The Jewish calendar abounds with auspicious times for different things. Atonement is one of man’s greatest spiritual endeavors, but it is especially favorable on Yom Kippur day. Throughout the year we can be forgiven for sins if we repent with a sincere heart, but on Yom Kippur the gates of repentance are flung wide open and Hashem eagerly awaits to forgive us, if only we take the initiative.
When the Temple stood, Yom Kippur was a particularly special day that included many unique practices, as recorded at length in Vayikra. These activities brought down atonement from on high, but today we are left without the aid of a Temple. Rambam stresses that nowadays there is nothing other than repentance, however, the day of Yom Kippur also provides forgiveness. This is based on the verse, “…for on this day He will atone for you to purify you all, from all your sins before Hashem you shall be purified.” We learn that it is the day that provides attornment. Still, that additional injection of atonement requires a repentant heart. If Yom Kippur is utilized for introspection and repentance, the result of that soul-searching, combined with the cleansing agent of Yom Kippur, will produce an exceptionally clean slate.
The previously mentioned verse teaches another important element of repentance. Note the words from all your sins before Hashem. Sins that are before Hashem are those that are between man and G-d. These are cleansed through repentance and the day of Yom Kippur. However, sins between man and man require something else. First, the offended party must forgive, then the sinner can expect attornment from on high.
In Jewish history, Yom Kippur was the day when G-d announced to Moshe Salachtei – I forgive you. Moshe had ascended the mountain and pleaded for the Jewish nation for forty days because of the sin of the Golden Calf. On Yom Kippur the Jewish nation received forgiveness then, and on Yom Kippur they receive forgiveness anew every single year.
Yom Kippur is designated for forgiveness, and is the climax of the Ten Days of Repentance. It is cause for confident joy in G-d’s mercy and forgiveness, but it also requires reflective preparation. The books will be sealed on Yom Kippur, and our destiny confirmed. If we ready ourselves properly, we can rest assured that Hashem will be there by our side. Traditionally, there are many activities that we engage in during the days leading up to Yom Kippur. Selichos are recited throughout the Aseres Yemei Teshuva, and charity is distributed to the poor.
In general, it is important to add good deeds between the days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In heaven, everyone’s good and bad deeds are weighed, determining which book they will be inscribed in. All mitzvos, but particularly repentance, prayer, and charity, have the potential to tip the scales.
Five inuyim, or afflictions, are enforced on Yom Kippur.
We may not:
Aside from the prohibitions that are unique to Yom Kippur, we may not work or do any actions that are prohibited on Shabbos. Yom Kippur is unlike other holidays where cooking and carrying is permitted. Thus, one must make sure that their Yom Kippur Machzor is in shul before the start of Yom Kippur if there is no eruv between their house and the shul.
Yom Kippur is the only fast that is biblically mandated. Due to its severity, only the most urgent circumstances allow for its violation. A competent halachic authority should be consulted in all such matters. The other four injunctions are rabbinic.
Unlike Tisha B’av, these restrictions are not due to mournful national experiences. In fact, Yom Kippur has historically been one of the happiest days of the year due to the atonement it provides. Rather, the inuyim, or afflictions, are prohibitions that keep us in the right frame of mind. They allow us to repent most effectively so that we can receive complete forgiveness from on high.
Yom Kippur centers around atonement, and as such, we spend a lot of time praying for repentance, as well as listing off the actual sins that we performed. In the Alcoholics Anonymous program, the first step toward recovery is admission. If a person won’t admit to the fact that they have an addictive problem, they can’t possibly be helped. No matter what actions are taken, the individual will remain in denial. The same is true of Teshuva (repentance). The first step toward atonement is admission. We must own up to our problems, and to the fact that we messed up. Once we make that declaration and enumerate our sins, the next step is resolve. We need to commit to not repeating the offense. Once that is complete, we can expect atonement.
Yom Kippur and repentance are cleansing agents that wipe our slates clean – but this only applies to sins that are between man and G-d. Yom Kippur does not erase sins between man and man so long as that person does not receive forgiveness. Therefore, it is very important to ask “mechila” forgiveness from people who we wronged during the Ten Days of Repentance.
It is a very good idea to forgive others for their sins, even if they do not ask us for forgiveness. In fact, Tefillah Zakkah, which is a prayer that is customarily recited before Kol Nidrei includes a paragraph that states that one forgives others. One who finds it within themselves to forgive and forget can expect forgiveness from on high, while one who holds onto feelings of resentment and hate is less likely to receive forgiveness.
