...In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work ... For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the L-RD. -Leviticus 16:29-30
Yom Kippur. It means "Days of Atonement." It is the time where we atone for the sins of the past year. The past 10 days, from Rosh Hashana until tonight when Yom Kippur begins, are called the Days of Awe. The ongoing theme of the Days of Awe is that G-d has "books" that he writes in...who will live, who will die, who will have a good life, who will have a bad life for the next year. The books are written on Rosh Hashanah but our actions during the Days of Awe can alter G-d's decree. The actions that can change this are repentance, prayer and good deeds. The books are sealed on Yom Kippur. As such, the common greeting for this solemn holiday is "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year."
One custom associated with this holiday is to reconcile your wrongs from the last year. This is hard work. This involves initiating reconciliation with the person you wronged and righting the wrongs your committed when possible. Making amends is hard sometimes, especially when one evaluates an entire year's worth of potential mistakes. In Judaism, one must ask forgiveness not from G-d for sins against man, but the person one sinned against. Of course, one must also ask forgiveness from G-d for sins committed against G-d. For some reason, that is less confrontational than actually going to a person and saying, "Hey. Three months ago I hurt your feelings and I never apologized. That was wrong of me and I am sorry."
The other thing about Yom Kippur is the fast. We fast for 25 hours starting at sundown tonight. I am exempt from the fast because I am breastfeeding so mine will be modified. Last year, as you may recall, I was pregnant and spend Yom Kippur vomiting in the Bride's room. It is a long holiday, meaning all morning and all afternoon is spent in synagogue and then there is a short break before we are back again until nightfall and the fast is over. People also often wear a kittel (white robe).
The most powerful part of Yom Kippur for me is the community confession of sins. All sins are professed in the plural, emphasizing the communities responsibility for sin. There are two group confessions that are said and while saying, together, out loud, and in Hebrew, we take our right hand and lightly strike out chest (by the shoulder).
The short version (Ashamnu)...we have been guilty, we have betrayed, we have stolen, we have spoken falsely, we have caused others to sin, we have caused others to do evil, we have had evil hearts, we have become violent, we have attached lies, we have advised evil. we have lied, we have scoffed, we have rebelled, we have been scornful, we have been disobedient, we have been perverse, we have transgressed, we have persecuted, we have been stiff-necked, we have been lawless, we have corrupted, we have committed abominations, we have gone astray, we have been led astray and we have been turned away from Your mitzvot (commandments).
The long version (al chet)...just a few...for the sin we have committed before You by hard-heartedness, for the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips, for the sin we have committed before You openly or secretly, for the sin we have committed before you through speech, for the sin we have committed before you for the sin of passing judgement, etc.Every potential sin against G-d and man is covered, and the ritual is solemn, powerful and changing. It can almost bring one to tears. Eight hundred Jews, standing together, beating their breast and chanting all the wrong we have committed together is an overwhelming experience.
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year!