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Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement: Blog by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain

Posted Fri, 09/10/2021 - 09:22 by Robert

It is strange but true that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, receives only a brief mention in the Bible (Leviticus 16.29) - yet today it is considered one of the most important Jewish festivals, certainly if measured by attendance, when many synagogues have to hold overflow services to cater for all who come.

Perhaps its pull is because, unlike many other festivals which mark historical events, Yom Kippur addresses the subject in which many people are most interested: themselves. What do I have to atone for over the last twelve months (be it to God or to other people)? What sort of person does that mean I am? Do I want to stay that way? What do I have to do to change?

The service itself is highly distinctive - not an hour or so, but all day  - and spent fasting, as a bodily sign of repentance. This is typically Jewish in matching what we say with some form of physical expression. One crucial distinction, though, is that faults against God can be atoned through the prayers, whereas you cannot pray away your sins against people: they can only be forgiven by apologising to those we hurt or making good the damage we did.

While the theory is good, it is actually very hard to do this, looking someone in the eye and admitting we have been rude or lied or cheated in some way. It is embarrassing, while there’s always the danger they may not forgive us.

However, the rewards are great: for as the rabbis point out, the word ‘atonement’ can be broken down into ‘at-onement’ and the benefit of atonement is that, when done, we end up more at one with God, with others and with ourselves.

How do we know we have truly repented and not just mouthed the words? The great medieval scholar, Moses Maimonides, was blunt enough to say we cannot know for sure...unless we are in that same situation again (e.g. with the person who annoys us, or the task that we hate doing), but this time we act differently.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain
Maidenhead Synagogue & Co-ordinator Berks CCJ