Jews come home for Yom Kippur

September 14, 2018 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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A Yom Kippur feature from Rabbi Raymond Apple.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Every culture has its story of the person who went searching for treasure and finally found it in his own garden.

In Judaism its great expression is Yom Kippur.

Jews who go wandering throughout the year come home to Judaism on Yom Kippur and suddenly find that the old-time Jewish identity – even the age-old prayers and the old-time tunes – are where they are at home.

To adapt a song about Glasgow, “I belong to Judaism, and when I’m in shule on Kol Nidrei night, Judaism belongs to me!”


In our rational moments we criticise the Yom Kippur confessions: “Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu”, “We admit our guilt; we have sinned, we have transgressed, we have gone astray…” Is it really true?

Classical Christianity made a doctrine of the thought of sin. It said that because Adam sinned, we are all sinners; it says sinfulness comes with the genes, sins are inherent in human nature, and the only way out is theological.

This doctrine says that man sins because he is a sinner; Judaism says that man has no predisposition to sin though he sometimes goes wrong and does the wrong thing. Some Jewish thinkers go as far as to claim that doing good is a person’s true nature.

The Torah says, “If a person sins…” There is an “if” about it. Anyone can make a mistake and if they (who? The kohen gadol! The Sanhedrin! The king! The ordinary person!) go wrong, nothing forces them. They and not their genes are responsible, and they and not their theology can find the solution.

The solution in fact is like a religious form of the three Rs – remorse for the wrong, recognition of the sin, and resolution not to sin again.


Yom Kippur always fills the synagogues, especially for Yizkor, the memorial prayer which the German minhag called “Mazkir”.

If Yizkor did not exist it would need to be invented.

It lets us think of those who are no longer with us: we see them in their accustomed places, we commend them to God.

Memorial prayers have been part of Yom Kippur for centuries. Maybe it even originated in Moses’ lifetime when Caleb went to the graves of the patriarchs to seek their intercession (Sotah 34b).

According to the Midrash, in the verse “Forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed” (Deut. 21:8), “Your people” are the living, and “whom You have redeemed” are the dead.

Some ge’onim opposed these prayers, arguing that it is our own deeds, not other people’s prayers, that determine our fate, but folk feelings were sometimes stronger than rabbinical logic, and Yizkor became entrenched.

At first it was limited to Yom Kippur, probably because the Torah reading is “Acharei Mot”, “after the death (of the sons of Aaron)” (Lev. 16:1). The Roke’ach (sec. 217) finds a hint of Yizkor in the words, “to atone for your sins” (Ex. 30:15-16). It is even suggested that on Yom HaKippurim – a plural name – there is one “kippur” (atonement) for the living and one for the dead.

Yizkor was extended to three pilgrim festivals when the Torah readings about “matt’nat yad”, charitable offerings, recall the verse “Charity saves from death” (Prov. 10:2).

Some communities omit Yizkor in the first year; the Kol Bo Al Avelut quotes a source which says that omitting Yizkor is like robbing the dead.

In many places Yizkor brings an exodus from the synagogue by those with parents still living – strange, since nobody walks out when Kaddish is said. Surely those whose parents are alive should thank God and ask Him to prolong their parents’ years. Yizkor also prays for those who died as Jews and/or Israelis. How can anyone just chat outside whilst the kedoshim and gibborim are recalled?

Yizkor used to bring people out of the woodwork. On Yom Kippur it wasn’t so evident because the day was always crowded. But on the Three Festivals, telepathy must have informed people that Yizkor was imminent. People – sometimes carrying shopping bags – appeared out of the blue, standing at the back or around the sides of the synagogue.

White-jacketed doctors, dentists and nurses would take a few minutes away from their patients to come to the synagogue. Some doctors even came with stethoscopes around their necks.

In many cases it was Holocaust survivors who specially came to pray for the martyrs. But now that the years have passed and few survivors are left, the influx is smaller.

