Jews prepare to mark the Day of Atonement

Ritual: Yom Kippur, the holiest day, begins Sunday at sundown and lasts 25 hours.

October 03, 2003|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Just hours before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, Michael Hornum will immerse in a mikvah, or ritual bath. He will later don a white cotton robe called a kittel over his Sabbath clothing to wear during services at the Lubavitch Center for Jewish Education in Columbia.

While the mikvah spiritually cleanses the body from sin, Hornum said, the kittel represents a quest for spiritual purity. It also symbolizes the burial shroud, a stark reminder that life and death are in God's hands and decided on this day.

"I see [the rituals] as part of teshuva, repentance for my sins through the year, but also returning to God, returning to a level where your soul is one with God," said Hornum, a Columbia archaeologist.

Many traditions are observed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews seek forgiveness for their misdeeds and pray for a good year. This year, Yom Kippur begins Sunday at sundown and ends Monday after nightfall. The 25-hour holiday marks the culmination of a 10-day period of teshuva that began on Rosh Hashana.

"Teshuva is returning to our essence, which is goodness," said Rabbi Hillel Baron of the Lubavitch Center. "Our soul is part of God. It may get concealed from us and lead us to actions that are not godly. But, ultimately, if we return to our essence, then we are godly, we are spiritual."

Contrary to Jewish humor, Judaism is not a guilt-ridden religion, said Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Synagogue in Columbia. "We believe in focusing on what we did wrong and then making the changes necessary to repair relationships," she said.

According to the integral High Holiday prayer Unesaneh Tokef, negative divine decrees can be overturned through teshuva, tefilah (prayer) and tzedakah (charity).

But Baron said the accurate translation of tefilah is attachment to God. "Prayer is a vehicle to attach yourself to God, not to ask for things," he said. "Once we reach that closeness, we understand that what we need - health, livelihood - is for facilitating our service to God. So we are not asking for ourselves but to better serve God."

Tzedakah, Baron said, should be translated as righteousness. "God gives us resources to help people," Baron said. "It's not for you. That's why God gives you more than you need."

In many synagogues, congregants recite viduy, a communal confession of transgressions five times quietly and four times aloud throughout the service. "According to Maimonides, we have to acknowledge our failings out loud," Grossman said, referring to the medieval Jewish philosopher. "The verbal confession is an important process to transforming our lives. The confessions are written in plural because we are responsible for each other."

It is also customary to refrain from eating, drinking, engaging in marital relations and wearing leather shoes. "This is to afflict ourselves and to show we have self-control over our desires," Grossman said.

The goal of the afflictions, Baron said, is to ascend to the level of angels, who don't partake in physical pleasures.

The holiday concludes with the blowing of the shofar, or ram's horn. The sound is one long tekiah, a shofar blast, rather than the mix of blasts sounded on Rosh Hashana such as the short, broken sounds of teruah.

After Yom Kippur, Jews prepare for Sukkot, the festival commemorating the exodus from Egypt when the ancient Israelites lived in huts in the desert. This year, the weeklong holiday begins at sundown Oct. 10.

Many Jews erect a sukkah, or temporary hut, where they greet guests and eat. They also purchase a lulav, or palm, and esrog, or citron, that they bless daily. "Sukkot represents bringing back holiness to Earth," Baron said.

During his Yom Kippur sermon, Rabbi Mark Panoff will offer reflections on his 30th year in the rabbinate and 18th year at Temple Isaiah in Columbia. "My term as a rabbi has been a time of tremendous transformation of Judaism," Panoff said.

That includes the changing role of women in the Reform movement and demographics that reveal a shrinking Jewish population. "We need to be more proactive and increase the numbers," Panoff said.

While women have taken on leadership positions and contributed to strengthening Reform Judaism, Panoff said, the role of men in the Jewish family has decreased. "It's a call for dads to rededicate themselves to their Jewish families," he said.

The rabbi will also address a renaissance in Judaism. "People thought Judaism was on the wane," Panoff said. "I see a renewal."

"We feel confident; we are not trying to hide our Jewish identity," he said. "And we are sharing it with everybody else in America. It shows a resilience. More kids are enrolled in day schools and Hebrew school and Jewish camps. It's a powerful message for the new year."

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