The Yom Kippur reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Jul-2004
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Yom Kippur

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Yom Kippur (יום כפור yom kippūr, day of atonement) is the Jewish festival of the Day of Atonement. The Bible calls the day Yom Hakippurim (Hebrew, "Day of the Atonements"). It is one of the Yamim Noraim (Hebrew, "Days of Awe"). The Yamim Noraim consist of Rosh Hashanah, which is the first two days of the ten days of repentance, and Yom Kippur, which is the last of the ten days.

In the Hebrew calendar Erev Yom Kippur begins at nightfall on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Tishri (which falls in September/October), and continues into the next day until nightfall.

Table of contents
1 Biblical origin
2 In Jewish thought
3 The Liturgy
4 The scapegoats

Biblical origin

The rites for Yom Kippur are set forth in the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus (cf. Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 23:27-31, 25:9; Numbers 29:7-11). It is described as a solemn fast, on which no food could be taken, and on which all work is forbidden. Sacrifices were offered in the Temple in Jerusalem.

In Jewish thought

Yom Kippur is the Jewish day of repentance, considered to be the holiest and most solemn day of the year. Its central theme is atonement and reconciliation. Eating, drinking, bathing, cosmetics, leather shoes, and conjugal relations are prohibited. Fasting - total abstention from all food and drink - begins a bit before sundown (called 'tosephet' Yom Kippur, the 'addition' of fasting a bit of the previous day is required by Jewish law), and ends after nightfall the following day.

Prayer services begin with the prayer known as "Kol Nidre", which must be recited before sunset. Kol Nidre, Aramaic for "all vows," is a public annullment of vows made to God during the preceding year. It does not cancel or nullify vows made between people.

Yom Kippur completes the penitential period of ten days that begins with New-Year's Day, the season of repentance and prayer; for though prayerful humiliation be acceptable at all times, it is thought to be peculiarly potent at that time.

The morning prayer service is preceded by litanies and petitions of forgiveness called selihot; On the Day of Atonement, many selihot are woven into the liturgy.

According to Maimonides "All depends on whether a man's merits outweigh the demerits put to his account", so it is therefore desirable to multiply good deeds before the final account on the Day of Atonement (ib. iii. 4). Those that are found worthy by God are said to be entered in the Book of Life. Hence the prayer: "Enter us in the Book of Life". Hence also the greeting "May you be inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a happy year." In letters written between New-Year and the Day of Atonement, the writer usually concludes by wishing the recipient that God may seal his fate for happiness. In late Judaism, features that were originally peculiar to New-Year's Day were transferred to the Day of Atonement.

The Day of Atonement survived the cessation of the sacrificial service in the year 70 CE. "Though no sacrifices be offered, the day in itself effects atonement" (Midrash Sifra, Emor, xiv.). Jewish texts teach that the day avails nothing unless repentance be coupled with it. Repentance was the indispensable condition for all the various means of atonement.

Penitent confession was a requisite for expiation through capital or corporal punishment. "The Day of Atonement absolves from sins against God, but not from sins against a fellow man unless the pardon of the offended person be secured" (Talmud Yoma viii. 9). Hence the custom of terminating on the eve of the fastday all feuds and disputes. Even the souls of the dead are included in the community of those pardoned on the Day of Atonement. It is customary for children to have public mention made in the synagogue of their departed parents, and to make charitable gifts on behalf of their souls.

Contrary to popular belief, Yom Kippur is not a sad day. Sephardic Jews (Jews of Spanish, Portuguese and North African descent) refer to this holiday as "the White Fast". Consequently, many Jews have the customn of wearing only white clothing on this day, to symbolize their 'white' purity from sin, akin to angels.

The Liturgy

A Tallit (four-cornered prayer garment) is donned for evening prayers - the only evening service of the year in which this is done. The Ne'ilah service is a special service held only on the day of Yom Kippur, and deals with the closing of the holiday. Yom Kippur comes to an end with the blowing of the shofar, which marks the conclusion of the fast. It is always observed as a one day holiday, both inside and outside the boundaries of the land of Israel.

