Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Yom Kippur Thoughts

September 29, 2017

Erev yom kippur, Jerusalem. The day is already long. The buses stopped running hours ago; the light rail, quiet. Ben Gurion airport shut with the last allowed arriving flight at 1:30 PM, appropriately enough, one of El Al’s. The radio has kept me company and become part of my holiday preparations, as it is for every shabbat. Music! Traditional North African, Ashkenazi, contemporary Israeli tunes, piyyutim (liturgical poems). Interviews with traditional rabbis and eminent scholars who deem themselves atheist but who love mystical texts and takes on all this; with survivors of Buchenwald and the Yom Kippur war. Many stores, offices, do not open at all on erev Yom Kippur; all close early. The environment proclaims the day. The streets are utterly quiet. The odd car is precisely that.

I chop, cook, sweep, mop, vacuum. Prepare the table that will have no food or drink this day but is festive, beautiful with an embroidered cloth I use only on haggim. The candles will be its harvest tonight. The candlesticks: my mother’s lechter. Those of my Aunt Ida, who saved my mother from Europe and to whom any of us who came from my mother owe our lives. Those of my mother’s aunt Shprinze, who like so many of my mother’s family did not survive Auschwitz, whose daughter gave them to me, saying, you light candles (keep Shabbat).

I have meant to study and not done so nearly as much as I wished. But some thoughts from what I have done stick with me particularly this erev Yom Kippur. The holiday, we know, is ancient, Biblical, as was Rosh Hashana (neither called by these names in the Bible). For some reason, it struck me this Rosh Hashana– that we blew shofar—ordained in the Biblical text; amazing. But we are not Israelites; we are Jews, and our religion is not Biblical but Jewish. Some have great difficulty with the emphasis on the elaborate ritual of sacrifice, of the scapegoat to Azazel; of the time we spend, in traditional services, recalling the action in the Temple on this day, the actions of the High Priest. One criticism is that all this was enacted from on high to effect expiation. But the emphasis of moderns is on our own actions, and on taking personal responsibility, asking forgiveness of people, and making amends to those we have wronged.

As we know, the rabbis teach that there two categories of sins: those between people and those between people and God (and, some say, vice versa). The rabbis teach that God cannot forgive sins between people—the decisive Jewish answer to the classic philosophical problem: can God create a rock S/he cannot move? Only people can forgive, and make amends for what they do to other people. Between people and God, however, is a separate process.

Remarkably, the Biblical text teaches that this day itself effects expiation: “For on this day, atonement will be made for you” (Lev. 16:30). The passive is striking. The text has just detailed at length the sacrificial actions of the High Priest, and then we hear this passive. And the rabbis indeed, teach that the day itself atones for us.

Not that we don’t have the other work to do; see above for just one, albeit major, limit on what we can expect anyone but ourselves, even God, to do for us. But the day itself atones for us, we are told.

For those feeling weary of burdens, of struggles of all kinds, it is a remarkable thing to hear that just experiencing the day effects change and relief, literally.

The radio just went off, after the 4PM top of the hour announcement. Which was remarkably short and mostly taken with proclaiming the start and end times of the holiday in different cities.


I hasten to the seudah mafseket, the festive meal before we go off food, and to the white, white, we wear on this day. Streets full of white clad people, walking soundlessly in soft, leatherless shoes.

To the work of this day, and to the grace of letting it just — do its thing.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history and an award-winning author of books on Jewish modernity and on Jewish women's history.