Yom Kippur begins with a unique prayer that is really a declaration known as Kol Nidrei. But before Kol Nidrei is recited, the Chazzan chants a prayer that states that both up in heaven, as well as down here on earth, everyone is invited to participate, even transgressors who may have been excluded from the synagogue throughout the year. This teaches that even one who managed to cut himself off from his spiritual life source is salvageable through the power of sincere repentance.
Then comes the thrice-repeated declaration of Kol Nidrei. This paragraph, which begins at a low volume and becomes increasingly louder with each repetition is chanted by the Chazzan and the congregation together, while a “bais din” of three people stands near the Chazzan at the front of the synagogue holding Torah scrolls. This prayer declares that any vows or promises made of our own volition are to be annulled. Various forms of oaths are enumerated, including vows, consecrations, and more. After this prayer, the men holding the Torah scrolls circle the shul and everyone kisses the Torah scrolls.
It is important to remember that the Kol Nidrei prayer only refers to those oaths that we took “al nafshana” – on ourselves. Vows, however, that were made between us and others cannot be absolved through Kol Nidrei.
When we recite the Shema on Yom Kippur, we read Baruch Shem Kivod aloud and in unison. These are words that the angels exclaim in heaven and during the year we recite them in a whisper. Yom Kippur, however, is different because it is the time when our sins are forgiven. As such we feel confident enough to recite out loud that which the angles exclaim on high.
This is the formal confession prayer that is repeated ten times throughout Yom Kippur, and once on Erev Yom Kippur at Mincha. Vidui includes:
Ashamnu: – We recite a litany of confessions in alphabetical order, striking the chest lightly at each mention. While it does not enumerate specific sins, it is good practice to mention one’s sins at the appropriate letter. For instance, if one ate a prohibited food, he might say “achaltee davar assur” – I ate something prohibited, after reciting the word “Ashamnu”, since those words also begin with the letter Aleph. Each sin should be placed in its appropriate place.
Al Chait – This is a much more detailed confession that begs forgiveness for specific sins. When reading this confession, one should think about past wrongs committed, and repent from sins that pertain to each confession.
Note that the tenth and final Vidui that is recited during Chazaras Hashatz of Neilah includes only Ashamnu and not Al Chait. The other nine, as well as the Vidui recited on Erev Yom Kippur, include both.
For the Shachris Torah Reading we read from Parshas Acherei Mos about the commandments and details of the service in the Beis Hamikdash on Yom Kippur. This includes the throwing of the lots, the casting of the Azazel, and the entering of the Kohen Gadol into the Holy of Holies. For Maftir we read from from Parshas Pinchas about the sacrifices that are particular to this day.
For the Mincha Torah Reading we read the second part of Parshas Acherei Mos, which lists the various forbidden sexual relationships. Discipline is vital for a servant of Hashem. While repentance on Yom Kippur includes all sins, these sins are stressed here as men are subject to strong passions from time to time. This, in turn, causes men to lose their innate holiness and is particularly harmful. The Torah reading helps people to reflect on their own errors and to rectify any mistakes.
The Torah prefaces this list of sins with a paragraph that beings with the words “I am Hashem, your G-d”. The Meshech Chachmah writes that before instructing us with a list of forbidden relationships, G-d tells us that if He forbade these relationships, then we can be sure that we can control our desires because Hashem created us and He knows our limitations. No prohibition is too hard to overcome.
Hashem instructed us on how best to live. It is very unfortunate when men misuse the gift of their bodies. Conversely, one who lives a life guided by morality will have persevered his innate holiness and will be granted blessings from on high.
When the Bais HaMikdash stood, the Kohen Gadol was the messenger of the people who pleaded forgiveness for his nation. Today we are missing those grand ceremonies, and prayer takes its place. Therefore, as part of the Yom Kippur service, there is a lengthy and detailed description of the Avodah as conducted in the times of the Bais Hamikdosh. In fact, we act out some parts of the service, such as bowing.
Once during the recital of Aleinu and three times during the description of the Temple service we bow down to the floor. When we reach the point in the narrative where the Kohanim and the people in the courtyard of the Temple prostrate themselves on the floor upon hearing the glorious Name of G-d emanating from the mouth of the Kohen Gadol, we too bow down on the floor to Hashem.
