Yom Kippur this year is presenting itself as a challenge for Jews and Jewish communities around the world.
Being that it is the day of the year, along with Rosh Hashanah, that sees the largest number of people going to synagogue, for many the only time of the year they actually do, many are left wondering what this year’s Yom Kippur will look like and feel like.
For most of us, what is Yom Kippur if not sitting (and standing, and sitting, and standing) in synagogue for hours on end, turning through the hundreds of pages of prayer, carving out time to shmooze with your friends, hoping to be inscribed for a good year, trying to have a few meaningful moments of prayer and introspection, listening to the rabbi’s sermon, and heading home at the end of the day for a festive break-fast meal?
Yom Kippur, possibly more than any other holiday in the Jewish calendar, has become synonymous with synagogue since, besides fasting, there is no specific, tangible mitzvah or ritual that is attached to this day like we have on Pesach with Seder night and eating matzah and during Sukkot with waving the four species and spending time in the sukkah.
So then what do we do this year?
How can we feel the spirit of Yom Kippur when most of us will be homebound?
My answer is:
Do as our ancient ancestors did!
Allow me to explain.
During almost the first thousand years of Jewish history and practice, there was no such thing as a synagogue.
Let me repeat that:
No such thing as a synagogue.
Back then, in the beginning centuries of Judaism, if a person wanted to have a powerful spiritual experience in a formal and organized setting, there was only one option: going to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
There they would purify themselves in a mikveh, put on beautiful clothes fitting for the special moment and place, and enter into the Temple with an animal or an offering that the priests would offer up on their behalf while they took in the immense spiritual feeling of the experience.
But when our ancient ancestors weren’t physically present in Jerusalem, there was no obligation or even permission to make sacrifices of their own. And there was also no formalized form of prayer to guide their desire for moments of spiritual connection and certainly no prayer books to use either.
Synagogues and formalized prayer began their entry into Jewish life only after the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE and Jews, exiled to Babylonia, had to figure out a way to continue living a Jewish life without the Land of Israel and without the Temple. Their widespread universal use took many centuries to take hold in the Jewish hold.
Including the structure and format of the Yom Kippur prayers.
So, how did Jews pray back then in general and specifically on the Day of All Day Prayer, Yom Kippur?? How did they get by without Koren or Artscroll or Sim Shalom??
They opened up their hearts and prayed using words not printed on a page, but of their own choosing.
Back then, Jewish prayer was not framed by time schedules or pages in a book or when to sit or stand. Fulfilling the mitzvah from the Torah of “serve God with all of your heart”, a Jew would make the time at least once a day to share words of praise, supplication and gratitude.
In addition to saying Shema twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, that was the extent of Jewish prayer at the beginning of Jewish history.
But what did Yom Kippur specifically look like for our ancestors in those times before synagogues were invented?
Like so many of us will be doing this year, they spent Yom Kippur at home. Fasting. Saying some personal prayers, but not with a community. Using the day to think about life and how they live it. About what they are sorry for and what they want to do different or better in the new year that is just beginning.
And it was a totally legit Yom Kippur.
But there was one major difference.
Back then, no matter where a Jew lived in Israel, his or her thoughts throughout the day were directed on one very specific person in one very specific place: the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Because Yom Kippur in the Temple was structured around the High Priest’s special sacrifices and prayers that were meant to bring atonement and blessing to the entire nation. And his entering into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the Temple that only he was permitted to enter and only on Yom Kippur, represented our intimate and direct connection and relationship with God and was meant to benefit us spiritually throughout the entire year as well.
But eventually the Temple was destroyed, and the Jews learned how to have Yom Kippur without that main and significant feature.
Just like today as we have to adapt to the reality of this challenging and uncomfortable year and realize that Yom Kippur is possible without going to synagogue. That Yom Kippur is possible without flipping through hundreds of pages of prayer. That Yom Kippur is possible without seeing our friends or hearing the rabbi’s sermon.
That it is possible to still have a meaningful Yom Kippur even if we have to stay at home.
Just like our ancient ancestors did.