Yom Kippur begins with a unique prayer that is really a declaration known as Kol Nidrei. But before Kol Nidrei is recited, the Chazzan chants a prayer that states that both up in heaven, as well as down here on earth, everyone is invited to participate, even transgressors who may have been excluded from the synagogue throughout the year. This teaches that even one who managed to cut himself off from his spiritual life source is salvageable through the power of sincere repentance.
Then comes the thrice-repeated declaration of Kol Nidrei. This paragraph, which begins at a low volume and becomes increasingly louder with each repetition is chanted by the Chazzan and the congregation together, while a “bais din” of three people stands near the Chazzan at the front of the synagogue holding Torah scrolls. This prayer declares that any vows or promises made of our own volition are to be annulled. Various forms of oaths are enumerated, including vows, consecrations, and more. After this prayer, the men holding the Torah scrolls circle the shul and everyone kisses the Torah scrolls.
It is important to remember that the Kol Nidrei prayer only refers to those oaths that we took “al nafshana” – on ourselves. Vows, however, that were made between us and others cannot be absolved through Kol Nidrei.
When we recite the Shema on Yom Kippur, we read Baruch Shem Kivod aloud and in unison. These are words that the angels exclaim in heaven and during the year we recite them in a whisper. Yom Kippur, however, is different because it is the time when our sins are forgiven. As such we feel confident enough to recite out loud that which the angles exclaim on high.
This is the formal confession prayer that is repeated ten times throughout Yom Kippur, and once on Erev Yom Kippur at Mincha. Vidui includes:
– We recite a litany of confessions in alphabetical order, striking the chest lightly at each mention. While it does not enumerate specific sins, it is good practice to mention one’s sins at the appropriate letter. For instance, if one ate a prohibited food, he might say “achaltee davar assur” – I ate something prohibited, after reciting the word “Ashamnu”, since those words also begin with the letter Aleph. Each sin should be placed in its appropriate place.
Al Chait – This is a much more detailed confession that begs forgiveness for specific sins. When reading this confession, one should think about past wrongs committed, and repent from sins that pertain to each confession.
Note that the tenth and final Vidui that is recited during Chazaras Hashatz of Neilah includes only Ashamnu and not Al Chait. The other nine, as well as the Vidui recited on Erev Yom Kippur, include both.
TORAH READINGS OF YOM KIPPUR
For the Shachris Torah Reading we read from Parshas Acherei Mos about the commandments and details of the service in the Beis Hamikdash on Yom Kippur. This includes the throwing of the lots, the casting of the Azazel, and the entering of the Kohen Gadol into the Holy of Holies. For Maftir we read from from Parshas Pinchas about the sacrifices that are particular to this day.
For the Mincha Torah Reading we read the second part of Parshas Acherei Mos, which lists the various forbidden sexual relationships. Discipline is vital for a servant of Hashem. While repentance on Yom Kippur includes all sins, these sins are stressed here as men are subject to strong passions from time to time. This, in turn, causes men to lose their innate holiness and is particularly harmful. The Torah reading helps people to reflect on their own errors and to rectify any mistakes.
The Torah prefaces this list of sins with a paragraph that beings with the words “I am Hashem, your G-d”. The Meshech Chachmah writes that before instructing us with a list of forbidden relationships, G-d tells us that if He forbade these relationships, then we can be sure that we can control our desires because Hashem created us and He knows our limitations. No prohibition is too hard to overcome.
Hashem instructed us on how best to live. It is very unfortunate when men misuse the gift of their bodies. Conversely, one who lives a life guided by morality will have persevered his innate holiness and will be granted blessings from on high.
When the Bais HaMikdash stood, the Kohen Gadol was the messenger of the people who pleaded forgiveness for his nation. Today we are missing those grand ceremonies, and prayer takes its place. Therefore, as part of the Yom Kippur service, there is a lengthy and detailed description of the Avodah as conducted in the times of the Bais Hamikdosh. In fact, we act out some parts of the service, such as bowing.
Once during the recital of Aleinu and three times during the description of the Temple service we bow down to the floor. When we reach the point in the narrative where the Kohanim and the people in the courtyard of the Temple prostrate themselves on the floor upon hearing the glorious Name of G-d emanating from the mouth of the Kohen Gadol, we too bow down on the floor to Hashem.
Note that the Torah forbids prostrating oneself completely on a floor of stone. The Sages forbade complete prostration even on non-stone floors and even kneeling (which is partial prostration) on stone floors. Therefore, if the floor of the synagogue is made of stone one must put down something before bowing. While this doesn’t apply to non-stone floors, there are customs to put something down regardless.
The Haftorah of Mincha includes the entire book of Yonah, which teaches about the power of repentance. The classic biblical story of Teshuva is that of Sefer Yonah.
Some of the themes of this story are:
- Yonah attempts to flee from Hashem – but one cannot escape because G-d’s presence is everywhere.
- Ninveh takes responsibility for their actions, to the point of pulling apart their homes to return the stolen bricks.
- The Kikayon plant which causes Yonah great distress when it dies and stops providing shade demonstrates that G-d doesn’t want to destroy humanity, which even includes wicked people. G-d wants humankind to repent and live moral and upstanding lives.
The fifth and final prayer segment of Yom Kippur is Neilah, which means “locking” because the gates of Heaven are closing. From the onset of judgment, the Heavenly court provides open access. Man pleads his case, begs for mercy, repents and draws near. As the day ends, the window of opportunity begins to shut. Smart people grab the last moments of their appeal, and they exert themselves in sincere prayer and repentance. It is the final opportunity of the holiest day of the year. During this time, one should attempt to bring themselves to tears to arouse heavenly mercy.
After Neilah, the shofar is blown and we exclaim, “Next Year in Yerushalayim.”
When Yom Kippur is over, we make Havdalah and sit down to a meal. We are confident that we have done our part and that we attained atonement. We try also to begin right away with a Mitzvah. It is customary to recite Kiddush Levana after Maariv, and many people start building their Succah on Motzei Yom Kippur.
The verse in Tehillim states, Sur meira, vasei tov – turn from bad and do good. After getting rid of the bad in our lives, we get busy doing good. Even doing nothing is no good because it leads to bad. By getting busy doing good, we ensure that we are on the path that we eagerly prayed for on Yom Kippur.
May this year be one of only good decrees that are stamped on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur. May we all merit a clean slate that will be filled with an abundance of good deeds for this coming year and beyond.