Ask the rabbi: Yom Kippur

October 3, 2019 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple writes from Jerusalem.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Yom Kippur has an amazing fascination. It draws to the synagogue massive numbers of Jews who show very little interest for the rest of the year.

For some it is the day when one shouldn’t be absent; if one doesn’t come, family, friends and fellow congregants say, “We missed you. Were you well?”

There are three serious reasons for the power of Yom Kippur – speech, song and silence:

* Speech

The language is old-fashioned but the themes are everlasting.

Franz Rosenzweig never spelt out what tugged at his heart on that fateful Yom Kippur, but he drew back from the brink because he sensed that his life had been lacking.

When we come to shule on Yom Kippur we sense that something is missing in our lives.

In the classical terms of theology, we have sinned. Whatever the sins, they reduce the quality of our lives.

* Song

Starting with the poignant Kol Nidrei, the day is full of melody, its minor keys moving to major, its major keys moving to minor. Often the melody outweighs the words.

There are great cantorial pieces and a distinctive underlying chant, but the wise cantor often leaves it to the congregation to sing because that’s how they make the service their own.

* Silence

There are ups and downs in the service. One of its great points is its moments for meditation.

Don’t fret if you miss out a few pages. If a thought catches hold of you, let yourself daydream about it. Tease what you can out of the words, the ideas, the moment.

Don’t resort to chatting with your neighbour; chat to yourself, chat to the Almighty.

Silence is speech. God is in the “kol d’mamah dakkah”, the thin, small inner voice.


The Book of Vayikra is studded with references to the word “Kippur”, which has at least two meanings.

It is linked with “kofer”, a ransom. When every Israelite male is told to bring half a shekel to the sanctuary, the money is called “kessef hakippurim”, ransom money.

There is a further connotation to the root “k-p-r” – to cleanse. The Yom Kippur procedures in the Temple cleansed the people of the sins which disfigured them. Part of the Yom Kippur ritual is the banishment of a scapegoat, which symbolically carries away the sins of the people.

The idea of the goat is a metaphor for our determination that our misdeeds will be removed as fast and as far as possible. Cleansing requires removal, remorse… and commitment never to repeat the sin (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, ch.1).


What Kol Nidrei means must be more than the music. Otherwise, it would never have been so battered and battled over during the course of its long history.

Yet when you delve into the text you find that it seems to negate everything that Judaism believes in. Where Judaism says that one must keep a promise (Deut. 23: 21-23, Kohelet 5:4-5), Kol Nidrei says that oaths are no oaths.

The key to Kol Nidrei rests not in the oaths but attitudes. It seems to be human nature to blithely undertake things which turn out to be too difficult to fulfil.

Sometimes we know in advance that we should not be making the undertaking but we do it for dramatic effect. How often did people say to me as their rabbi, “I promise on my mother’s grave to do such-and-such a thing”. Perhaps it was, “I swear on my daughter’s life that I will do such-and-such”.

Fortunately, I knew enough to smile and not take the promise seriously but I still got upset at the mention of a dead parent or a living child.

In any case, Kol Nidrei does not deal with promises to other people but promises to God, and that’s where we make our great mistake.

We think God will recognise that we are exaggerating and He will smile and forgive us. Descartes said, “God will forgive – that’s His job!”

Through Kol Nidrei we say to God, “Lord, Your children fear that they will promise You too much. Please guide us to keep our undertakings modest.”


The dramatic High Holyday poem, Une’tanneh Tokef, written in the Middle Ages and possibly emanating from Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, describes mankind coming before God in single file on the Day of Judgment, like sheep which the shepherd checks over.

The Hebrew phrase for “like sheep” is “kiv’nei maron”, which has at least six interpretations, of which “like sheep” (in Aramaic “b’nei imrana”) is only one interpretation.

Other views include the following:
* Soldiers of the House of David (“kiv’nei maron” is in this view a Hebraised version of the Greek “noumeron”, a troop): the notion is of a military unit filing before their commander.

* Soldiers going in single file through the narrow, steep pass of Horon, i.e. Bet Choron, not Bet Maron. This is the view of Resh Lakish in the Talmud. A detailed discussion of Bet Choron is found in the Talmud in Sanhedrin 32b.

All these and similar interpretations add up to the same thing – every creature being minutely scrutinised by the Almighty, both because He loves each one and because no-one can escape Heavenly attention.

What calls the people of the world to appear before God is the sound of the shofar.

A well-known interpretation of the shofar says that the notes start with t’ki’ah, the call to attention; they continue with sh’varim and t’ru’ah, symbolising the fear and trepidation that shakes every individual heart and conscience; and they conclude with another t’ki’ah, as if to say, “March on with God’s blessing!”


Religious poems (“piyyutim”) liven all the Yom Kippur services. They generally use complicated allusions to Biblical and rabbinic material, but their message is unmistakable.

They often compare the greatness of God the Supreme King and the littleness of man the Lowly King. The piyyut, “Melech Elyon” (“the Supreme King”) is a vivid example.

The text in the Yom Kippur prayer book is abbreviated; the translated version given here is closer to the original.

Why many prayer rites omit most of the “Lowly King” lines is that Jews were often accused of lack of loyalty and respect to the monarchical figures of the European kingdoms and principalities.

Whether this accusation is valid is uncertain; what is beyond doubt is that many of the temporal rulers and church potentates that the medieval Jews encountered were lacking in integrity and ethical character.

Supreme King: God On High, mighty above, lifting His strong hand –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: decays, descends to the grave, toils without pleasure –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: keeps His word, decrees and fulfils, reveals secrets –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: weak with disease, speaks nonsense, sees nothing –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: speaks truth, clothed in justice, hears cries for help –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: loves wickedness, does evil, inborn transgressor –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: recalls forebears, defends mankind, berates enemies –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: thinks and forgets, soon forgotten, sins noticed –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: lives eternally, ever good, spreads out the heavens –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: his days are handbreadths, his time is grief, born useless –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: robed in light, all heaven’s lights, mighty and luminous –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: brought down to the dark valley with clods and thick dark –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: forever rules, reveals secrets, gives speech to the dumb –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: moves briefly, troubled by disease, mind confused –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: endures all, from old bearing all, seeing all –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: transient, passing, eyesight dim, earth heaping up –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: glorious power, mighty in deeds, redeems and protects –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: his stench ascends, his filth and dirt cover him –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: His flaming angels move the waters, close to them who call in love –
He reigns forever
Lowly king: wrapped in worms, dank and dry, flashing water and fire –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: ever awake, His serene angels fill their mouths with praise –
He reigns eternally
Lowly king: sleep hovers and overcomes him, confusion besets him –
how long can he reign?
Supreme King: mighty forever, always glorious, His praise everlasting –
He reigns eternally

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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