Note that the Torah forbids prostrating oneself completely on a floor of stone. The Sages forbade complete prostration even on non-stone floors and even kneeling (which is partial prostration) on stone floors. Therefore, if the floor of the synagogue is made of stone one must put down something before bowing. While this doesn’t apply to non-stone floors, there are customs to put something down regardless.
The Haftorah of Mincha includes the entire book of Yonah, which teaches about the power of repentance. The classic biblical story of Teshuva is that of Sefer Yonah.
Some of the themes of this story are:
The fifth and final prayer segment of Yom Kippur is Neilah, which means “locking” because the gates of Heaven are closing. From the onset of judgment, the Heavenly court provides open access. Man pleads his case, begs for mercy, repents and draws near. As the day ends, the window of opportunity begins to shut. Smart people grab the last moments of their appeal, and they exert themselves in sincere prayer and repentance. It is the final opportunity of the holiest day of the year. During this time, one should attempt to bring themselves to tears to arouse heavenly mercy.
After Neilah, the shofar is blown and we exclaim, “Next Year in Yerushalayim.”
When Yom Kippur is over, we make Havdalah and sit down to a meal. We are confident that we have done our part and that we attained atonement. We try also to begin right away with a Mitzvah. It is customary to recite Kiddush Levana after Maariv, and many people start building their Succah on Motzei Yom Kippur.
The verse in Tehillim states, Sur meira, vasei tov – turn from bad and do good. After getting rid of the bad in our lives, we get busy doing good. Even doing nothing is no good because it leads to bad. By getting busy doing good, we ensure that we are on the path that we eagerly prayed for on Yom Kippur.
May this year be one of only good decrees that are stamped on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur. May we all merit a clean slate that will be filled with an abundance of good deeds for this coming year and beyond.
In the early morning hours of Erev Yom Kippur, after saying Selichos, the Rebbe does the minhag of Kaparos in the courtyard of his house The Rebbe then stands by, deep in concentration, as the shochet slaughters his kaparos and thereafter does the mitzvah of Kisui Hadam. The Rebbe’s family members also do Kaparos at the same time. The slaughtered birds are then prepared for the upcoming Erev Yom Kippur Tish.
Erev Yom Kippur Tish
After davening Shacharis the Rebbe comes into the Tish Hall for the first meal of Erev Yom Kippur. The seriousness of the upcoming day can be felt in the air as the thousands of chassidim gathered sing heartfelt nigunim (songs) of Teshuva and Dveikus (closeness to Hashem). During the tish the Rebbe says Torah, inspiring the masses to Teshuva and Tikun Hamasim (improving one’s character).
Mincha Erev Yom Kippur
In the afternoon hours thousands of chassidim, who have already been to the mikvah and are dressed in their Yom Tov finery, come to the big shul to join the Rebbe for the tefillah on Mincha Erev Yom Kippur. During this mincha Vidui and Al Cheit are recited.
After completing Mincha, the Rebbe leans over and his Gabbai will “whip” him (with a towel) three times, according to the minhag of the previous Rebbes.
Afterwards the Rebbe returns to his house and has the Seudas Hamafsekes (second meal of Erev Yom Kippur), with his family.
The multitude of Yidden fasting and davening on Yom Kippur, wearing their Kitels and Teleisim, is an awesome experience to behold. The Rebbe will personally lead the tefillos of Kol Nidrei, Maariv, Musaf and Neilah, as the thousands of men women and children gathered in the huge shul follow the emotional and heartfelt tefillos.
An especially moving part of the davening is when the whole shul, lead the by hundreds of children in the upper galleries, sing certain parts of the davening with slow and heartwarming melodies.
The climax of the Aseres Yemei Teshuva and Yom Kippur is the final tefillah of Neilah, in which we beg an beseech Hashem to forgive us and bless us and our families with a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. This special tefillah is lead by the Rebbe who sheds copious tears throughout as he davens for all of Klal Yisroel.
Towards the end of Neilah thousand of Yidden will scream out together “Shema Yisrael… Hashem Echad” as the accept upon themselves Ol Malchus Shamayim (the yoke of heaven). Then the Rebbe blows the shofar signaling the end of the fast.
Right after Mariv everyone heads outside to the Shul’s large courtyard where the Rebbe leads the chassidim going Kiddush Levana (sanctifying the new moon). The custom is to do it right away, even before eating, as we want to do this mitzvah while our bodies are still pure and holy from the Yom Kippur fast.
