Yom Kippur Theology and Themes
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, occurs on the 10th day of Tishrei, 10 days after Rosh Hashanah. Jewish tradition believes that on this day God places a seal upon the Divine decrees affecting each person for the coming year. In other words, decisions of life and death, peace and prosperity have all been decided and are now sealed. The Book of Life is closing on this day.
The sequence of events in the cycle of the Jewish year starts with Rosh Hashanah and continues through the next 10 days to culminate with Yom Kippur. Divine decisions are made on Rosh Hashanah, when all of humanity stands in judgment. These decrees are sealed on Yom Kippur and the intervening 8-day period, the Ten Days of Repentance, are the window of opportunity for the human dynamic to influence the Divine decrees. On Yom Kippur we make our final plea to God.
Yom Kippur is mentioned in the Torah and described as a day upon which we are to "afflict our souls." This phrase has been interpreted by the rabbis to include prohibitions against eating, drinking, bathing, wearing leather shoes and sexual cohabitation. It is one of the major fasts in Judaism, meaning it begins at sundown and continues to the following sundown. The Torah specifically connects the concept of atonement with this day and that connection has remained central.
The idea of atonement includes accepting responsibility for our actions through prayers of confession. These prayers mention both individual and communal sins and make up a large portion of the prayer services on Yom Kippur. The evening begins with the prayer of Kol Nidre, which absolves the individual of unfulfilled personal vows between the individual and God for the coming year. Its haunting melody marks the start of the fast and sets the tone for the next 24 hours.
Although Yom Kippur addresses both individual and communal sins, it is not a vehicle through which one corrects an injustice between individuals. There are two distinct relationships in Judaism: person to person and person to God. To atone for deeds committed against another person, Jewish tradition teaches, you must confront that person directly and apologize. Yom Kippur will address the impact that deed had on your relationship with God, but without the personal apology, the deed remains uncorrected. This element of the day often leads to difficult self-assessments and personal accountability for the choices made in the previous year.