Yom Kippur: Turning Towards the Good

For fans of the movie “The Jazz Singer,” the haunting strains of “Kol Nidre” are indelibly linked to an emotional climax of the movie. 

The filmmakers could not possibly have made a more evocative and emotional choice of music. For Jews across the world, the plaintive melody of Kol Nidre marks the beginning of 26 hours of the year’s most intense period of contemplation, repentance, and renewal. 

Kol Nidre is recited at the beginning of Yom Kippur, one of the most profound and widely observed holidays on the Jewish calendar.  Yom means 'day' in Hebrew and Kippur comes from a root that means 'to atone,' so Yom Kippur is usually expressed in English as the "Day of Atonement." And since Biblical times, this day has been set aside as a day to atone for the sins of the past year. 

In Leonard Cohen’s song “Who by Fire,” the lyrics ask:

And who by fire, who by water
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial

These lyrics mirror the imagery of the period in the Jewish calendar that commences with Rosh Hashanah and ends with Yom Kippur. These days are referred to as the High Holy Days, or the Yamim Nora’im – the Days of Awe. 

During this period, it is said that our fates are decided for the coming year. The liturgy tells us that on Rosh Hashanah, our fates are written in the Book of Life, which closes and is sealed at the close of Yom Kippur.  Yom Kippur, then, is our last chance to change the outcome of our fate, by turning away from the sins of the past year and towards renewal and the chance to do better in the coming year. 

How then, to avert a serious decree?  What does repentance look like?

Repentance in Judaism is called teshuva – which literally means “turning” or “returning.” The process of returning to our best selves requires honest regret for our misdeeds, a commitment to do better, and public confession of our wrongdoings. That is why the evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of our guilt.

Yom Kippur observance is most famously marked by complete abstinence from food and water for 26 hours. This restriction is, of course, lifted where there is a threat to life or a person’s health.  In fact, rabbis may prohibit someone from fasting in a situation where it could cause harm, while children below the age of nine are also not allowed to fast. 

In addition, many observant Jews add additional traditions, such as not wearing leather or cosmetics, and wearing white, which symbolizes purity. The goal of all these strictures is to bring the corporeal body closer to that of the angels.  We forgo worldly pleasures and routines, offering complete focus on the task of repentance at hand. 

Yom Kippur tends to be the holiday that Jews take the most seriously; most Jews attend synagogue for most of the day, and refrain from work – sometimes with historic consequences. 

Synagogue in Mattapan, from the Spencer Grant Collection

In 1965, Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax refused to pitch Game 1 of the World Series, as it fell on Yom Kippur.  Nearly three decades earlier, Hall of Fame first baseman Hank Greenberg attracted national attention when, in 1934, he refused to play baseball on Yom Kippur, even though the Tigers were in the middle of a pennant race and he was leading the league in RBIs.

Hank Greenberg at Fenway Park (not Yom Kippur)

More recently, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Shawn Green broke his 415-game streak to honor Yom Kippur, and even closer to home, the Red Sox’ third baseman Kevin Youkilis sat out a game on Yom Kippur. 

Regardless of whether we are famous sports stars or regular people, the lesson of Yom Kippur applies equally: we all have the capacity to to learn from our mistakes, to acknowledge them, and, in the end, to do better.  It's whether we make the choice that makes the difference.  

Even though kids can’t fast, they can certainly learn more about the holiday:


For a less, shall we say, orthodox look at being Jewish, try Mattheu Roth’s Yom Kippur a Go-Go:


Or explore ancient poetry of the day:


And watch the Jazz Singer at:

The Jazz Singer