What IS Yom Kippur?

Teachings from an agnostic Jew


Today is Yom Kippur, one of the High Holy days for Jews around the world and the holiest day of the year.

Every year, Jews celebrate the new year (according to the Hebrew calendar), Rosh Hashanah, and then exactly 10 days later is Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur is the tenth day of the seventh month (Tishrei).

Yom (יוֹם) means ‘day’ in Hebrew and Kippur (כִּפּוּר) comes from a root that means ‘to atone’.

The most interesting thing about Yom Kippur, to me, is the fact that God does not want or need to give you forgiveness.

On Yom Kippur, God asks that Jews atone for their sins against others and ask for their forgiveness.

I was raised in the synagogue. I attended a conservative (the three “types” of Judaism are reform, conservative, and orthodox from least to most restrictive). I went to Hebrew school twice a week plus Sunday school for years, then added in the weekly private lessons for my bat mitzvah for a year. I was bat mitzvah’ed when I was 12 and went on Birthright to tour Israel in my 20s. I stopped going to temple regularly as a teenager and now consider myself to be more agnostic than anything.

Despite being a lapsed Jew, there are things I love about Judaism. In Judaism, the basic tenets come down to who you are as a person. Judaism tells you to be a good person because it’s the right thing to do. To treat others as you wish to be treated and to be tolerant and sensitive to others.

Not to be closer to God, but simply because you should be a good person in life because it’s the right thing to do as a human being.

I love that.

And unlike some other religions, Jews do not ask God for forgiveness. He cannot right your wrongs or forgive your “sins.”

What God asks is that on Yom Kippur, you self-reflect. You think about those you have wronged and then you go to those specific people and apologize and ask for their forgiveness — which is theirs to give or not.

Yom Kippur is a time to self-reflect and discover not only who you wronged, but why. To think about how you can change to be a better person.

Jews fast on this day, rest, and focus inward. Before the fasting starts on the even of Yom Kippur, we tell each other to “have a meaningful fast.” At the end of Yom Kippur, God seals the Book of Life for the coming year.

In other religions, this could be thought of as “judgment day,” except in Judaism, God is not the one solely judging you — you must judge your own actions.

Think about that. You reflect on your words and actions over the previous year and find times when you have wronged or judged others — and you apologize to them.

While I am not a particularly observant Jew, I find the tenets of Judaism to be beautiful and meaningful.

My apologies

And to you: If I have said or done anything to hurt you, judge you, offend you, or upset you this year, I am sorry. I cannot ask for forgiveness here, as a true apology requires these elements:

  • Expression of regret
  • Explanation
  • Taking responsibility for what you did
  • Remorse
  • An offer to repair it
  • A request for forgiveness

And those being apologized to are not required to accept it and forgive. When we apologize, we cannot expect forgiveness, we can only assume responsibility and be better moving forward.

So, on this, the holiest of days for my people, I apologize and G’mar Hatima Tova (may you be sealed in the Book of Life).

Entrepreneur, writer, editor, book coach, cat lover, weirdo, optimist. Author of “Write. Get Paid. Repeat.” & “Concept to Conclusion.” jyssicaschwartz.com

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