What is Yom Kippur?
Yom Kippur occurs 10 days after Rosh Hashana. For Humanistic Jews, Yom Kippur is a time of continued reflection, a time to examine human behavior. History has taught human beings to rely on themselves for creating change in our society. Yom Kippur, for Humanistic Jews, is the culmination of our examination of our behavior begun on Rosh Hashana. It is a time to reflect on the moral quality of our values and actions.
Adapting the form of our meditations to the content of our message, Humanistic Jews make Yom Kippur a celebration of inner strength and a time of self-forgiveness.
Introspection and goal setting are traditional behaviors on the High Holidays. There are three key elements to the Humanistic and rabbinic liturgies for Yom Kippur: teshuva, tefilla, and tzedaka.
Teshuva is a Hebrew word, usually translated as “repentance,” but which actually means return. For Humanistic Jews, teshuva is the action of returning to our values and ideals, renewing our commitment to the highest standards of our ethics.
Tefilla is traditionally translated as “prayer,” but comes from a word that means self-reflection. For Humanistic Jews, tefilla directs us toward self-evaluation.
Tzedaka usually signifies “charity,” but the deeper meaning conveys what kind of human beings we wish to be: tzadikim, or people who embody the highest ideals of the Jewish people.
Teshuva, tefilla, and tzedaka – meaning a return to our ideals, self-reflection, and putting our ethics into action – are the cornerstones of the Humanistic celebration of Yom Kippur.
Kol Nidre is often sung at a Humanistic Yom Kippur evening celebration. For Humanistic Jews, as for other Jews, Kol Nidre serves as a reminder of our humanness, our fallibility, our menschlichkeit (humanity), and our connection to all peoples.
Many Humanistic Jewish communities hold a memorial service on Yom Kippur, often called a Nizkor (“we will remember”) Service. This offers each of us a time to remember our traditions and our connections to our ancestors. It reinforces the belief that it is through our actions that our loved ones and our heritage will be remembered and preserved.
Our Yom Kippur service often concludes with the sounding of the shofar one final time, as an expression of our hopes and commitment for the coming year. This occurs between the Yom Kippur service and the memorial or after the memorial service.
For a schedule of Yom Kippur services in SHJ communities, follow this link.
Family & Community Observances
One of the traditional activities of Yom Kippur is the reading of the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale or big fish after defying God. This story can teach us about the ability of individuals and communities to create change in themselves and about the importance of tzedaka. We must keep in mind that the Book of Jonah is a theistic document. Creative plays and stories, however, can be built around the original story line and be fun and interesting for children.
Yom Kippur is traditionally a fast day. Some Humanistic Jews fast, some do not. In either case, the action of fasting can certainly be used metaphorically to raise consciousness about the problem of hunger. We can use Yom Kippur to teach our children about responsibility to the hungry by collecting food for a food bank or visiting and volunteering at a food kitchen. Many local opportunities exist for such social action. While some communities may not wish to do this on Yom Kippur itself, we can use the holiday to teach about tzedaka and social action and plant the seeds for a host of charitable activities throughout the year.
Teaching children about death is not easy, and some education can be done in the Yom Kippur memorial service with children. Lighting candles for our family members or for our ancestors can be included in a young persons’ service. You can also speak with children about what we remember about our loved ones, how they touched our lives, and how they will always be part of our lives as long as we remember them.
Yom Kippur is also a good time to teach children about making and keeping promises. Encourage children to listen to and understand the Kol Nidre service, and let them participate creatively in interpreting the service by creating writings and drawings about their commitments and promises.
Themes of Humanistic Yom Kippur Observances
Again, the humanistic possibilities for this holiday are endless. The solemnity of the day and the serious nature of our observances, provide an opportunity for all of us – adults and children – to begin a year of participating in the behaviors we value. The holiday offers us the opportunity to ask forgiveness from ourselves and those we have wronged and to vow to be active, involved, caring people – mentshes – in the coming year. It is a time for remembrance, a time to look at what we carry with us from those who are gone and think about how we want to act in the coming year. Use this time to make group resolutions about the upcoming year, which can be re-examined the next year, or for children to write short paragraphs on their commitment to Humanistic Jewish values.
Among the themes our Yom Kippur observance embodies are:
- Remembering our past
- Honoring our ancestors
- Personal change
- Teshuva: return (to values, ideals)
- Tefilla: personal reflection
- Tzedaka: charity and putting values into action