Reflections on Yom Kippur

 In a couple of days Israel will come to a halt for the Yom Kippur holyday and (almost) everything will have to move aside and time is devoted to atonement and reflection and people who never see a synagogue from the inside will spend long hours there and fast.

Yom Kippur of course is a religious holyday but since 1973, this day has taken on a new meaning. The Yom Kippur war which brought Israel to the brink of destruction and exacted an enormous price has made this day a very special and painful one for many. A grieving mother (and there are 2,688 such mothers from this war alone) will live with the memory of her son all year but on this day will she be consoled by the thought that her son died to save the country? Does it make the loss any easier to bear?

And what will the politicians and generals that were involved in this war reflect upon? Do they feel the need to atone? Will they think back and wonder if things could have been done differently? Before the war, during the war and after the war?  After all, since this terrible war we have had two more wars, three “operations” in Gaza and numerous other events that took the lives of many more youngsters and caused their mothers to grieve.

So the Yom Kippur war, which Israel won, did it result in anything else except grief?  Von Clausewitz called “War a continuation of Politics by other Means”, so when Israel returned to regular politics after the war, did something fundamentally change? A change that would prevent another war? A change that would eliminate the risk of Israel’s annihilation? A change that would result in less grief? Are generals and politicians reflecting upon that on Yom Kippur? And do they feel the need to atone for what happened during the war and maybe even more for what not happened after the war? David Elazar, Israel’s Chief of Staff during the Yom Kippur war, who was held responsible for the failures of the war, took things so much to heart that he died three years after the war, but those still with us, and those that came after them? Wouldn’t this be a good time to ask?


As a religious holyday, Yom Kippur brings people to be reminded of their Jewishness, and many, who in daily life do not consider themselves religious, do not follow Sabbath rules and sometimes not even Kashrut, will fast on Yom Kippur. What do they think about during those long 26 hours? Yom Kippur is a Day of Atonement, but what for? All sins? Do you decide by yourself which sins? Or even what is a sin that needs atonement?  “For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before G‑d.” Somebody who does not go to synagogue, or doesn’t fast, does he get forgiveness? 

One of the rituals for the Yom Kippur holyday is “Kapparot” during which symbolically a man’s sins are transferred to a chicken. The chicken is afterwards slaughtered and donated to the needy. So do you still need forgiveness for those sins once they are transferred to the chicken?

Radio commercials tell us that now we can also buy “Kapparot”, i.e., give money directly to the needy and save the lives of the chickens?

In Medieval Europe, one of the biggest schisms in the Catholic Church occurred after Luther in Wittenberg, Germany started a protest against the practice that forgiveness for sins could be bought. At the time these “Indulgences” were a major source of income for church officials but it resulted in the rise of the Protestant movement and today more or less half or European Christians are Protestants.

Of course the Kapparot buying as suggested today by the Agricultural Ministry doesn’t result in personal gain (or does it?) but still it must make many people feel uncomfortable.

Yom Kippur is not the time to think about religious coercion, even though the results of this coercion are extremely visible during this holyday. From the absence of traffic, the absence of radio and television the closure of movie theaters and bars and restaurants, a real effort is made to make you feel the Yom Kippur atmosphere, even if you are not really interested.

With all the aversion I feel against religion in general and religious coercion in particular, Yom Kippur does touch a nerve. I will read a book and drink my coffee, but it will feel different. Different for no other reason than that also if you are not religious and even anti religion, reflection upon life and upon events in your life will give you a perspective that may make you feel you need to atone.

But forgiveness by God is not required.