Erev Yom Kippur

Numerous preparatory customs and practices are associated with the day preceding Yom Kippur.

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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.

Seudah ha-mafseket

Mikvah

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.

Blessing Children

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.

White Clothing

The manner of dress is important for entering the holiday, as it connects our outward appearance with the proper frame of mind. Therefore, dressing ourselves (and our tables, even though we do not eat or drink until after Yom Kippur) in nice, white apparel is a prominent custom. This sort of dress applies to both men and women. A man who owns a kitel, which is the Yiddish word for a long white gown or robe worn traditionally for special days and as his shroud is encouraged to wear it.

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Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Paul Steinberg is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California and is the Head of the Etz Chaim Hebrew School. He previously served as the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at Levine Academy: A Solomon Schechter School in Dallas, Texas.