After Kiddush Levana the Rebbe returns to the Shul and makes Hadvalah in the Bimah in center of the Shul. The candle used for Havdalah on Motzei Yom Kippur is lit from the special candle, called the Gezind Lecht, lit on Erev Yom Kippur. The remnants of this candle are also used to prepare the candles which will be used on Hoshana Rabba, as was the custom of the previous Rebbes of Belz.
Gezegenen – Taking Leave
After spending an uplifting and awe-inspiring Yom Kippur together with the Rebbe and thousands of fellow chassidim, the guest who have come from other cities in Israel and from abroad, will go by and shake the Rebbe’s hand while taking leave from him.
Thousands of cups of coffee, tea and other drinks, along with tens of thousand of biscuits and rugelech are prepared in the shul’s courtyard for the thousands of chassidim to break their fast after the Rebbe’s Havdalah. The camaraderie is palpable as everyone wishes each other that all the Tefillos should be accepted on High.
Motzei Yom Kippur
Motzei Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov for itself. After the chassidim have returned home for and had the Yom Tov meal with their families they return to the Tish Hall where the Rebbe will conduct a special Tish. Although the tish begins at a very late hour, the atmosphere is one of purity and simcha (joy). As is the custom in Belz the Tish begins with the distribution of fruits after which the Rebbe will wash for the meal.
The Hamavdil Tish
During this Tish, among many other songs, the Rebbe sings aloud an old tune to the words of Hamavdil – a special song for Motzei Yom Kippur. After each stanza the chassidim sing over the melody without the words. This is the highlight of this Tish, hence this tish is named the “Hamavdil Tish”.
The Special Dance
As the Tish ends the Rebbe breaks out in a fiery dance to the happy tune of Shuvu Lachem Le’ohelechem. For many long minutes the thousands gathered, dance hand in hand, swaying back and forth their hearts filled with joy. A very fitting way to close such an uplifting and spiritual Yom Kippur.
Something was amiss. Although it was Tishrei, this was different. The Rebbe was crying and sighing. The townspeople were worried. Several days before Yom Kippur, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak summoned his gabbai. Much to the gabbai’s amazement, the Rebbe had business on his mind. “It’s time we set a fixed price for kvitlach” said the Rebbe. “I think we should ask for two groschen per name written in a kvitel.” Soon the townspeople heard about the new rule: Rather than leaving it up to each person’s discretion, the Rebbe was setting a price.
Erev Yom Kippur, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak began receiving kvitlach. People were tense – the Rebbe’s behavior indicated that it was especially important to be included in the Rebbe’s list. Two groschen wasn’t a lot, but for a poor man with many children, it was no small expense. Still, no one refused. Nobody was taking any chances. All day the Rebbe received kvitlach. Here and there some people tried to bargain with the gabbai, but no exceptions were made.
Around midday, a woman approached the gabbai and begged for an exemption. “I’m a poor widow with an only child and I don’t have four groschen. Please, talk to the Rebbe.” The gabbai agreed, but the Rebbe was unyielding. “I’m sorry,” he said to the woman, “It’s two groschen per name.” The widow left, heartbroken, but committed to obtaining the money.
Nightfall came. Everyone was already in the synagogue for Kol Nidrei, but Rabbi Levi Yitzchak lingered at home, staring out his window. Then, the widow was seen hurrying along the street clutching coins in her hand. “Here’s my kvitel” she cried. “Please pray for me and my child to be inscribed in the book of life.” “But there are just two groschen here,” protested Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, “You can only write one name in your kvitel.” “Holy Rebbe!” cried the woman, “This is all I have. I promise to pay the rest within a week.” “I’m sorry,” insisted the Rebbe, “It’s two groschen per name. Which name do you want in your kvitel?” Trembling, the woman crossed out her name. “Pray for my Shloimehleh, Rebbe,” she said, her voice shaking, “that he should have a year of life, health and happiness.”
Hearing these words, the Rebbe’s eyes flashed wildly. Grasping the two groschen, he raised his hands heavenward and cried: “Father in Heaven! Look what a mother does for her child! And shall it be said that You are less caring to Your children? Will You refuse to grant Your own children a year of life, health and happiness?!” “Come,” said Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, “I’m ready for Kol Nidrei.”