The Yizkor “remembrancers” (Isaiah 62:6-7) are mostly gone. The rest of us have to be their remembrancers, take their places, remembering on their behalf, pleading with God to sanctify their and the martyrs’ souls.

Yizkor has a broad connotation. The thought of death should make everyone a better human being. As a liturgical poem says, “Moses died: who does not die?”

Life is limited. Why continue the grudges and grievances that separate us from others, even our close relatives? Why not emerge from the shadows and look at ourselves?

Why defer increasing the world’s store of goodness for another day, when we may lack the physical, mental and emotional energy?


Our fast days are either national or personal, historical or spiritual. Which category is Yom Kippur?

It is certainly spiritual, because of its association with “kippurim” (atonements) and “innuyyim” (afflictions).

How can it also be national and historical? Because after Israel danced round the golden calf and Moses broke the tablets of the Decalogue in anger, God gave him the Yom Kippur message, “Salachti” — “I forgive!”

If we look at the afflictions of Yom Kippur, let’s ask how they make a person more spiritual.

It’s not because we believe in hurting ourselves, for example sweltering in the heat, shivering in the cold or suffering other pain (Yoma 74b). It’s not “shev v’al ta’aseh” (“sit and do nothing”) and pretending to enjoy it, but “kum aseh” (“get up and do something”).

The five “innuyyim” in Yoma 8:1 require a choice, an action or reaction.

Affliction of the soul is loss of enjoyment. The normal rule (Psalm 100:2) is, “Iv’du et HaShem b’simchah” — “Serve the Lord with joy”. But on Yom Kippur bodily joy is prohibited, particularly enjoyment that comes from eating. Fasting and affliction are linked in Deut. 8:3: “He afflicted you and made you hungry” (Yoma 74b).

There are four other “innuyyim”: washing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and marital intercourse.

Rambam says (Moreh 3:43) that they encourage repentance and self-control. Sefer HaChinuch (313, 317, 185) adds that they reduce physicality, remove barriers to prayer, and restore the pristine Creation. Samson Raphael Hirsch says they restore personal purity and social harmony.

Shlomo Riskin thinks they make Yom Kippur a happy day.

He seems to be right. Yoma 8 applies to the day the words, “Ashrecha Yisra’el” — “Happy are you, O Israel” (Deut. 33:29). One who eats on Yom Kippur says the festive “Ya’aleh V’yavo”. We use a happy tune for the “viddui”.

It seems that we can have happiness without enjoyment.

Rabbi Riskin links “innui” with “la’anot”, “to respond”. There is a view that “lechem oni” (connected with “innui”) in the Haggadah is not “bread of affliction” but “bread of song (literally ‘response’)” (Pes. 115b). The “innuyyim” are five responses or modes of spiritual celebration.

Even without earthly enjoyments we can still feel joy at gaining a glimpse of the angelic world.

We sing, we rejoice, we are lifted above ourselves. Like angels we have no physical needs. We echo the angelic chorus, “Holy, holy, holy” – “Kadosh kadosh kadosh” (Isa. 6).

If enjoyment is usually a physical experience, we can live without it.


We all have our own High Holyday customs. I have two in particular.

One is that only on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur do I daven with my tallit over my head.

I know how this originated. As a synagogue rabbi I was so busy looking at the timetable and prayer-leader lists, and watching the synagogue and the congregation, that I had inadequate time for my own davening. So I closed myself off from distractions and work on my own spiritual life, and that led me to cover my head with my tallit.

The second minhag I followed without imposing it on the congregation was standing throughout Ne’ilah (I think I should have done so throughout Yom Kippur but that’s another matter).

Standing during a synagogue service is a commitment to correct posture in the presence of God.

When it comes to Ne’ilah there are two challenges – to recall the “ne’ilat sh’-arim” – the closing of the gates of the Temple, and the closing of the gates of Heaven (Jerusalem Talmud, Ber. 4:1).

Both remind me that I have to make a supreme effort at prayer whilst the gates are still open.

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