The service in the synagogue opens in the evening with the Kol Nidre. The devotions during the day are continuous from morning until evening. Much prominence is given to the liturgical pieces in which the Temple ceremonial is recounted.

According to the Talmud, God open three books on the first day of the year; one for the thoroughly wicked, another for the thoroughly pious, and the third for the large intermediate class. The fate of the thoroughly wicked and the thoroughly pious is determined on the spot; the destiny of the intermediate class is suspended until Yom Kippur, when the fate of everyone is sealed. The liturgical piece Unetanneh Tokef, states:

God, seated on His throne to judge the world, at the same time Judge, Pleader, Expert, and Witness, opens the Book of Records. It is read, every man's signature being found therein. The great trumpet is sounded; a still, small voice is heard; the angels shudder, saying, "this is the day of judgment": for God's very ministers are not pure before God. As a shepherd musters his flock, causing them to pass under his rod, so dooes God cause every living soul to pass before Him, to fix the limit of every creature's life and to ordain its destiny. On New-Year's Day the decree is written; on the Day of Atonement it is sealed; who shall live and who are to die....But penitence, prayer, and charity may avert the harsh decree."

Ibn Gabirol's "Crown of Royalty" is appended to the Sephardic liturgy for the evening service, and is also read in a few Ashkenazic synagogues. In the center of the older liturgy is the confession of sins. "For we are not so bold of face and stiff-necked as to say to Thee, We are righteous and have not sinned; but, of a truth, we are sinners. . . . May it be Thy will that I sin no more; be pleased to purge away my past sins, according to Thy great mercy, only not through severe chastisements."

The traditional melodies with their plaintive tones endeavor to give expression alike to the individual's awe before the uncertainties of fate and to a people's moan for its departed glories. On the Day of Atonement the pious Jew becomes forgetful of the flesh and its wants and, banishing hatred, ill-feeling, and all ignoble thoughts, seeks to be occupied exclusively with things spiritual. Jewish prayerbooks note that while public acts of contrition are mandated, the most effective corrective is that stated by the Biblical propehts, who teach that the true fast-day in which God delights is a spirit of devotion, kindliness, and penitence.

The serious character impressed upon the day from the time of its institution has been preserved to the present day. No matter how much else has fallen into desuetude, so strong is its hold upon the Jewish conscience that few Jews, unless they have cut themselves entirely off from the synagogue, will fail to observe the Day of Atonement by resting from their daily pursuits and attending service in the synagogue. With a few exceptions, the service even of the Reform Jewish synagogues is continuous through the day.

The scapegoats

In Biblical times, the most distinctive ceremony was the offering of the "emissary goats", or "scapegoats" (Leviticus 16:8-10) which are sent to Azazel. Azazel is an obscure word which occurs nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. The word may come from two root words, aze, meaning goat, and azel, meaning departure. Various attempts have been made to interpret its meaning. Some have taken it for the name of a precipice where the sacrificial goat was killed. Others, take it for the name of an evil spirit; a spirit of this name is mentioned in the Apocryphal Book of Henoch, and later in Jewish literature. On this interpretation the idea of the ceremony would seem to be that the sins were sent back to the evil spirit to whose influence they owed their origin. It has been noted that somewhat similar rites of expiation have prevailed among heathen nations. Modern biblical critics, who refer the above passages to the Priestly code, and to a post-Exilic date, are disposed to regard the sending of the goat to Azazel as an adaptation of a pre-existing ceremony.

Some more conservative biblical scholars have noted that the place the goat would be taken is merely the "wilderness", outside the city, and that there is not a place called Azazel. Their view is that the "goat of departure" was merely "let go."

See also: Kol Nidre, Rosh Hashanah, Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur War


There is also a book by Isaac Asimov entitled Azazel.