Rituals of Yom Kippur

RABBI IRWIN KULA (National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership): The central ritual on Yom Kippur, besides prayer itself, that’s most well-known, is fasting. What fasting does is it says I’m not going to concentrate on my physical body right now. I’m going to concentrate on a different kind of food. Rather than nutrients for my body, I’m going to concentrate on the nutrients for my spirit, and my heart, and my ethical way.

So when you feel hungry at two o’clock in the afternoon, the feeling of hunger is not so that you’ll be in pain. The feeling of hunger is to stimulate two things: What am I really hungry for—because it’s more than just food. What am I really hungry for in my spiritual and ethical life? And who really is hungry that I need to feed? And if you take those two insights from the practice seriously, it’s working. That’s what atonement—that is what “at-one-ment” means.

Kol Nidre is the first prayer of the Yom Kippur service. What we do on Kol Nidre is the confrontation and the challenge of having to look at every promise and obligation and commitment that I have in my life and starting by saying okay, fine. You have none of them. You have no obligations, no promises. Kol Nidre—all the promises are null and void. Okay, now what? It’s very frightening to imagine that we have no obligations, because it is our obligations, our promises that define who we are.

The rest of Yom Kippur, in a sense, is taking back the obligations, reassessing them. Okay, I am married—do I want to be married? What does it mean to have that obligation? Hey, I am a father—what are the obligations that come with being a father that may have gotten distorted in between last Yom Kippur and this Yom Kippur? What are my obligations to my work and my craft and my calling? What are my obligations, what are the promises that I’ve made to myself? So Kol Nidre is a very profound method and technology for stripping us of all promises and obligations that may distort us, so that we stand there naked, just us, with the ability to take back promises, take back obligations over the next 25 hours.

The focus of the High Holiday period is not on death. The focus is on life. It turns out that one of the great ways to focus ourselves on life is to think about death. That just turns out to be the paradox. So if on Yom Kippur we fast, if on Yom Kippur we deny ourselves certain bodily pleasures and engage in a kind of deep introspection on the moral, psychological, and spiritual level, well, it turns out we will become better people. I mean, that’s just what happens. But, again, there are no guarantees. You can go through everything on Yom Kippur and go through the motions, and on the other hand you can sit in Yom Kippur and never use a prayer book but just really think about who you are and it can make a difference in your life.