FEAST OF ATONEMENT
From the book "The Jewish Festivals" by Hayyin Schauss, punlished
Some practices and customs may not being observed today in the
year 2010 - Keith Hunt
IN EASTERN EUROPE
The Days of Awe do not arrive suddenly and unexpectedly;
people start preparing for them a long time in advance. The
attitude during the entire month of Elul is already an earnest
and sober one, and all feel that soon the solemn days, the days
of penitence will begin.
(Such readiness and feelings should be for the Passover season
NOT per se from Trumpets to Atonement - we shall see later how
the Jews got this backwards - Keith Hunt)
But undercurrents of the coming holidays are felt even
earlier, are felt on the Sabbath at which the blessing for the
coming New Moon, that of Elul, is recited. Every Sabbath before a
New Moon is a special Sabbath in the synagogue. But the Sabbath
before Elul is exalted above all the other pre-New Moon Sabbaths.
One knows that very soon, in just a few days, the call of the
Shofar will be heard and when the cantor, holding the
Torah-scroll, calls out "Rosh Chodesh Elul," the ring of his
voice is far different from the tone he uses on other Sabbaths on
which he announces Rosh Chodesh.
The first real sign that the Days of Awe are nearing appears
on the day before the New Moon of Elul. The day before each New
Moon is called a minor Day of Atonement. There are no more than
three or four very pious old Jews in town who observe all these
minor days of atonement. But the day before Elul is different.
Many Jews fast on that day, and there is a big congregation
present for the afternoon prayers, to recite S'lichos, prayers of
supplication and confessions; it really feels like Yom Kippur.
On the second day of Rosh Chodesh, the first of Elul, at the end
of the morning services the blowing of the shofar begins, after
which Psalm xxvii is recited. The shofar call is a signal
that the time for penitence is approaching, and sober earnestness
descends on all.
The Days of Elul
The life of the town goes on as ordinarily. But it is easy
to see that the Jews are deliberately more pious. Certain petty
sins, common the year round, are now guarded against. People pray
more carefully and with greater fervor, and those with ample time
remain in the Bes haMidrosh, the House of Study, to recite
Psalms, to study a chapter of Mishnah, or other religious and
devotional books. For these are days, it is said, when the very
fish in the stream shiver with foreboding.
The solemnity of the month of Elul is more in evidence in
the cemetery than anywhere else, for these are the days on which
one visits the graves of his ancestors. Women, for the most part,
come and weep and bare their hearts to those who were once near
and dear to them, and who now lie between the markers of stone
and wood. Some stand at the headstones and weep silently; others,
however, moan and howl hysterically and are heard far afield.
There is a special book of prayers written for this occasion, but
most of the women lack the education to pick out the appropriate
ones. There are, however, a couple of learned women in town, and
they recite these prayers at the cemetery with the mourning
women. It is understood that they are to be paid for their
trouble. Some of the women are not content just to mourn at the
cemetery. They "measure the field." That is, they pace about the
cemetery with a spool of cotton which they unroll, and with which
they span the ground. This cotton is then taken to the
candle-maker, who uses it as wicks for candles, which the women
donate to the synagogue.
For the children it is, in many ways, a very pleasant
period. For the days from the middle of Elul till after Sukkos
are vacation days between the summer and fall semesters, and
school is open only half-days. But they do not get much
satisfaction from their freedom. The sober air of penitence that
rules over the adults has its influence on them. Their conscience
forbids them to frolic and joy. The children also know that life
hangs in the balance now, and the time is coming when the fate of
every man will be judged and inscribed in heaven.
The awesome atmosphere becomes even more pronounced,
and still more circumspect becomes the attitude of the
townspeople during the week of S'lichos (supplications) which
begins on the Sunday before Rosh Hashonoh. On that day all rise
very early, while it is still pitch dark outside. Since the hour
of arising is much earlier than usual, the beadle goes about the
town with a lantern in his hand, knocking on windows with a
wooden mallet, waking the Jews for S'lichos. There are some pious
people in town, women as well as men, who fast on this day.
Even the school-boys, the older ones, rise early to attend the
S'lichos services in the House of Study. They attend only on the
first day's services and not on the succeeding days with the
exception of the day before Rosh Hashonoh.
The Day before New Year
Old and young alike rise early on the day before Rosh
Hashonoh to attend the special S'lichos services of that day,
even earlier in the morning than they did for the first S'lichos.
