Although Yom Kippur is the synagogue holiday par excellence, with five separate services spanning much of its 25 hours, customs at home help set the tone for the day. These preparations range from the symbolic and spiritual to pragmatic concerns, such as eating well before beginning a fast.
The formal liturgical confession of sins, or vidui, begins on Erev Yom Kippur, the day preceding the holiday, usually at the minchah, or afternoon service, but it can also be done at home. This admission of sins, which begins Yom Kippur’s process of repentance, is the first step in the struggle to achieve inner purity. This quest for purity is embodied both in the traditional trip to the mikvah, or ritual bath, on Erev Yom Kippur and in the wearing of white clothing during Yom Kippur itself.
Erev Yom Kippur is also the time for the symbolic enactments of personal atonement known as kapparot, or atonements. These ceremonies also create an opportunity to give tzedakah, or charity, one means offered by the tradition to “avert the severe decree” and be written in the book of life. In the oldest traditional form of kapparot, a person twirls a live chicken over his or her head three times as an atonement for sin, while reciting an ancient formula (which can be found in a traditional machzor, or High Holiday prayerbook). The chicken is then slaughtered and given to the poor as tzedakah. Although today many perform the kapparot ceremony with coins in a handkerchief that are then donated to tzedakah–while many others have eliminated this traditional altogether–a live chicken embodies the vulnerability of human beings who will be judged by God on Yom Kippur.
This sense of vulnerability is heightened by an awareness of life’s transience. There are two Yom Kippur customs that serve to remind us of the inevitability of death. The first is to light a memorial candle for parents who have died. The second is to wear a kittel, a white garment that can symbolize both purity and death, during the Yom Kippur services.
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