Yom Kippur. Day of Atonement. Sabbath of Sabbaths. Many of us have heard of this famous day in passing, as Jewish-American families within our community prepare for one of their most sacred holidays. But what does Yom Kippur actually signify? Why is this day different from all other days?
In many of the world’s faiths, there exists the concept of divine law, and therefore the concept of sin as described by holy scriptures. In the Abrahamic Faiths -- known as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, violation of this law is engraved into the history of humanity -- usually in the form of some original sin. In the Tanakh, the original (Hebrew) translation of the Old Testament, the origin of sin is depicted when Adam and Eve, the first humans, plucked an apple from the Tree of Knowledge and ate it, thus taking with them the knowledge of good, evil, and the ability to emulate either quality. As a result, Yahweh, or יהוה, banished Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden, jumpstarting humanity’s rocky relationship with their all-powerful overseer. While Christianity and Islam deal with the concept of sin in their own ways, Jewish people of all denominations regard Yom Kippur as the official commemoration of sin in all forms.
Over the course of its existence, the concept of “sin” has held many different meanings. In the Jewish orthodoxy, sin generally refers to a violation of a specific line of text in the Talmud, or תַלמוּד, the segment of the Tanakh that deals with civil and ceremonial law in the Jewish faith. The Talmud is, in fact, very closely related to the Book of Leviticus in the Judeo-Christian faiths, and correlates with Islamic legal practices such as those in the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and the Hadith.
Within this Talmud there exist 613 commandments, known the Law of Moses-- a stark contrast to the major ten featured in Christianity and Islam. These commandments summarize the practices of which rabbinic scholars have instructed the Jewish people to either abstain from or to hold in high regard. Examples of the positive commandments as depicted in early versions of the Talmud include engaging in regular prayer to Yahweh, as well as the practice of tzedakah, or צדקה, which refers to acts of charity and good deeds. Meanwhile, negative commandments encompass acts such as representing oneself or other beings as idols, or applying tattoos to one’s body. Of course, Jewish practices and the concept of what is or is not sinful have changed greatly over the millennia, though many rules, such as the prohibition of murder, or only eating meat from the front sections of animals with cloven hooves, such as cows or deer, have remained constants.
Every year, usually in September, Jewish people observe a period of time called the High Holy Days, or ימים נוראים, which is commenced with Rosh Hashanah at sundown on a Friday, and is ended with Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown on the following Sunday and ends at sundown the next day. During this event, Jewish people of high faith often engage in prayer, asking God for forgiveness of their sins, which in most cases range from eating foods that violate Kosher law, brief periods of selfishness, or a breach of faith, the logistics of which have been debated by rabbinic scholars for thousands of years. During Yom Kippur, however, which focuses heavily on atonement for one’s sins, Jewish people, namely those following orthodox or conservative practices, will engage in a period of fasting from sundown to sundown over the course of the Yom Kippur cycle. This time of fasting, which is less popular with Jewish families of reformed faith, is meant to exercise restraint and trust in Yahweh by refraining from eating or drinking until the final sundown of Yom Kippur. At this point, Jewish families will “break the fast,” a term which has made its way into many European, Middle Eastern, and sub-Saharan African languages and cultures. In America, Jewish families will break their fast with traditional Jewish-American staples, such as bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon, vegetable crudité, or pan-fried breads and pastries such as waffles, pancakes, and Malawach, a Yemenite flatbread that originates from the Jewish community existing in Yemen to this day. It is usually served with fried eggs and green onions, or perhaps some sort of whitefish.
To gain better insight into the culture of the King community, we interviewed Hannah Greene (she/her, Class of 2021), co-leader of the Jewish Students’ Affinity Group:
In America, we practice a variety of traditions to commemorate the end of the High Holy Days, and Hannah Greene's family is but one example. To learn more about Jewish-American culture, visit https://www.jewishheritagemonth.gov/. Thank you for reading, and Tzom Kal Laval!