Yom Kippur 101

On Tuesday night, Oct. 8, at sundown, Jews from all over the world will be fasting, praying and hoping. This is the most solemn of all the Jewish Holy Days, Yom Kippur, “The Day of Atonement.” This is an intense time for reflection over the year passed and renewal for the year to come. We fast for 25 hours, and are encouraged to donate the equivalent of any food our family would have consumed to charity. It is a solemn time, filled with communal confessionals and intense personal work.

There are three major things we hope to achieve on Yom Kippur: The first is “T’shuvah,” returning, where we hope to overcome our shortcomings and return to a better path. Doing T’shuvah means that when given the opportunity to make the same mistake again, you will choose not to. The Jewish word for sin, is “chet,” an archery term, which means “to miss the mark.” When we make these mistakes, when our arrows are not quite true, we are given the chance again to hit the bullseye.  Our target is to do better and to be better.

“T’fillah,” or prayer, is the way we are grateful and humble before God.  There are no longer sacrifices brought to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, our most holy place and the center of Jewish life in the first century and beyond. We brought the finest grains, the choicest goats or the rarest spices to show our gratefulness to God. Rabbis and sages in the centuries after the second destruction of the temple created prayer to show our connection to our creator. Many of these prayers come directly from the Torah, (or “Law”), known as the Five Books of Moses.  The melodies for some of the prayers we will sing on Yom Kippur are as ancient as centuries ago and as modern as the year 2019.

“Tzedakah,” or righteous giving, is also translated as charity. The word “mitzvah” comes from this very same root and means “commandment.” Thus, a boy who becomes Bar Mitzvah or a girl who becomes Bat Mitzvah is a son or daughter of the commandments, and is responsible from the age of 13 for their own moral choices.  During these Days of Awe, we recommit ourselves to the concept of Tikun Olam, or repair of the world, through righteous and charitable deeds: taking care of our world, our communities, our families and ourselves. 

As we prepare for the communally and personally intense work to move beyond the mistakes of the last year, we ask those we may have hurt for their forgiveness. We grant forgiveness to others. And when those difficult conversations have been had, only then can we ask God for forgiveness for ways in which we may have fallen short. We strive to atone—to be “at one”—with each other and our creator. In Judaism you are responsible for your own transgressions and we are all responsible for each other.

G’mar hatimah tovah! May you be inscribed for a good year!


Rabbi Cantor Robbi Sherwin is spiritual leader of the Wood River Jewish Community.

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