The highest of the High Holidays – Yom Kippur – is to begin on Friday night, and Jews around the world are completing their last preparations for the solemn day that ends the Ten Days of Penitence.
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is a Divinely-designated day that the Torah explains “will atone for you [plural] to purify you from all your sins before G-d.” Such atonement, however, must generally be accompanied by teshuvah, a process that must include introspection, admission of sins, remorse, and a commitment not to repeat them.
One must also appease and ask forgiveness from those he has harmed or insulted over the year.
Many people visit the graves of their parents on the days before Yom Kippur, in preparation for the Yizkor service memorializing lost parents which is said during the fast.
The prayers for Yom Kippur, which begin with the Kol Nidre prayer said at night, then take up most of the day, are replete with the various concepts of teshuvah, as well as acknowledgement of G-d’s goodness in affording mortals this opportunity to exonerate and improve themselves. One of the dramatic prayers is a review of the High Priest's preparations and one time yearly entering the Holy of Holies in the Temple, during which the each member of the congregation prostrates himself before G-d. There is also a piyyut, liturgical poem, recalling the ten martyrs killed by the Romans, one of whom was Rabbi Akiva.
The fast begins just before sundown on Friday night, and ends some 25 hours later, after the special Ne’ilah (locking, signifying that the gates of heaven are to be locked at the end of the fast) prayer, said standing. At the prayer's end, the Shma Yisrael - Hear O Israel the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One - is recited aloud by the entire congregation, followed by another two verses, including sevenfold loud repetition of the words "G-d is the Lord".
The end of the fast is signalled by a dramatic, lone shofar-blast and the immediate singing of "Next year in rebuilt Jerusalem". In many Israeli synagogues, this is a signal for joyous dancing as the fast's end signals a lightening of spirits.
In addition to eating and drinking, also forbidden on this day are wearing leather shoes, washing up, make-up and perfumes, and marital relations.
The prohibitions notwithstanding, the day is considered a festive day, in that we celebrate G-d’s beneficence in going against natural law and allowing us to revoke and nullify our misdeeds. It is also a “day of friendship and love," according to the prayer liturgy.
The day before Yom Kippur, the 9th of the Jewish month of Tishrei, is also considered a special day, and we are required to eat and drink even more than we normally do. "Whoever eats and drinks on the 9th,” the Talmud states enigmatically, “is as [meritorious as] if he had fasted on both the 9th and the 10th." The custom of kaparot is done on the 9th.
The State of Israel is essentially closed down on Yom Kippur, with no public transportation or electronic broadcasts, and practically no open stores or services. Bicycling on main roads and city streets has become a popular pastime on the holy day, to the dismay of many, as there is no traffic to be seen, but the Tel Aviv municipality has decided to close the rental facilities over the fast.
Even more prevalent on this day are prayer services. Organizations make arrangements for secular-friendly prayer services around the country, which have become extremely popular and well-attended in recent years.
Israelis who are old enough to remember Yom Kippur 1973, recall how people were shocked to see cars driving down the streets in the early afternoon. They were rounding up soldiers as the Yom Kippur War had broken out during the day - almost all of the soldiers, religious and secular, were at their local synagogues and army cars went from synagogue to synagogue with lists, while sirens wailed shortly afterwards in Jerusalem and worshipers raced to shelters,
Memorial services for the war's fallen soldiers will be held on Sunday.