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.


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!

At the Kotel on Yom Kippur

It’s my tradition to go to the Western Wall (the Kotel) on Yom Kippur in the morning before it gets too hot and too crowded.  I use this special time to be grateful for all the blessings in my life and think about the upcoming year.  I try to limit my asking for requests for other people.

Here’s what I saw and experienced:

  • It’s always hot on Yom Kippur – no matter the weather the day before or after.
  • The streets were gorgeously quiet and empty.
Yom Kippur 8:45am

Yom Kippur 8:45am

Overlooking the valley outside the walls of the Old City 9am

Overlooking the valley outside the walls of the Old City 9am

  • When I arrived at the women’s section, I saw two female soldiers praying, in uniform and with their guns.  Later one of them went up to the wall and said a few prayers, with her gun.
  • At the wall, the woman to my left was praying in a romance language (Italian, Spanish?) quite loudly.  I heard her say “gracias a Dios,” which seemed fine, and then “benedictus Christos.”  Hmm.  Probably not Jewish.
  • The woman to my right was reading a bible in Chinese.  Status unknown.
  • When I sat down, I looked around more carefully.  More than half of the people there were drinking water and didn’t quite fit.
Bird's eye view 10am

Bird’s eye view 10am

  • When I left, there were large tourist groups – with their cameras – entering the Western Wall plaza.
  • I wondered if all these non-Jews thought that God was only answering calls at the Kotel on Yom Kippur; perhaps the connection wasn’t as good at other holy locations.
  • I didn’t see as many people in the Jewish quarter as I expected, but it might have been too early.
Not the Jewish quarter.  This is Jaffa Gate at 9am.

Not the Jewish quarter. This is Jaffa Gate at 9am.

  • There was a police presence.  At around 9am, it was calm and relaxed.  By 10am the Border Police were stationed with a much stronger presence.  (It hasn’t been calm, so they were expecting trouble.  In the end, it was a quiet day.)

I completed the fast and even though I didn’t spend the entire day in reflection, I did feel renewed and ready to start a new year.

I promised a post about my trip in Romania, but I had such a great time that I think the trip would be better served in several short entries (coming soon!).

Until then, Shabbat Shalom!  May we all have some peace and quiet, renewal and reflection.  And birthday cake.  We should all have some cake.

Yom Kippur and the Revolution

Upon arriving in Timisoara, Romania, this week, my first visit was to the Museum of the 1989 Revolution. I remember the events of 1989, but somehow I had forgotten that Romania was also one of the countries that overturned its government.  I learned a lot, earned a few points with my hosts, and saw Timisoara in a whole new light.  This was the birthplace of their revolution.



Since Yom Kippur is next week and I wanted to write about that too, I thought about how the two things fit together.

The 1989 revolution started with a small demonstration with something like 20 people who didn’t want their priest to be arrested.  One thing led to another until the Opera House in Timisoara became the headquarters of the revolution and the frenzy of it all swept across Romania.  Change begins with a small action; sometimes it’s hard and painful, but hopefully things will be better afterwards.  There are no guarantees.  You just have to believe in the cause and keep moving forward with your hopes and dreams to guide you toward something better.

Yom Kippur is not so different.  Yom Kippur is the 10th day of reflection at the beginning of the Jewish New Year.  The religious tradition is that for 9 days, you make peace with your fellow human beings.  On the 10th day, you make peace with God.  On Yom Kippur you fast for 25 hours (no drinking either!) and you dedicate yourself fully to prayer, reflection, and confession.   By the end you are an empty vessel ready to start anew.  For the next year, you start small and try to fill up your vessel self with something better.

In my own attempt to make peace with my fellow human beings, let me apologize for any slights or insults.  If I hurt you in any way, I’m sorry. I know that a general blanket apology pales in comparison to a real and personal apology, and I’m sorry for that too.

This year Yom Kippur falls on my birthday.  While I’m not looking forward to fasting on my birthday, perhaps this is an interesting coincidence that serves as a reminder that every year begins anew, with a clean state, full of potential, a chance to refill my newly emptied vessel self with something better.

G’mar Hatima Tova! (May you be written in the Book of Life!)


Next week I’ll write about my visit to Timisoara.  I still have 2 days left of my trip.