Tomorrow evening at sundown is the beginning of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews, which lasts until sunset on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Approximately 275 people will gather at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center for Yom Kippur services that start at 9:30 Saturday morning and end at 7:30 in the evening. It’s a day of fasting, leather is not worn, and clothing is predominantly white.
“Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, is the culmination of a process that starts 40 days beforehand, on the first day of the Jewish month of Elul,” said Rabbi Caryn Broitman, the spiritual leader of the Hebrew Center, earlier this week.
Elul leads up to the high holy days, which start with Rosh Hashanah and end ten days later with Yom Kippur. These ten days are a time of spiritual preparation for Yom Kippur, a time for practicing Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah.
“Teshuvah is roughly translated as repentance but literally means ‘return,'” said Rabbi Broitman, “It’s a return to one’s values, the truest part of oneself. Tefilah means prayer, and Tzedakah means giving money to the poor and to causes that work for justice.”
On Yom Kippur, atonement is sought both personally and as a congregation. “People talk to family, friends, and colleagues with whom there may have been tensions over the past year that have been hurtful, and ask forgiveness and give forgiveness,” Rabbi Broitman said. “That’s just done on your own. In synagogue we pray together: The ritual confession is done in the plural.”
For some Jews, the day of atonement can be a somber reflection, looking back over the past year and taking stock. Others speak of cleaning out one’s personal closet, which can feel liberating.
Still others see the day of atonement in more global terms. “The notion of us taking stock of who we are and dealing with it and making amends is a universal notion that we all should spend some time doing,” said Alan Ganapol of West Tisbury, the current president of the Hebrew Center. “If nothing else, it improves the way we handle the day-to-day, and at the same time it enhances our relationships with others. Because part of the holiday is that, if you’ve wronged somebody through the past year, to ask that person for forgiveness. To clear the waters and deal with moving past that and carrying on life with one less burden. Taking stock is a wonderful notion, it seems to me.”
The idea of atoning for one’s sins is common across both cultures and religions around the world. “The origins of atoning for sins are biblical, and the narrative that talks about this day can be found in Leviticus 16, which is traditionally read in synagogue on Yom Kippur in the morning,” Mr. Ganapol said. “That is the source text for atoning of sins for both Christians and Jews, and other traditions.”
“In our tradition, it’s through prayer and face-to-face asking for forgiveness. In the text that we will read on Yom Kippur, it’s a communal notion. We’re doing if for ourselves as well as everybody in the community — and in the world. I like to think that it’s a universal comment: ‘Hey, we need to get this stuff over with and let’s move on. Do it the right way.'”
Diana Fried of Chilmark, a former president of the Hebrew Center, emphasizes the personal when she considers atonement. “For me, it’s a time to review the past year, to figure out what I could have done better, and to make some goals for the following year, to see how I can do things better, and how I can be creative in the new year,” she said. “It’s also a time when I try to seek forgiveness from those people that I think I’ve hurt during the year, because I don’t think I can go with a clean slate until I at least do that.”
Ms. Fried also noted a distinction between other traditions in the way atonement is sought. “I think the difference for me and I think maybe the difference in Judaism is that you really have to ask the person for forgiveness.”
Seeking atonement, whether personal or communal, is a serious, challenging, endeavor, and who could blame those who apply themselves to it fully for welcoming the blast from the shofar, the traditional horn, that signals the end of Yom Kippur at sundown on Saturday. Then it’s time for observant Jews to break fast, literally, with a light meal together before leaving the synagogue and heading home and into the new year.