Yom Kippur Spiritual Meaning and Rituals
In our search for the understanding of non-attachment and change, we will turn to Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur (Hebrew יום כיפור), also known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths. It appears that the mindset and rituals performed in Yom Kippur are highly beneficial and can be practical for everyone. So, what is Yom Kippur all about? In Hebrew, Yom Kippur means Day of Atonement. It lasts for twenty-five hours, and during this time you can’t eat, drink, work, or drive, among other prohibitions. Refraining from these activities symbolically represents a return to the pristine state.
Yom Kippur is a day of closure/sealing of our personal “Yearly Book of Life”. And just like any deadline, it creates urgency for last minute changes and decisions. Jews greet each other with “Hatima Tova” before Yom Kippur, which means “May your Seal be good”, in addition to “Tsom Kal” which means “Easy fasting”. Since Yom Kippur has such powerful spiritual meaning, I would probably practice it even if I wasn’t Jewish. Regardless, sabbatarian church followers also fast in Yom Kippur, and Muslims also observe it as Yom Ashura.
Yom Kippur is connected to the Jewish calendar (welcome to year 5778!), and will next occur on:
- Sunset, 8 October 2019 – nightfall, 9 October 2019
- Sunset, 27 September 2020 – nightfall, 28 September 2020
In this article I will explain why Yom Kippur can become your annual “Reset Button” allowing you to restart and re-calibrate your life. Granted, my interpretation of the rituals of Yom Kippur are not necessarily the mainstream Jewish interpretation, and some of the ideas presented in this article are based on my own understanding of this special day based on my nomadic lifestyle. It should also be noted that mainstream judaism is now dominated by politician beaurocrats, so any hope their “rules” can connect you with the creator is highly dubious. Stick with mine and discuss with your local Rabi, and you will be mostly ok.
Here are some of the elements of Yom Kippur that I find relevant to my life:
Asking for forgiveness
A preliminary step which will prepare you for the prize ahead.
1) Set aside a few minutes before the holiday begins; choose a time where you have a clear mind and a positive mood. Reflect on your major conflicts and points of friction over the last year with your loved ones and acquaintances.
2) Make a list of everyone who deserve an apology from you.
3) Send an email or call those people to apologize.
The first benefit for this ritual is that by mending/closing past conflicts and relationships, a fresh start can emerge, which is what Yom Kippur is all about. Saying you are sorry will usually improve your relationships and make you feel better as well, by allowing you to forgive yourself and move on.
Other than these great benefits, the forgiveness ritual develops several skills that I find beneficial.
The first skill is awareness and the ability to think retrospectively about the mistakes we have made in the past putting other people’s feelings in the center. Being aware of the pain inflicted by our actions teaches us to be empathetic. The “Forgiveness drill” of Yom Kippur not only develops awareness and empathy, but allows us to analyze our mistakes and helps us avoid them in the future.
The second skill is related to Ego. Asking for forgiveness makes you feel humbled, thus granting you control over the ego. Ego is, after all, our own preoccupation with what other people think of us; a kind of radar that all too frequently malfunctions. Calibrate your radar by admitting your mistakes. Controlling your ego will also allow you to achieve more flexibility, as ego is a limiting factor that creates fear and rigidness.
Before moving on to the next pilars of Yom Kippur, and while at forgiveness, this practice also allows you to see how you have actually did damage to yourself in the last year. Yom Kippur is a day you should mostly spend with yourself reflecting on your life, both past and future. Make a list of your own actions and patterns that were self damaging. Those can be bad habits, general mistakes and whatever actions or self beliefs that inflicted damage and reduced your quality of life. Apologize to yourself, and decide if you forgive and move on, or prefer to hold a grudge.
Now that we have made the initial step, we can move on to change itself.
Yom Kippur is full of prohibitions, but also offers a unique gift. The first prayer of Yom Kippur is called Kol Nidrei (All vows), and as the name hints, it gives you the ability to nullify all the vows you have made in the last year to yourself (but not to other people). We hardly make vows anymore, so you might not think this is a big deal. But consider that our life is all about the promises we make to ourselves and the way we define ourselves – in other words, our story. Even vows we have never taken still shape our reality. Our vows are who we are, and are a reflection of how we are perceived by ourselves and everyone who knows us. Break them.
