Guidelines for the holiest day of the Jewish year – the Day of Atonement.
Following the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses pleaded with G-d to forgive the people. Finally on Yom Kippur, atonement was achieved and Moses brought the second set of Tablets down from Mount Sinai.
From that day forward, every Yom Kippur carries with it a special power to cleanse our mistakes (both individually and collectively) and to wipe the slate clean.
This works on two conditions:
(1) We do a process called teshuva – literally “return.” Teshuva involves four steps:
- Regret – acknowledging that a mistake was made, and feeling regret at having squandered some of our potential.
- Cessation – Talk is cheap, but stopping the harmful action shows a true commitment to change.
- Confession – To make it more “real,” we admit our mistake verbally, and ask forgiveness from anyone we may have harmed.
- Resolution – We make a firm commitment not to repeat the harmful action in the future.
(2) Though the combination of teshuva and Yom Kippur atones for transgressions against G-d, it does not automatically erase wrongs committed against other people. It is therefore the universal Jewish custom – some time before Yom Kippur – to apologize and seek forgiveness from any friend, relative, or acquaintance whom we may have harmed or insulted over the past year.
Angel for a Day
On Yom Kippur, every Jew becomes like an angel. In the Jewish understanding, angels are completely spiritual beings, whose sole focus is to serve their Creator. The Maharal of Prague explains:
All the mitzvot that G-d commanded us on [Yom Kippur] are designed to remove, as much as possible, a person’s relationship to physicality, until he is completely like an angel.
Just as angels (so to speak) stand upright, so too we spend most of Yom Kippur standing in the synagogue. And just as angels (so to speak) wear white, so too we are accustomed to wear white on Yom Kippur. Just as angels do not eat or drink, so too we do not eat or drink.
This idea even has a practical application in Jewish law: typically, the second verse of the Shema, Baruch Shem, is recited quietly. But on Yom Kippur, it is proclaimed out loud – just like the angels do.
There are five areas of physical involvement from which we refrain on Yom Kippur:
- Eating and drinking
- Applying oils or lotions to the skin
- Marital relations
- Wearing leather shoes
Throughout the year, many people spend their days focusing on food, work, material possessions (symbolized by shoes) and superficial pleasures (symbolized by anointing). On Yom Kippur, we restore our priorities to what really counts in life.
As Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler writes:
On Yom Kippur, the power of the [physical] inclination is muted. Therefore, one’s yearning for spiritual elevation reasserts itself, after having lain dormant as a result of sin’s deadening effect on the soul. This rejuvenation of purpose entitles a person to special consideration and forgiveness.