Some take a glass of tea and a cracker before going to the
synagogue; that is allowed because it is still night. Afterwards
eating is forbidden, for on this day all fast till noon.
Afternoon services are held at one o'clock, and after that all go
home for a light lunch. Many Jews go to the public bath, even
before breaking their fast.
It is also customary to go to the bath on the day preceding
other festivals. There are even certain Jews who go to the bath
every Friday, provided it is heated. Bathing, however, on the day
before Rosh Hashonoh, and also on the day before Yom Kippur, is a
religious precept. It is especially creditable to immerse oneself
in the ritual bath on those days.
Rosh Hashonoh Eve
In the synagogue the atmosphere is festive for the evening
services, but the prayers are chanted with the intonation
associated with the Days of Awe, which induces a highly religious
attitude. After the services all wish one another "A Festive
Holiday," and add, in Hebrew, "May you be inscribed and sealed
for a good year"; but everyone does not know Hebrew well and the
words are difficult to pronounce, so many content themselves with
just saying simply, "A good year."
The table is festively arrayed when the worshipers arrive
home from the synagogue. On the table is a small jar filled with
honey, an omen for a sweet year; this is spread on the first
slice of bread eaten. In many homes some new fruit of the season
is served. This fruit is generally grapes, for all other fruits
have been tasted in the course of the summer. But grapes come
from distant, warm countries and are expensive, so not all can
afford to partake of this luxury. Pious Jews, therefore, deny
themselves one certain fruit all summer long, in order to be able
to make the special blessing over it at the Rosh Hashonoh table
on the second evening.
In the Synagogue
Rosh Hashonoh is not a home festival. Meals are eaten in the
home, but the entire observance and ceremonial is in the
synagogue. For this reason the cantor plays the chief role in the
festival, and the better his voice, the more involved his trills
and arpeggios, the greater is the satisfaction one receives from
the festival. Services start very early in the morning and do not
end till after midday. All the prayers are recited and chanted
with pious fervor. But there are, in addition, certain exalted
moments when the spirit that fills all hearts on the Days of Awe
expands and religious feelings are raised to the highest pitch.
Such an exalted moment comes at the blowing of the shofar. Psalm
XLVII is recited seven times; then all quiets down. The hearts of
the worshipers beat fast; and when the trumpeter calls out
"Blessed be," the beginning of the benediction, a tremor of awe
and fear passes through the congregation.
The Most Exalted Moment
The greatest and most exalted moment of the services comes
when the Ark of the Torah is opened and the chant of Un'saneh
Tokef f begins. An unnatural fear grips the hearts of the
worshipers. They pull their prayer shawls over their heads and
recite the words in a loud voice, with tears and sobs. The
sobbing and weeping is much louder in the women's section. The
women weep oceans of tears as they read the simple, yet
expressive words that tell how God judges the world on that
fearful and solemn day:
"We will declare the greatness and the holiness of this Day, for
thereon Thy kingdom is exalted, Thy throne established in mercy,
and Thou judgget in truth. It is true that Thou art the judge;
Thou reprovest; Thou knowest all; Thou bearest witness, recordest
and sealest: Thou also rememberest all things that seem to be
forgotten; and all that enter the world must pass before Thee,
even as the shepherd causes his sheep to pass under his rod. Thou
numberest and countest, and visitest every living soul,
appointest the limitations of all Thy creatures, and recordest
the sentence of their judgment: How many are to pass away, and
how many are to come into existence; who are to live and who are
to die; who are to accomplish the full number of their days, and
who are not to accomplish them; who are to perish by water and
who by fire; who by the sword and who by hunger; who by
earthquake and who by plagues; who shall have repose and who
shall be troubled; who shall be tranquil and who shall be
disturbed; who shall be prosperous and who shall be afflicted;
who shall become poor and who shall become rich; who shall be
cast down and who shall be exalted."
(No, God is not pre-ordaining the lives of people, maybe a few
like John the baptist, and Jeremiah. But by and large God is not
pre-ordaining lives to this and that. Solomon was inspired to
write "time and chance" is a large part of most lives on earth -
for most people the Lord is not directing as the above words from
Jews would want you to believe - Keith Hunt)
The moans die down and the congregation calms itself
somewhat at the words: "But Repentance, Prayer and Charity avert
the evil decree."
