Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most intense, heart-wrenching and ultimately joyful day of the Jewish year. It will begin at sundown tonight—Sept. 25, and continue until nightfall Wednesday.
Yom Kippur is all about teshuvah, which means repentance or return. It is the process of coming back to the best in ourselves and restoring those relationships most in need of healing. Through confessional prayer, spiritual introspection and, most importantly, reaching out directly to the people we have hurt, we confront our mistakes and strive to set things right.
All day long, Jews engage in a complete fast—abstaining from eating, drinking, bathing, wearing leather, putting on cosmetics and from sexual activity. By fasting in this way we imitate the angels, symbolically lifting ourselves out of the physical realm and refocusing entirely on the state of our souls.
Yom Kippur begins immediately at sundown, with the solemn, haunting chanting of Kol Nidre. This ancient legal formula acknowledges our human frailty, recognizing from the outset that we will probably not be able to achieve all the worthy resolutions that we will set for ourselves over the next 24 hours. Yet despite our limitations, it is still incumbent upon us to try and believe that with enough effort we can transform our lives.
Over the course of the holiday, Jews spend most of their waking hours in prayer services, joining with the community in confessing sins and seeking forgiveness. Scripture is read, including selections from Leviticus, Isaiah and the Book of Jonah. The mood grows more and more fervent over the course of the day, culminating with the Neilah service, which marks the crashing shut of the heavenly gates. It is both exhausting and exhilarating.
Despite the difficulty of fasting and the long hours in synagogue, our Sages teach that Yom Kippur is one of the most joyful days of the year. It is an annual opportunity to begin again, to believe that we can heal what has been broken and transform our lives for the better.
Editor's note: A version of this article first appeared on Culver City Patch in 2011.