top of page



(Day of Atonement)

From the Archive

Bible, Sages, the modern era and Zionism.

Literary sources and diverse poetry

Festival songs set to music

For celebrating with family and community

For educators, families, students and communities

> Background

There are two main expressions for Yom Kippur: the first, a fast day to atone for the sins of the people of Israel.  During the time of the Temple, the majority of the day was spent in ceremonies conducted by the High Priest. On this day he would wear special white clothing (to differentiate from the usual golden clothing). He would send the scapegoat and enter the Holy of Holies for the only time of the year, acknowledge the sins of the people of Israel and perform a short prayer. For the people this was a day of holiday and fasting.


The second expression of Yom Kippur was the day of carrying out the good deeds of the jubilee - every fifty years the slaves were released and the fields that were sold were returned to their owners. The jubilee year, together with the Shmita (the seventh fallow year) created a mechanism of financial-social balance, which prevented the creation of large and irrevocable disparities between the rich and the poor. In the jubilee and the Shmita years the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were days of banqueting and joy, and on Yom Kippur they would blow shofars (rams’ horns) and then the slaves would be freed and the fields returned to their original owners.

> The Story

Yom Kippur is a day of atonement and forgiveness for sins. However there is no value to the request for atonement without correction of the sin, and therefore Yom Kippur is in practice a day of correction and repentance from the sin. In practice the correction is when forgiveness is requested, and therefore the customs of the festival attempt to emphasize it. In the Haftara (the readings following the Torah reading) during the morning prayers we read the words of the weighty criticism of the Prophet Isaiah in Chapter 58, which does not suffice with the custom of fasting and requires actual social correction .


In the Talmud Bavli Abaye describes how a public fast day should be such that (not specifically Yom Kippur) for the morning until the noon (of the fast) we study matters of the town, and thereafter for quarter of the day we read from the Torah and the Prophets, and thereafter we request mercy (“Taanit, Page 12 72) and Rashi in his commentary to Studies in the Matter of the Town “Request and investigation is required to check their deeds, in the affairs of the people of the town, if there was robbery and exploitation between them, and they make peace “That is to say that part of the fast day is dedicated to examining the social situation in the community and the methods of correction, and not only personal suffering and self-criticism. It should be noted that the spirit of the statements is very close to the words of the Prophet Isaiah which are read in the Haftara on Yom Kippur.


During the afternoon prayers, after reading from the Torah on the Laws of Incest, we read from the Book of Jonah in which the Prophet warns the people of Nineveh to cease their robbery and exploitation.  Here too the emphasis is on the correction of moral behaviour in society.

> In Zionism

The first Zionists who arrived in Israel and built the renewed settlement, did not renew the identity of Yom Kippur but as they built the tools for the Jewish sovereign community, they were occupied greatly - and thereafter with the concept of the jubilee, - with methods to ensure the establishment of a mechanism for financial-social balance in practice,  whereby a central part of it was the regime of national lands, which was administered by means of the JNF. Its hero B. Z. Herzl in his novel “Tel Aviv” (Altneuland) describes as follows: “The jubilee year - David replied - is not a new correction, but rather an old correction which was established by Moses our father. After seven shmita years, and each Shmita is seven years long, the assets sold in the fiftieth year were returned to the first owners. We changed the ancient rule slightly. Between us we will return the assets to the new society. Moses our father already placed himself the objective of preventing the collection of property unequally. You will see that our method also hits the mark of this assumption and does not miss it. And the cost of the lands will not go into the pockets of individuals but rather to the public purse. “Zvi Shatz, one of the pioneers of the second wave of Aliyah (immigration) wrote: After two thousand years we are again standing on the land, and our first concern is that the land shall be ours and not for those who come here for business and exploitation”.


And indeed throughout the years the national lands were administered as such that their sale to individuals in perpetuity was forbidden and the leasing contracts for them were signed for 49 years at the end of which, in the fiftieth year, they were returned to the nation.

> And Today

The concepts of Yom Kippur are still maintained for the most part also amongst the secular public in Israel. Traffic on the roads stops almost completely. Many fast during the day and some visit the synagogues to hear the Kol Nidrei prayer, the concluding prayers, and the blowing of the shofar. There are also those who dedicate the day to their own self-criticism.


On Yom Kippur 5734 (1973) at 2 pm the Yom Kippur War broke out. The armies of Syria and Egypt attacked Israel from the north and the south. For many Israelis Yom Kippur has also become a remembrance day for that war and thousands of those who fell. The character of the festival connects with remorse, the arrogance and non-readiness of Israel for this harsh war.


Unfortunately, it seems that alongside the popularity of the concept of ceremony, the concept of fundamental correction of the festival and in particular in the community-public field does not find its place on Yon Kippur, even when social justice mechanisms alike the regime of the lands or others change their nature and become privatized. There is definitely a place for the weighty call of the Prophet Isaiah not to suffice with the ceremonies of the festival but rather to demand substantial change to the reality in preparation for the establishment of an equal, just and moral society.

bottom of page