(Well it averts the decree of the second death for sure; but may
righteous suffer from all kinds of things, some even death for
the faith once delivered to the saints. The apostle Paul sure did
not have an easy "put up your feet, and drink your beer" of life,
and the 11th chapter of Hebrews shows God's people do not always
have the safe and smooth life - Keith Hunt)
However, the prayer does not end with this. There still
comes a sharp reminder of the shortness and impotence of man's
"How weak is man! He comes from the dust and returns to
the dust; must toil for his sustenance; passes away like
withered I grass, a vanishing shadow, a fleeting dream.
But Thou, O God, art eternal; Thou art King everlasting."
(Well, that is true, our life is but a blink of an eye for length
of days compared to an Eternal God - Keith Hunt)
There is no sleeping or promenading after the midday
meal. As soon as dinner is finished, the worshipers return to the
synagogue to recite Psalms and conduct the afternoon services.
And after that comes the Tashlich custom. The entire town, young
and old, dressed in festive array, goes out to a near by stream,
men and women at different points on the river, and recite the
Tashlich prayers, so named from the passage in Micah read there
which begins with the word, v'sashlich (and Thou wilt cast [all
their sins into the depths of the sea] ).
There is a slight respite after this ceremony, during which
tea is served, and a festive feeling rules. But then people rush
back to the synagogue and chant Psalms again, until it is time
for evening prayers.
With the exception of the Tashlich ceremony, the entire
ritual of the day is repeated on the morrow.
The Days o f Penitence
The day after Rosh Hashonoh is a fast day, the Fast of
Gedaliah, in memory of the death of Gedaliah, son of Ahikam But
people do not care about the historical origin of the day; it is
for them just one of the many fasts between the first day of
S'lichos and Yom Kippur.
The first ten days of Tishri, which include both Rosh
Hashono and Yom Kippur, are known as the "The Ten Days of
Penitence." The days between the two holidays are already colored
by the solemnity of Yom Kippur. The very pious fast till midday
every day of this period, with the exception of the Sabbath and
the day before Yom Kippur, days on which it is forbidden to fast.
The Saturday between the two holidays is called Sabbath Shuvoh,
from the first word of the portion of the Prophets which is read
on that day. This Sabbath is observed much more strictly than
are ordinary Sabbaths, and the rabbi delivers a long sermon
before the afternoon prayers, in which he endeavors to arouse the
congregation to whole-hearted penitence.
The second day before Yom Kippur has special significance in
that it is the day of Kaporos. There is no specified time for
this ceremony; some observe it in the afternoon, some early in
the evening, some late at night and others the following morning.
The men use roosters for the ceremony and the women hens. When
the family is large it is rather expensive to supply a fowl for
each member of the family, so money is used instead. Those who
use money for the ceremony generally perform it the morning
before Yom Kippur.
The homes are unusually noisy. The fowls, their legs tied,
cluck and crow at the tops of their voices. It generally happens,
too, that a rooster gets excited and begins to run and fly all
over the house, despite his bound feet, and there follows a long
struggle to subdue him.
First the fowl, or the money, is held in the hand and
everyone reads selections from certain Psalms, beginning with the
words, "Sons of Adam." Then the fowl is circled about the head
nine times, the following being recited at the same time: "This
is instead of me, this is an offering on my account, this is in
expiation for me; this rooster, or hen, shall go to his, or her,
death (or, this money shall go to charity), and may I enter a
long and healthy life.
The greatest ado is in the yard of the shochet, the ritual
slaughterer, where the Kaporos are taken to be slaughtered after
the above ceremony has taken place. Only the poorer Jews carry
their Kaporos to the shochet, however. The wellto-do have the
shochet call at their homes and dispatch the fowls there, for
there should be no time lost between the Kaporos ceremony and the
slaughtering of the fowl. This can be done only when the shochet
is present at the ceremony. The ritual is delayed in the
well-to-do homes until the shochet arrives, sometimes late in the
night. This has its compensations, however, for at that hour the
fowls are asleep and easy to take off the roost.
