Yom Kippur spirituality and practical rituals
In our search for the understanding of non-attachment and change, we will now turn to Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur. 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 the 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”. I would probably practice Yom Kippur even if I wasn’t a Jewish Atheist, since I view it as a yearly “Reset Button” which allows 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.
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.
2) Make a list of all the people who deserve an apology from you.
3) Make another list of people you have a tense relationship with (regardless of who was to blame).
4) Send an email or call the people on each list. Ask for forgiveness from the ones you wronged. Acknowledge the pain shared with the people on the second list.
The first benefit for this ritual is that by mending/closing past conflicts and relationships, a fresh start can emerge. Asking to be forgiven allows 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 and hurt 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. 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.
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?). It should be noted that Kol Nidrei (Nullifying the vows prayer) has received a lot of criticism from Jews saying that this prayer may create a stigma that Jews can easily break their promises to others. This is not the case, as the vows are those made to ourselves. The holiday and breaking of the vows real resistance and resentment is with people who want stability, fear change and not interested in taking a deep look in their lives. The prayer if done correctly is not only liberating, but also calling on your bluff with 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 (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 refusing to eat or drink among other prohibitions. This is good, since it reminds us how dependent and fragile we are in our miserable state after only twenty-five hours.
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 as soon as we want it, and that’s why we always need more. We lose freedom by confusing between what we want with what we actually need. Yom Kippur allows calibration of this tendency as well as it shows you that you can even survive for a while without the most basic things. More importantly, a day of abstention creates self suffering, which makes 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.