The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are the annual period known in Judaism as the High Holy Days or Yamim Nora’im (“Days of Awe”). They correspond to the last ten days of the 40-day period Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the second set of tablets.
Heavenly books opened
During the Days of Awe, a Jew tries to amend their behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God (bein adam leMakom) and against other human beings (bein adam lechavero).
The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt (Vidui). The literal translation of kippurim is cleansing. Yom Kippur is a Jewish day to atone for misdeeds and become cleansed and purified from them. At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that they have been forgiven by God.
Leviticus 16:29 mandates establishment of this holy day on the 10th day of the 7th month as the day of atonement for sins. It calls it the Sabbath of Sabbaths and a day upon which one must afflict one’s soul.
Leviticus 23:27 decrees that Yom Kippur is a strict day of rest.
The number five is a set number, relating to:
- In the Yom Kippur section of the Torah, the word soul appears five times.
- The soul is known by five separate names: soul, wind, spirit, living one and unique one.
- Unlike regular days, which have three prayer services, Yom Kippur has five – Maariv, Shacharit, Mussaf, Minchah and Neilah.
- The Kohen Gadol rinsed himself in the mikveh (ritual bath) five times on Yom Kippur.
The prohibitions are the following:
- No eating and drinking
- No wearing of leather shoes
- No bathing or washing
- No anointing oneself with perfumes or lotions
- No marital relations
A parallel has been drawn between these activities and the human condition according to the Biblical account of the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Refraining from these symbolically represents a return to a pristine state of re-attachment to the purity of Edenic existence, and symbolically therefore one avoids that which arose as a need only after the exile from Eden: The Eden account tells of God saying “thorns and thistles will grow in your way…the snake will raise its head (to bite you) and you will give your heel (to crush it)” and so in the new post-Edenic existence it became necessary to wear strong protective shoes, and so these are avoided on Yom Kippur (see article for specifics). The Eden account also states that as opposed to the automatic food and drink in Eden, it will be necessary to work for it “by the sweat of your brow”, and so food and drink are refrained from on Yom Kippur, as well as washing, and the use of cosmetics to remove sweat or its odor etc. Similarly for the description of the post-Edenic relationship between man and woman, and so on Yom Kippur marital relations are avoided.
Total abstention from food and drink as well as keeping the other traditions begins at sundown, and ends after nightfall the following day. One should add a few minutes to the beginning and end of the day, called tosefet Yom Kippur, lit. “addition to Yom Kippur”. Although the fast is required of all healthy men over 13 or women over 12, it is waived in the case of certain medical conditions.
By refraining from these activities, the body is uncomfortable but can still survive. The soul is considered to be the life force in a body. Therefore, by making one’s body uncomfortable, one’s soul is uncomfortable. By feeling pain one can feel how others feel when they are in pain.This is the purpose of the prohibitions.
Virtually all Jewish holidays involve meals, but since Yom Kippur involves fasting, Jewish law requires one to eat a large and festive meal on the afternoon before Yom Kippur, after the Mincha (afternoon) prayer. This meal is meant to make up for the inability to eat a large meal on the day of Yom Kippur instead, due to the prohibition from eating or drinking.
In order to gain atonement from God, one must:
- Repent of one’s sins
- Give to charity