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Yom Kippur: Atonement and understanding

Rabbi Howard Jaffe recently reflected upon the difficulty he had preparing his first High Holiday service several years ago.
/ Source: TravelWorld International Magazine (NATJA)

Rabbi Howard Jaffe recently reflected upon the difficulty he had preparing his first High Holiday service several years ago.

"When I was in rabbinic school, I had a very difficult dissolution of a friendship," recalled Jaffe, now with Temple Isaiah, a Reform synagogue in Lexington, Massachusetts. "We hadn't spoken for about a year and she tried to renew the friendship. But I would not be vulnerable. My ego had been wounded.""

He believes the pain prevented him from writing his sermon. So, he decided to do the right thing. "I picked up the phone and called her," said Jaffe, adding the overdue conversation thawed any lingering hurt feelings and allowed him to not only complete a compelling sermon, but move forward in other aspects of his life the grudge had put on hold.

What was even more compelling is the sermon focused on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of Jewish faith, also known as the Day of Atonement, Shabbat Shabbaton, and Yoma, Yiddish for "The Day." And though Yom Kippur appears to fall on some random day in September or October, it is always celebrated on the tenth day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the lunar calendar Jews have been following for 5766 years. This date is dictated by Leviticus 23:27, which states: "the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: You shall practice self denial"

Yom Kippur begins just before sundown Wednesday and runs through sundown Thursday. Jews worldwide will honor Yom Kippur with a 24-period of self-denial, prayer and forgiveness. Many will take off work, school and recreational activities to spend the day in prayer at synagogue.


Self-denial is a significant element of Yom Kippur because it symbolizes the atonement of sins. By denying basics, such as food and water, Jews can put their physical requirements aside to better focus on their spiritual needs.

Fasting is the most common form of self-denial observed by Jews since ancient times. Traditionally, fasting is strict, meaning no food, not even water, for the 24-hour period. Jews begin fasting annually on Yom Kippur when they are about 13, but are encouraged to try fasting for smaller periods of time, say between seven to 10 hours, when they are about 11 and 12.

Infirm, very young, elderly, pregnant and lactating Jews are discouraged from fasting, as doing so could jeopardize their health. Also, the need to administer medication overrules the fast, as does the need for nourishment. Even the strictest forms of Judaism are forgiving to anyone who cannot comfortably fulfill the day-long fast. Other forms of self-denial include bathing, applying makeup and similar personal products, such as deodorant and perfume and wearing leather, specifically shoes.


However, these efforts atone only for sins against God. Many Jews, like Rabbi Jaffe, often take advantage of Yom Kippur to offer forgiveness or to seek forgiveness for sins against another person. To do so takes more than denying oneself food and water and spending a day in prayer.

"Forgiveness has to be sought directly from the individual," said Jaffe, adding there is no statute of limitation for how much time has passed since the sin. The quest for forgiveness must come from the heart, he said. "It can't be perfunctory. The important thing is that the relationship is mended by means of that effort," he said.

But what happens if the sought forgiveness is not received? According to the Torah, the holy parchment scroll embodying the Jewish teachings, you have achieved your absolution if you sincerely seek but are refused forgiveness three separate times.

Forgiveness is as vital to survival as food and water. "When you forgive, you say to the other person, "I absolve this. I don’t want to stay mired to this," said Jaffe. Sometimes, it may not be possible to track down the person with whom a sin is shared. Jaffe recalled such an example Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," referred to about one of his congregants.

The woman's husband had abandoned her and their children, leaving them in dire straits emotionally and financially. Ten years after the husband left, the woman asked Rabbi Kushner how she was expected to go on, given her circumstances. Rabbi Kushner equated the abandonment with the woman carrying a hot coal in her hand. Instead of throwing the hot coal at the person who caused the misery, she was letting it burn a hole in her hand. He suggested she let go of the coal and move on with her life.

“Forgiveness is a powerful means, but it cannot do everything,” said Jaffe. “Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. Forgiveness means healing.”

Spending the day in prayer

A drawback for devout Jews in a secular world is the conflict of skipping a day of school, work, football practice or any other activity that may continue despite it falling on the holiest Jewish day of the year.

Jaffe knows of many young Jewish professionals who are weary about asking for days off for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, about 10 days before Yom Kippur, and then again for Yom Kippur. Some will just take the day as a personal day or a day without pay, unless they work for one of the rare firms that offer the day off with pay. Athletes, aspiring starlets and students also risk losing playing time, a key part and instruction time by skipping their regularly scheduled activities to attend synagogue. Those finding themselves in this quandary should inform their supervisor that they will observing a Holy Day.

Jews in Jaffe's congregation will learn the benefits of observing the holiday as he incorporates the story of Sandy Koufax, the Dodger who refused to pitch one day in the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. Koufax took a lot of heat from the press and fans for skipping out on the game against the Yankees. But it didn't hurt him in the long run. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.