Does G-d really sit and inscribe us in a book determining our fate for the next year? Does he really have a book? Can He really know everyone in the world? Can He really decide who shall die? And, how? These are the questions that I have pondered every year since I was a child.
Although this concept has always seemed far-fetched, the meaning and spirit of Yom Kippur has always felt meaningful. To designate a time of year for self-reflection and evaluation is powerful. The idea to think about the mistakes we have made, as well as any wrongs we have committed to others is powerful.
Elul, the month prior to the Jewish New Year, is a time of introspection and personal reflection. Elul is the last month of the Jewish year. This is a month in which we spiritually prepare for the High Holiday season of reflection and repentance.
Perhaps the best-known Elul tradition is the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn) every weekday after morning services. As on Rosh Hashanah, the daily shofar blasts are intended to rouse us from complacency and jolt us into repentance.
The holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur means “day of atonement.” It takes place on the tenth day of the Hebrew month Tishrei. It is a day set aside to “afflict the soul,” to atone for the sins of the past year. During the Days of Awe, according to tradition, our names will be inscribed in either the book of life or death. On Yom Kippur, the judgment entered in these books is sealed. Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and G-d, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them
Growing up, my mother practiced all the rituals of Yom Kippur, even Kapparot, which means “atonement” in Yiddish. On the afternoon before Yom Kippur, one prepares an item to be donated to the poor and then swings the prepared charitable donation over one’s head three times while reciting a short prayer three times. Mother swung a chicken as a child, but we used coins that were tied inside a handkerchief. After our holiday meal, we drove to synagogue for Kol Nidre services. Kol Nidre, which means “all vows,” annuls all vows made to G-d the previous year, so we start off with a clean slate this year. We walked the mile and a half home after services and then again, the following morning. We stayed in synagogue all day, even during the break between the afternoon and evening services. Mother brought “smelling salts” to sniff whenever she felt weak from fasting.
At the conclusion of services, a shofar is blown to send our prayers up to G-d. This was the fun part for us as children. We all went to the bimah (the ark area) with lights, or plastic horns, sometimes receiving a Hershey kiss at the conclusion. After services, we drove our car, which had stayed parked overnight, to my mother’s family home. My mother’s family, forty of us strong, gathered to break the fast with a delicious dairy meal of pickled fish (which my mother prepared), blintzes, spaghetti casserole, macaroni & cheese, salad, and platters of delicious cookies and cakes.
Raising my family, I continued my mother’s traditions. Today, I still have the same questions about Yom Kippur as I did as a child. However, introspection, reflections, and making amends have been incorporated into my life. Elul and the season the High Holidays provide the context and motivation to do so.
Wishing you a contemplative Yom Kippur. May you and yours be inscribed in the Book of Life for a healthy, sweet year. G’mar Hatimah Tovah.
Hadassah, The Women’s Zionist Organization of America stands for Jewish values and traditions. Hadassah also stands up for women’s empowerment and leadership, and therefore strongly supports the role of Jewish woman as keepers of the flame of Jewish values, traditions and beliefs. I am proud to be a Life Member of a national organization with such a noble purpose.