Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Yom Kippur in a Nutshell

This year, Yom Kippur is from sunset of Friday, October 7, 2011, until sunset of October 8. This is the only fast that overrides Shabbat's mitzvah to make a festive meal. Normally, fasting is prohibited on Shabbat, and the fast is moved to Sunday. However, Yom Kippur is the "Shabbat of Shabbats," so its fasting requirement takes precedence. If you have a health issue with fasting, today is the time to be asking your rabbi about it, not when you have a splitting headache and pass out.

Yom Kippur is a 25 hour fast day (sunset to sunset), but there are other prohibitions that apply:
  • No washing
  • No bathing
  • No shaving
  • No applying cosmetics
  • No brushing your teeth. Eww.
  • No wearing leather shoes (tennis shoes, Crocs, and flip flops are fine, even for synagogue - check for leather soles)
  • No sexual relations
  • No work in the Shabbat sense (normally, Yom Kippur would have the more lenient restrictions of a yom tov) 
Expect to be spending a LOT of time in shul today. But since you can't eat or drink, and you can't watch movies to distract yourself from not eating or drinking, why not spend the time in shul? Thanks to some advice, I plan to spend my "afternoon break" from shul on a walk through a park or other natural area in order to take some time to appreciate the beauty of our world. Assuming I'm not ready to pass out from fasting. I also hope this will act as a natural mood elevator, since everyone tends to get at least a little grumpy when fasting.

Notes about the synagogue services:

  • The first service, Kol Nidre, begins before sundown, so you need to plan your schedule accordingly. 
  • We "beat" our chest with one fist for each sin mentioned during the prayer "Al Chet," which is repeated several times over Yom Kippur. You do not have to hit yourself any more than a tap. No physical pain required. If you hit yourself hard enough to make a sound, you're going to distract others around you. And people like me will cringe with sympathy pain if we hear it. However, if you really get into it and feel that's necessary, ignore everything I just told you. 
  • Likewise, expect to hear at least one person doing King Kong-style chest beatings.
  • After the morning Torah reading, you will hear an announcement that we are about to start "Yizkor." This is a short prayer service to honor deceased loved ones. Traditionally, only people who have lost a parent participate. Everyone else goes out into the lobby/foyer/social hall/wherever people would naturally wait. You may stay behind and participate if you wish (I have several times), but many people are deeply opposed to this on an emotional level because leaving is very traditional. Staying is also said to draw the evil eye, if you think about those kind of things. If you do stay (and especially if you are relatively young), you may be asked how your parent(s) passed away. If they are both still alive, you may end up with a very awkward conversation and maybe an angry mourner. This is a very emotional service for most people. This bullet point is especially relevant to non-orthodox Jews. For many people who come to shul "twice a year," it is to participate in the yizkor service. Emotions tend to run much higher in liberal Jewish congregations. And yes, there will be a lot of people crying.
  • Mussaf is normally short. That is not the case on Yom Kippur.
  • During Mussaf, we will prostrate ourselves on the floor. Just follow the crowd and do what they do.
  • There is an extra prayer service after mincha, called Neilah. I personally think it's very beautiful, but after 25 hours of fasting, you might not enjoy anything.

Hygiene Issues:
  • You may wash up after using the restroom. 
  • If you become soiled anywhere on your body somehow, you can rinse it off with cold water.
  • As for the morning netilat yadayim (ritual washing), the water should only be poured up to the knuckles. You may use the water on your fingertips to rub your eyes if you wish.

I wish you an easy and meaningful fast! Remember to check out Tips to Ensure an Easier Fast!


  1. I think you may have mixed up some Tisha B'Av practices with YK. Specifically, there is no issue with greetings, smiling, etc (except for the mood of the day), nor is there a reason to sit on a low stool.

    YK is not a day of mourning; it's a day of fear (or more accurately, trepidation) and spiritual elevation. In some places, the prohibitions are referred to as "afflictions", but in others (e.g., the Rambam) we're told to "rest" from eating, drinking, etc., with the implication being that on a spiritual day when we try to reach the levels of angels, we can break free from our need for certain physical requirements. [well, within reason, of course...]

  2. Love the advice, especially about King Kong chest beaters and not loving (or anything) Neilah after 25 hours of fasting. :)

    Really interesting that you stayed for Yizkor a few times; I've never done that. Maybe this is a topic for another time, but (chv"s) a convert's parent(s) die, do they attend Yizkor? I assume so, but I've never really asked anyone before.

    Gmar chatima tova!

  3. On Yizkor, I've attended Yizkor services at a Conservative synagogue (my father passed away about fourteen years ago now). I'm relatively young to have lost a parent, but no one has ever asked me about which parent died, how or for whom I was mourning. I also attended in college at services held at our campus Hillel, also without incident. So while there probably are congregations where people might be nosy about why a young person is attending Yizkor, not every congregation is like that, and it may be a non-issue.

    That said, fair warning; I attended Yizkor services during Pesach, shortly after my mikvah and beit din. I had found previous Yizkor experiences to be solemn and moving, but not overwhelmingly so. On this particular occasion, I was very emotionally shaken; visibly so. Fortunately, no one said anything (it is a memorial service, after all), but it was really weird, because I'm not usually the type to get weepy and stuff in situations like that. I have no idea why that particular time hit me so hard, but if you do go to Yizkor on behalf of someone, you may have a stronger emotional reaction than you anticipate, so be prepared (and bring tissues- because I'm an idiot, I didn't do this).

    And Katers, I asked my rabbi whether he felt it was appropriate to attend Yizkor, and he was adamant that it was. As he put it, "This is for you as much as it is for them. Your grief hasn't suddenly gone away because you converted." This was a Conservative rabbi, but I can't imagine why it would be wrong for a convert to attend Yizkor on behalf of a non-Jewish parent if the service would be meaningful and comforting to them. There are mixed opinions, from what I understand, regarding saying Kaddish on behalf of non-Jewish parents (there's general agreement that it's not prohibited, while some sources say converts aren't obligated to do so, while Rambam, I think, said that they are). Check with your rabbi, obviously, but I'd be surprised if they said one shouldn't attend. The obligation to honor one's parents remains even after the mikvah, after all.

  4. Quick correction, double checked, and Rambam doesn't hold that converts are obligated to say Kaddish for a deceased parent. Not sure why I thought that. Here is the Conservative teshuvah on mourning practices in general and Kaddish in particular as it relates to gerim and their non-Jewish family members. They cite a variety of sources, and I think it's a pretty thoughtful treatment of the issue. I'm not sure I agree with the conclusion (that converts are obligated to follow Jewish mourning rituals, especially since they follow that up by saying that depending on the circumstances, rabbis can adjust those rituals if necessary), but it seems pretty clear that converts definitely aren't prohibited from saying Kaddish, as a general practice. As always, run it by a rabbi, though G-d willing, that won't be necessary for anyone here any time soon!