Yom Kippur painting.
(photo credit: Maurycy Gottlieb)
At first I thought it was a joke. A Jerusalem shopping mall recently issued a glossy magazine supplement featuring its latest glitzy fashions. In the centerfold, in honor of Yom Kippur, was a Hebrew-language article entitled, "How to make it through the fast day." Among the suggestions were the usual pre-Yom Kippur precautions: lots of water, no caffeine, many carbohydrates, and so forth.
What struck me was a sub-section called "Additional Tips for an Easy Fast."(Free Hebrew lesson: the word for "tips" is tippim.)
It is possible, it informed us, to have a pleasant Yom Kippur even without eating. Among the best ways to take your mind off food is to watch some video, play enjoyable games like Monopoly, do some light reading, and meet with friends and family. It goes without saying that no mention is made of such hoary ideas as repentance, prayer, charity, heavenly ledgers of life and death - or, God forbid, God.
MY INITIAL reaction was one of deep mortification. If they don't want to observe Yom Kippur, that is their choice. But why refrain from food and yet desecrate the day at the same time? Does God really desire this kind of fasting? Isaiah's angry words (1:12) came to mind: "Who asks this of you, to trample My courtyards?"
Would it not be better if they gorged themselves on food rather than go through the motions of fasting without thinking of the larger issues of Yom Kippur?
But then a more charitable reaction took over. After all, even though this behavior makes a mockery of the sanctity of the holiest day of the year, at the very least it demonstrates that the memory of Yom Kippur is still alive in the hearts of even the most completely secularized Israelis. These people are not, after all, deliberately desecrating Yom Kippur. They know no better. They have been raised below the religious poverty line. This is what they grew up with, it's how things were done in their circles.
Perhaps, in paraphrase of that famous hassidic tale, one can say of them that even while they watch videos on Yom Kippur, they still fast on that holy day.
THE ISSUES raised by those Yom Kippur "guidelines" are complex. Several questions come to mind: It is painful to consider that among the people of Israel, some Jews on Yom Kippur afternoon are reciting the narrative of the Romans' brutal murder of Rabbi Akiva and the greatest sages of our people - the Ten Martyrs - while other Jews are playing Monopoly; that some Jews are recounting the awesome priestly penitential service in the ancient Jerusalem Temple while others are watching awesome video films; that some Jews are beating their breasts in the ashamnu/ bagadnu confession, while others are engaged in light reading and chit-chat.
Without condemning people who know no better, what does this say about the legendary one-ness of the Jewish people? If these Yom Kippur suggestions represent some tenuous attachment to this holiest of days, what of the children and grandchildren of these people: Will they have even heard of a day called Yom Kippur?
On the other side of the coin, a more important question surfaces: What is the hold that Yom Kippur maintains over all Jews, no matter how far removed they are from tradition?
Some claim that for many Jews, Yom Kippur has become a kind of secular national holiday denuded of genuine religious meaning. Perhaps so, but whoever heard of a secular national holiday in which people deprive themselves of food and drink? And how is it that vehicular traffic throughout Israel is way down on Yom Kippur, and that, reportedly, 95 percent of Israelis do fast on this day?
Granted, there are no stats on what percentage of the 95% are playing Monopoly - I dare say very few - but it does appear that the sense of awe that pervades this day has penetrated even the most secular Israeli consciousness.
ONE MUST eschew glib answers, but an idea pushes its way to the fore.
Just six weeks after the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people were dancing around the idol of the Golden Calf - a sin so grievous that it stains all of Jewish history. When he sees this, Moses smashes the first set of the Ten Commandments that he is carrying, and God threatens to destroy Israel once and for all. Moses intercedes, pleads eloquently on behalf of the Israelites, and the people repent. God finally accedes to the importunings of Moses and forgives Israel.
On what day of the year does God grant forgiveness to Israel, and on what day does Moses descend the mountain with the second set of Commandments in his hands? That day is the 10th of Tishrei - which makes it the very first Yom Kippur day. (See Rashi's comments on Exodus 33:11.) This is the day that becomes indelibly and permanently embedded into the consciousness of the people Israel as the day when the separation between God and His people comes to an end, and when God and Israel become united again as one.
YOM KIPPUR thus represents the essence of the God-Israel reconciliation. It is the flagship of Jewish holy days. More than any other holy day, it is the yearly reenactment of the drama of the Jewish soul as it returns and cleaves to its Creator, and becomes at one with Him (the Day of At-one-ment).
This reunion of God and the straying Jew is deeply ingrained within our national soul; it cannot be obliterated. No matter how far a Jew may drift from his roots - even if 3, 000 years after that first Yom Kippur he forgets all about the meaning of this day - certain elements of this connection to the transcendent retain their pristine force.
Despite everything, Yom Kippur maintains its mysterious grip even on the most distantly wandering Jew. In the Nazi death camps many non-believing Jews fasted on this day. For it is on Yom Kippur that the historic Jewish soul once again returns to its spiritual source, and neither the ravages of millennia of exile nor its resulting ignorance can rip this soul away from its eternal roots.
Monopoly on Yom Kippur? Videos? Grotesque and tragic as these may be, the astounding fact is that most Jews still fast. Somehow, despite everything, that thin, frail, connecting thread remains. Deep in our consciousness we have not utterly abandoned Him, nor has He abandoned us. He waits for us in the wings - for He remembers that first Yom Kippur of reconciliation, and He has faith in us and knows that some day, through the supernatural power of Yom Kippur, the Day of At-one-ment, He and His people will once again be united.
The author, a resident of Jerusalem, served as a rabbi in Atlanta, Georgia, for 40 years, is former editor of Tradition magazine, and the author of numerous books and articles.