The Kol Nidrei prayer can be roughly translated as: “All vows, prohitions, and existing status of our souls, can all be returned and annulled. There are no vows, prohibitions or existing statuses.”
Yom Kippur allows you to take some time with yourself and decide on changes or annulments to some of your core definitions. It’s amazing to me that a major religion supports an option where, after a day of hard thinking, you can say “I’m not that anymore”. Even though the world sees you as an economist/mother/social worker/depressed, you can start from scratch and redefine yourself as something new (a nomad maybe?). This part of Yom Kippur can create great difficulty and resistance with people who want stability, fear change and not interested in taking a deep look in their lives. In other words, everyone. However, if done correctly, the benefits are immense and life changing. It will allow you to call the bluff on the stories you have told yourself and others. It tells you: “You are now blank paper, reinvent yourself”. This is not a holiday for all, but life might be too short to be the same person every year.
1) Allocate an hour or so after the holiday starts when you are still sharp and clear, since not eating and drinking will take a toll on your focus.
2) Reflect on your life, but concentrate less on business goals and career (Which I keep for New Year’s) and more on yourself and who you are. I usually use a pen and paper while answering the following questions: Who am I? What do I like about my story? What don’t I like? Who do I want to become next year? What vows will I release?
The prohibitions of Yom Kippur are pushing you into quality time with yourself while disconnecting from the distractions of the modern world. You are not supposed to run away to entertainment or your smartphone, watching television, eat and drink, or travel. This guarantees spending most of the day thinking and contemplating. In Israel, no car is seen on the road and TV channels are offline, creating a complete reality change. Hustle and bustle will slow to a freeze. There is usually so much noise around us, and it’s beautiful to watch the “world on pause”, even if just for a day.
As previously mentioned, Yom Kippur includes the challenge of refraining from eating or drinking among other prohibitions such as bathing, sexual activities and driving (not necessarily in this order). The focus is on fasting, since it directly causes discomfort and suffering is good, reminding us how weak and fragile we are after only twenty-five hours of fasting.
We are used to getting our needs fulfilled in the modern world, and Yom Kippur is a glorious reminder of how dependent and miserable we can be without water and food we take for granted.
On the other hand, practicing Yom Kippur major prohibitions teaches you that while depriving yourself from basic needs creates suffering, you can still survive for a short period without fulfilling your basic needs and desires. Our society is consumption-oriented; we consume what we want when we want it. We lose freedom by confusing between what we want with what we actually need. Yom Kippur allows you to understand better the things you really need, and teaches you discipline. After the fasting, you can more easily say no to whatever you feel you need right now, based on your experience in that special day. Yom Kippur also shows you your strength. There is power in experiencing first hand the ability to survive for a while without the most basic things. We are strong beings, flexible to fix situations even when we have nothing to eat or drink.
A day of fasting and abstention will involve self suffering. This suffering will also make it easier to understand the suffering of others from hunger, weakness, and disease. The hardship and poverty you see on the news becomes your own distilled and controlled reality for a short time.
Before we end this article, a recommended poem written centuries ago by Ibn Ezra is sung on the eve of Yom Kippur, here it is performed by Meir Banai. Part of the holiday consists of remorse and repenting sins, to god and yourself and the lyrics reflects it:
To you my soul, my self, my skin with my corpse. To you my eyes, my ideas, my trust and hope. To you I resemble, to you I don’t resemble. To you I scream, to you I stick, until I am back to my land. And what am I? And what is my life? And what is my strength? A straw in the wind, how will you remember my mistakes?
In conclusion, Yom Kippur is a great opportunity for internal celebration, growth and self-calibration. Milarepa, a Tibetan spiritual leader, once said “My religion is to live and die without regrets”. Yom Kippur can help you do exactly that. Celebrate while you can.