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Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year (Jewish Publication Society).
Erev Yom Kippur includes two other unusual features that are an important part of the transition into the harsh self-assessment of Yom Kippur. The first is the daily afternoon prayer service, Minhah, which, on this day, includes a special confessional, Vidui. During the Vidui we beat ourselves on the chest for each transgression listed. This action serves as a symbolic punishment for our hearts, which are ultimately responsible for leading us to sins of greed, lust, and anger.
The Meal Before
The tradition emphasizes, however, that one must say the confessional prior to eating the meal that precedes the Yom Kippur fast, a meal known as seudah ha-mafseket (literally, “the meal that interrupts”). After all, as the Talmud says, one may not feel up to confessing after eating a large meal. Or, God forbid, if a person dies at the meal, they will have died without having made the confession and their divine judgment may be less favorable.
That being said, the meal after the Vidui should be large and festive, creating a painful distinction between the satisfaction of a full belly and the longing for food experienced during the fast, while, at the same time, helping us to complete the entire fast.
Before leaving for the synagogue and the Yom Kippur evening services, people partake in other customs that underscore an important Jewish principle: what is sacred extends from the core of the individual, to family and loved ones. Some people make a point of immersing themselves in the mikvah (ritual bath), a long-standing purifying ritual for not only women, but also men. Going to the mikvah is associated with spiritual transformation (for example, it is used before marriage and before conversion to Judaism) and therefore is a fitting custom to follow as we enter the holiest of holy days.
In another custom, parents say a special blessing over their children. To the words of the prayer that is recited on the eve of every Shabbat, they add wishes for their children’s welfare in the year to come. It is customary to express hope that they and their children may live upstanding lives, dedicated to acts of lovingkindness, charity, and study.
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