Yom Kippur In the Community

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Beginning with Shaharit, the morning service, the themes of seeking forgiveness for sin and engaging in the process of teshuvah form the core of the liturgy. The Torah reading details the ancient Yom Kippur ritual in which a scapegoat would symbolically carry the people’s sins into the desert (Leviticus 16). The Haftarah, or prophetic reading, is taken from the book of Isaiah (Chapters 57 and 58), in which the prophet criticizes the religious rituals of the ancient Israelites when they are not accompanied by acts of righteousness, charity, and morality.

yom kippur prayer bookOne of the central aspects of the liturgy of Yom Kippur is called the Vidui, or “confessional.” In these prayers, the community recites a list of different transgressions it has committed, literally from A to Z.  [Since the vidui is actually in Hebrew,  the list of sins follows the Hebrew alphabet, from aleph to tav.] Since no one single person has committed all of these sins, the confessions are in the plural, in order to indicate that we as a community are collectively responsible for one another. When reciting the lists of sins, it is customary to softly beat one’s breast in a symbolic act of self-remonstration.

Two other additions to the Yom Kippur liturgy are the Martyrology and the Avodah service, both of which are found in the Musaf (“additional”) service. The Martyrology is actually a long medieval poem that describes in painfully gruesome detail the deaths of famous rabbis during ancient Roman persecutions. This poem and subsequent additions from the time of the Crusades and (in some communities) the Holocaust are intended to impress upon us the spiritual devotion of our ancestors, in addition to intensifying the religious and emotional tenor of the day. This is followed by the Avodah (“worship”) service, which describes the rituals enacted on Yom Kippur in the Jerusalem Temple in antiquity, when the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies to utter the name of God at the height of the atonement rituals. [Throughout the service, as we recount our transgressions, there is also a constant reminder in the liturgy that despite our sins, God has shown unwavering compassion and mercy towards us.] 

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