Friday, September 28, 2012

Yom Kippur Symbolism and Synagogue Services

This is interesting…  I work in an office with coworkers who are almost all orthodox Jews, and one of them sent me this email for Yom Kippur, with quite a lot about the holiday I never knew.  While I have no wish to partake, I appreciate the symbolism and think about the meaning, at least in the context of "self".

For myself I haven't participated in Yom Kippur in well over a decade, and indeed, during my stay in India I often didn't even know when it was as I simply wasn't paying attention to Jewish holidays.

If I'd known some of this information about the symbolism and purpose of Yom Kippur when I was much younger, before I reached the point that I stopped believing in any gods, I wonder if it would've changed me at all.  Not now of course, now that I've had such a long time to not participate in Jewish life that I found out I'm not missing anything.

But I can still think about it.  There are equivalent ideas, looking inward, analyzing how I'm spending my life, how I'm affecting others, positively or negatively, without the religious component of believing in god or people having a soul.

My memories of going to the synagogue for services are that they're all pretty much the same.  Since I never learned Hebrew vocabulary and not a whole lot of the aleph-bet, and Hebrew school didn't really cover symbolism or what Jewish life was all about, services were boring.

Services were just sitting in the synagogue, fidgeting in an uncomfortable suit my mother made me wear, listening to the rabbi or cantor (I'm not sure I know the difference, really) drone on and on, or sing some prayers or something, while I followed along for a paragraph or two, turn the page when the rabbi either says to turn the page or when a number of people around me turn the page, stand when the rabbi says "all rise" then sit when the rabbi says to be seated and try not to stand when the rabbi only wants a small group to stand…

And do that for hours and hours, anxiously waiting for it to end.

Sure, Yom Kippur had fasting, and the Kol Nidre song, Rosh Hashanah had apples and honey, Simchat Torah had a parade of torah scrolls, and so forth, but services were almost all the same otherwise.  And we never really went to ones that weren't major holidays.

Between sessions or when it was was finished was the fun part, I could run around with either my Hebrew school friends or my cousins who were at many of the services.

Otherwise, services were just something to get through.

And after having gotten through my Bar Mitzvah at 13 and then later moved out from under my parents' roof, I'm glad I'm independent and can choose not to spend my time in synagogue services.

Below is the text of what he emailed me, which he got from Chabad, which came from  It is probably copyright and all that, so I want to make it clear that below is not my writing...  (and it's not my formatting, either, I originally received it with black text on a dark blue background).

--- --- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- --


Tonight we will begin a 25-hour fast of Yom Kippur.  We don't do this in order to afflict ourselves, which is the purpose of the fast of Tisha B'Av when we mourn the destruction of the Temple—indeed Yom Kippur is not a day of mourning but a day of joy. We fast on Yom Kippur because on this day we want to transcend our physical limitations and be like angels, and food and other physical concerns distract us from our spiritual selves.

Some people may complain that the hunger distracts them from concentrating on the prayers and rituals of the day.  But this is precisely the Yom Kippur challenge—not to be overly focused on the physical.

Use the opportunity of not eating and not drinking to allow yourself to experience the food and drink that comes from deep within. Fasting will then become a very freeing experience.

Yom Kippur is one day in the year when you can access the deepest part of your soul. But this is only possible if you create the space for it. Your soul—every soul—has a still, soft voice that emits a unique hum. This sound can only be heard if you lower the noise in your life that usually drowns out your inner voice.

On Yom Kippur, when the "source" is nearest to the "spark" of your soul, you want to remove as many material distractions as you can, so that your soul can sing freely and your "spark" can dance.  

When you experience Yom Kippur this way—which does take effort, and that's why you need to prepare for it—then it will be for you not a day when you feel hungry, but a day when you feel angelic.

The same holds true for the other prohibitions of Yom Kippur—against bathing, anointing, marital relations, wearing leather, etc.—all of which are meant to detach us as much as possible from the physical realm so that we can be free to experienced the spiritual one.

Instead of indulging in physical pleasures, we spend the day in the cocoon of a synagogue where we are cut off from the outside world. We spend the day in prayer—our whole intention being to transcend the physical world, our material home, and to travel inward toward our purest spiritual selves—toward our true home in G-d.

Before darkness falls, marking the official beginning of the 10th day of Tishrei which is Yom Kippur, in every synagogue in the world a haunting melody is sang—Kol Nidrei.

Kol Nidrei means "All Vows" and its classic text, repeated three times, each time louder, is a renunciation of all oaths and vows.

It seems strange to begin the holiest day of the yea—the day which we spend asking G-d to forgive us for all transgressions—by breaking former promises.

But Kol Nidrei is not that. Kol Nidrei is the process through which we enter the holiest day of the year.

neder is not just the vow/promise that you vocalize to another person, it is a word that denotes all commitments, attachments, and ties that bind you.

By renouncing "all vows" you are declaring your commitment to break the bonds that keep you from traveling on the journey within, that keep you from opening yourself to the Yom Kippur experience.

Obviously, this does not mean forsaking healthy commitments and responsibilities—it means forsaking those attachments that limit you, that entangle and entrap you. 

That is the essential focus of Kol Nidrei. It is a perfect prayer to begin Yom Kippur with because unless you free yourself from such traps you cannot travel inward; with a ball and chain attached to you, you are not going to be able to get anywhere.

Kol Nidrei is repeated three times to relate to vows in speech, vows in deed, and vows in thought:

All vows and things we have made forbidden on ourselves... we regret having made them, may they all be permitted, forgiven, eradicated, and nullified, and may they not be valid or exist any longer.  Our vows shall no longer be vows, and our prohibitions shall no longer be prohibited, and our oaths are no longer oaths.

Wednesday, September 26
Tishrei 10, Yom Kippur

The preparation work in advance of Yom Kippur is a journey inward which culminates in the fifth and final prayer of the Yom Kippur service—Neilah (the "Locking of the Gates").  

Every day we have three prayers—Maariv (the evening prayer), Shacharit (the morning prayer), Mincha (the afternoon prayer). On Shabbat and every other Jewish holiday we have a fourth—Musaf (the additional prayer). But only on Yom Kippur is there a fifth—Neilah.

This is because Neilah corresponds to the fifth and highest dimension of the soul—the Holy of Holies of the soul—which we access only on this one day at this one time. 

The five dimensions of the soul (from lowest to highest) are:

Transcendental life
Intellectual life
Emotional life
Biological life

All days of the year we're able to access the three dimensions of our soul; on Shabbat we access the fourth,chayah, but only on Yom Kippur can we access the fifth,yechidah—oneness with G-d.

This is because during Neilah, before the gates are locked, everything is open and we are able to reach even yechidahwhich is the most intimate, vulnerable, tender, gentle part of the soul of the human being, unshielded by the defenses of the other levels. We reach it at the precise moment whenNeilah is said, and when at its conclusion we declare:Shema Israel... "Hear O Israel, G-d is our G-d, G-d is One."

The Shaloh, the great medieval 16th century sage writes that "there is no higher experience for the Jew—as when he acknowledges the oneness of G-d and his readiness to give his entire life to G-d." This is the moment when the spark and the flame come closest all year round.  This is the most powerful moment of the year. This is the moment that you are the closest that you can come to the essence of everything, to G-d.

xcerpt from 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays, by Simon Jacobson. ©Copyright The Meaningful Life Center, 2012. All rights
Click here to order the book. To preview a page sample click here.
To subscribe to this daily 60 Day email, please click here.

No comments:

Post a Comment