Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
Yom Kippur begins tomorrow night (Tuesday, Sept. 22) at sundown. I’m writing today to share with you explanations of a few of the customs of Yom Kippur — adapted from and expanding on teachings from Rabbi Marcia Prager. A schedule of our Yom Kippur observances can be found at the end of this note.
Some say that we wear white on Yom Kippur as an approximation of the white garments in which we will be buried. (Some of us may even wear a kittel, a simple white cotton robe, which is worn at marriage and for burial. You will see Hazzan Randall in his kittel during the holiday.) As members of our chevra kadisha (volunteer burial society) know, every Jew is buried in the same simple shroud: plain white garments, the same for everyone, men and women, rich and poor. Wearing white is a reminder of our mortality and our equality in the eyes of God. On Yom Kippur, wearing white garments which remind us of the garments we will wear when we die can serve as a reminder that we stand every day on the edge of life and death.
Others teach that we wear white on Yom Kippur to be like the angels. We yearn to ascend, to be lighter, more clear and transparent. White is a color of holiness and celebration — that’s why we only have white kippot / yarmulkes available during the holiday season.
There is a custom on this day of avoiding wearing anything made of leather, because leather requires the death of a living creature. On this day when we make our most fervent teshuvah, we don’t want to be garbed in something which required another being’s death. For this reason, you will see some people wearing canvas shoes, or even rubber Crocs, instead of leather shoes.
Another interpretation is that we substitute soft shoes for leather on this day because we want to remove what protects us. The physical act of wearing soft shoes evokes the emotional / spiritual act of removing the covering from our hearts, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable on this day.
And, of course, you will also see others for whom these interpretations are not meaningful, and who do wear leather, and that’s fine too. Our congregation includes people with many different relationships to halakha (the “way of walking” sometimes translated as “Jewish law”) and to minhag (custom) — and we bring with us many different minhagim (customs) from our communities of origin, too.
Kol Nidre evening is one of the very few times in the Jewish year when a tallit is worn at night. (Though it should be donned before sunset — like the singing of Kol Nidre itself, which also must happen during the day, before Yom Kippur technically begins.) Ordinarily a tallit is only worn when it is light out and we can see the fringes.
There are many reasons why the tallit is worn at this unusual time of day. One is that we sing the Thirteen Attributes (“Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanun”) at Kol Nidre services, and there is a very old custom which holds that a tallit should be worn when these are chanted. Another reason is that tallitot are frequently white, and when we wrap ourselves in white tallitot, we can see ourselves as being like the angels, garbed in white light.
For some, a tallit is also worn as a sign of transcendent consciousness; for others the tallit can be a stark reminder of death and the transient nature of physical existence, as the dead are sometimes buried in a tallit in addition to the simple white garments and kittel.
Perhaps we wear tallitot at Kol Nidre because on that night, the “light” of our prayers and our connection with God burns so brightly that it illuminates us from within, and we can see our tzitzit gleaming in that holy light.
A final reason is this: we take the Torah scrolls out from the ark for the Kol Nidre prayer, to insure that our prayers are linked to Torah. The person leading the prayers at that time is flanked at both sides with people holding Torah scrolls. This is done to mimic a court, a “beit din” of three, as a beit din court is needed to annul vows. And when the scrolls are removed from the ark, it is traditional to wear a tallit.
Yom Kippur at CBI
Our observance at CBI will begin at 5:30pm tomorrow evening with beautiful music to stir the soul (violin, cello, and piano), followed by Kol Nidre at 6pm.
On Yom Kippur morning we’ll gather to daven (pray) the morning service at 9:30am. Yizkor (the memorial service) will take place at the end of morning services. Then we’ll regroup at 3pm for an introduction to Jewish contemplative practice (no experience required), 4pm for Avodah and Mincha services (including a radio play about Jonah!), and 6pm for Ne’ilah (the closing service of the day), with our Break-the-Fast scheduled for 7pm.
Join us in wearing white; join us in song and prayer; join us in whatever ways will most speak to your heart and soul this year as Yom Kippur unfolds.
Wishing everyone a g’mar chatimah tovah — may we be sealed for goodness in the year to come.