The culmination of the Ten Days of Repentance which began on Rosh Hashanah is on the fast day of Yom Kippur, the holiest and most solemn of the Jewish holidays that occurs on the Tenth day of Tishrei. This day is spent in 25 hours of fasting and praying, beseeching God to inscribe us in the Book of Life for the coming year.
There are five prohibitions on Yom Kippur;
* Eating and drinking
* Wearing leather shoes
* Washing and bathing
* Using creams or lotions
* Marital relations
The fast begins 30 minutes before sundown after finishing the concluding meal of Erev Yom Kippur.
Erev Yom Kippur (the day preceding Yom Kippur)
On the ninth of Tishrei, the physical and spiritual preparations start from early morning. Two festive meals are eaten, one usually around noontime, and the second concluding meal (Seudah Mafseket) is eaten after the afternoon Mincha prayer. Although it is customary to eat fish at the earlier meal, it is preferable to eat light, easy to digest food during this day so as concentrate fully on the prayers and services of Yom Kippur. Many men immerse themselves in a mikvah (ritualarium) for additional purification, and it is customary for men and women alike to wear white clothes, symbolizing purity.
Since one cannot be forgiven for sins against God before atoning for sins against man, many people contact their close friends and family, asking forgiveness for any hurts, insults or harm done to them. This is a good time to overlook any personal grudges and slights, granting forgiveness, keeping in mind that as we act towards our fellow man, so God acts toward us.
Since charity helps to repeal evil decrees, the practice of giving increased charity on Erev Yom Kippur is widespread.
Prayers on Yom Kippur
After the concluding meal on Erev Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidrei Prayer is recited. The synagogue is hushed as congregants silently file in wearing white, many men wearing kittels covered with their tallitot. The moving prayer is recited three times, each time progressively louder. Each individual recites this age old prayer which releases one from vows and oaths that one had inadvertently made during the year.
Subsequently, the Maariv evening services commence.
The Shacharit, or morning services are enriched by additional prayers called selichot, or piyutim. The Mussaf prayer describes the Avodah, or Temple services in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This moving and riveting description describes the preparation of the High Priest for the solemn and critical service which would serve to achieve God’s forgiveness to the Jewish people as a whole for the entire past year. The eyes of all those assembled in the Holy Temple were on the High Priest as he performed his tasks which demanded mental concentration and a pure heart. When he went into the Holy of Holies for the service there, a red painted wool cord which had been tied previously on the hallway was visible for all eyes to see. If the High Priest was successful in achieving atonement from God, the cord turned white, in accordance with the verse, “If your sins should be like red thread, they will turn like snow. (Isaiah Chapter 1), and the hearts of the people rejoiced. The beautiful prayer “Mar’eh Kohen” describes the radiance on the face of the High Priest as he left the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.
The Mincha, or afternoon prayer is recited, and a reading (Haftarah) from the Book of Jonah is recited. This famous story of the prophet Jonah who was sent to convince the people of Ninveh to repent is in accordance with the theme of Teshuva, or repentance of Yom Kippur.
As the sun begins to set, we gather our last strength to recite the “Ne’ilah” (locking) prayer. The gates of heaven are slowly swinging shut as the sun sets and the congregation recites this moving prayer with increasing devotion, asking for forgiveness before the gates lock until next year Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur ends with a recitation of Shema Yisrael and the blowing of the Shofar, with a heartfelt prayer of “Next Year in Jerusalem” meaning with the third Holy Temple rebuilt and the coming of Moshiach.