Yom Kippur – A Crash Course

What is the greeting for Yom Kippur?

The traditional greeting for Yom Kippur, which can be used between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, is Gmar chatima tova.  The words translate to finish, seal, and good.  Chatima is also used in modern Hebrew for a signature.  What people understand when they hear this phrase is “may you be sealed in the Book of Life.”

Yom Kippur sounds pretty serious.  Why is that?

Yom Kippur is the tenth day of the month of Tishrei.  Rosh Hashana, the New Year, is on the first and second of the month.  Between these two holidays Jews are supposed to take a spiritual accounting, a cheshbon nefesh, of their actions in the past year.  During the ten days, you have an opportunity to make things right between yourself and other people.  On Yom Kippur, your actions for the past year are weighed and you have to get square with God.  At the end of the day, your name will be inscribed either in the Book of Life or the Book of Death.

I’ve heard that Kol Nidre is sung to a beautiful and haunting melody.  What does it mean?

Kol nidre means “all promises.”  This haunting, spiritual, moving melody is the tune at the start of the Yom Kippur service that basically uses legal language to nullify all promises made before God.

A cultural aside: Orthodox Jews in Israel often commit to something and follow it up with the phrase bli neder.  This absolves them of the promise that would be among the vows that are cancelled in the Kol Nidre service.

Kol Nidre holds a very interesting place in US movie history.  Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer was one of the first “talkies.”  In the opening scene we are shown a synagogue with everyone preparing for Yom Kippur.  The cantor is saddened that his son did not come to sing Kol Nidre with him and then we hear the voice of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt singing Kol Nidre.

Here’s a clip of one of the final scenes where Al Jolson himself sings Kol Nidre.

What is Israel like on Yom Kippur?

Quiet.  Even if people don’t do anything for Yom Kippur themselves, they respect the solemnity of the day and don’t drive.  Everything is closed in the Jewish areas.  (I don’t personally know if stores and restaurants are open in the Arab neighborhoods, but I have seen a few cars driving around on Yom Kippur and plenty of tourists in the Old City.)

I have friends that take pictures of themselves sitting in the middle of normally busy highways that on Yom Kippur are totally empty.  Children in Jerusalem ride their bikes in the middle of the street.

Air quality in Israel is measurably improved on Yom Kippur due to the complete shutdown of transportation. Even Israeli air space is closed.

I can’t statistically prove it but it seems to me that no matter how cold it may have been in the days before Yom Kippur, it is always hot on Yom Kippur.  It’s a 25-hour full fast – no eating and no drinking – and it is so much harder to fast when it’s hot.  By 4pm, everyone is listless and even in the synagogues they are counting the minutes until the fast is broken.  It is in these last hours when you feel that your soul is really on trial.

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Let me take this opportunity to apologize for any wrongs I may have committed, or wrong information I may have provided.  I apologize for any offense my blog posts may have caused.  I also want to apologize for writing long posts and not always editing properly.

Gmar Chatima Tova!

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