the end of the Passover Seder.

There is a lovely and meaningful custom practiced in some Jewish homes (including mine) of covering the Shabbat table with an elegant white tablecloth and books of Torah spread out upon it to symbolize that on this special day of Yom Kippur our mouths would be filled with words of prayer and study rather than food.

A Final Note—The Cycle of Forgiveness

One of the most beautiful prayers in the entire Yom Kippur service speaks of the beauty of the relationship of HaShem and His people.

“Pardon us, forgive us, grant us atonement—for we are Your people and You are our G-d; we are Your children and You are our Father—we are your congregation and You are our portion; we are Your inheritance and You are our lot; we are Your flock and You are our Shepherd; we are Your vineyard and You are our Watchman; we are Your handiwork and You are our Creator; we are Your beloved ones and You are our Beloved; we are Your treasure and You are our G-d.”

On Yom Kippur we come to our Father, to HaShem our G-d and humbly ask forgiveness for our transgressions against Him, but what about our transgressions against others and those of others against us? If we expect HaShem to forgive us, should we not be expected to forgive others? Rabbi Jacobson addresses this idea in what He calls the Cycle of Forgiveness in his book, A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays, p. 94.

“The secret of being able to forgive others,” he states, “is to remember that G-d gave you life because you matter to Him –you have a vital and irreplaceable role to play in the perfection of the world. When you remember that, you can have the strength to rise above the pain others have caused you and forgive both them and yourself.”

We ask the question…what does forgiveness actually mean? Going to the original Hebrew always brings such clarity. The word for ‘forgiveness’ in Hebrew is meclilah… related to the word machol meaning circle. “Life, says Rabbi Jacobson,” is meant to be a circle encompassing all our experiences and relationships in one harmonious, seamless whole. When someone hurts us, the circle is broken. Forgiveness is the way we mend the fracture.”

Forgiveness is not only forgiving the person who hurt us, but also forgiving G-d and forgiving ourselves…it is only then that the circle is again complete and our relationship with G-d and our fellow is whole again. This is the essence of t’shuvah and Yom Kippur!

In the poignant words of Rebbe Nachman of blessed memory, “Tears open gates…music demolishes walls!” We have cried our tears…now it is time to get ready for the music and the simcha, the joy of the Glorious Festival of Sukkot!

by Elisheva Tavor aka Betty Tabor Givin

Betty Tabor Givin (who is known by her Hebrew pen name as Elisheva Tavor) is a lifelong teacher. After having retired from her teaching career of several decades in the public and private school sector, she turned her full attention to religious education. She is an ordained teacher and long-time board member for United Israel World Union. Her popular teachings demonstrate the depth and beauty of her Jewish faith. Her articles have been featured in various publications and on the web. She is a regular contributor to Netiv Center for Torah Study and the United Israel Bulletin and is presently writing a book entitled, Hidden Sparks Beneath the Surface.