The Kaporos ceremony is so universal in its appeal that it
has crept into the language of the people. When one stares at a
thing unknowingly, it is said of him that he looks like a rooster
at the words "Sons of Adam." Should there be a great fuss and ado
somewhere in town it is said that the stir is as great as at the
The Day before Yom Kippur
The day before Yom Kippur has a double character. It is the
day on which Jews prepare for Yom Kippur, and it is also a
holiday in its own right. Exactly as it is a religious
commandment to fast on Yom Kippur, so is it a religious
requirement to eat heartily the day before.
The Jewish population is busy all day. Immediately after the
morning services the ceremony for the release from vows is
observed. Any personal vow, affecting only the vower himself,
that he regrets, can be declared void by one ordained teacher or
by three laymen. Some have already attended to the release the
day before Rosh Hashonoh, but many wait for this day. The
ceremony is performed in groups, for, as said before, a court of
at least three must be present. The pleader stands and recites
the text relating to the release from vows, and the other three
sit and listen, answering him according to the text. When he is
through he sits down and becomes one of the court, another rising
and reciting from the text, and so on, till the entire group is
Some Jews perform the Kaporos ceremony on the morning of
this day. There are also some who make it an occasion for
visiting the cemetery. The pious go to the bath-house to bathe in
the ritual pool, some even making a confessional in the water.
The holiday feast is eaten about eleven or twelve o'clock; it
consists of soup, kreplech (a three-cornered pastry filled with
meat), and carrot-pudding. The meal is served early, to allow
time for the next meal, the final one before the fast.
At about two in the afternoon people begin to go to the
synagogue for minchoh, afternoon services. Not all pray
together. When a group of ten assembles a service begins. This
occurs several times during the afternoon.
The older and more pious Jews of the town go through Malkus,
the symbolic ceremony of being flogged for sins committed. There
is one flogger for the entire town, a certain poor man who does
it regularly, year after year; he gets coins from each one he
flogs and this augments his yearly income. It is said that in
former days there were more pious people so that many Jews acted
as floggers on the day before Yom Kippur and barely had time to
finish their work.
The flogger appears in the synagogue at the beginning of the
afternoon services, a leather lash in his hand. He spreads some
hay on the floor near the door. The elders, wearing their
overcoats, stretch out on the hay face down and make a
confessional, while the flogger strikes the coat lightly with his
lash, reciting a prescribed sentence three times (Psalm LXXVIII,
38). The sentence consists of thirteen words which, repeated
three times, makes thirty-nine, the number of lashes inflicted
upon sentenced criminals in olden days. The flogger races through
his ritual so fast that the pious Jew receiving the lashes barely
has time to finish his confessional.
Long tables are set up in the corridor of the synagogue,
bearing alms-plates for the various institutions and charities of
the community. Each member of the community pays his
congregational dues after the afternoon services and distributes
coins in the various plates. At the door are many paupers,
townspeople, and strangers, and all who pass give them alms.
Yom Kippur Eve
The sun falls lower and lower in the heavens. It is time for
the evening meal, the last one before the fast, at which the
rooster of the Kaporos ceremony and soup made from it is eaten.
After the meal the blessing is repeated accompanied by tears and
sighs. Then wishes for the coming year are expressed, and all
rush off to the synagogue, the men in prayer-shawls and white
robes, the women in white dresses.
All is quiet and peaceful in the town. Not a living soul is
visible in the streets. All are in the synagogue. Only the older
girls and younger children have been left at home. The older
girls stand with prayer books in their hands and beat their
breasts in prayer, and watch the huge, twenty-four hour candle
burning on the table. Each family has at least two of them, one
for the dead, which is taken to the synagogue, and one for the
living, which burns at home.
The synagogue is crowded. Candles glow everywhere, wherever
there is room to put one. Lamps and pendant candelabra gleam
overhead, casting additional light on the crowded congregation,
which stands praying and shaking in white robes and white talesim
(prayer-shawls); the worshipers beat their breasts and weep,
shouting their prayers over the sobs and screams which come from
the women's section.
The most solemn and exalted moment of the Yom Kippur Eve
services comes when the cantor sings Kol Nidre. As soon as he
begins the well-known chant, an air of solemn and exalted
absorption falls on the congregation. A deep sadness pervades the
melody, but it imparts, at the same time, warmth and tenderness,
and arouses all the hidden religious feelings and longings of
The Temple Service
A second tense moment in the Yom Kippur service comes in the
prayers of the next day when the order of the Temple Service is
recited and sung; through poetic descriptions and beautiful
melodies, sung by the cantor and congregation in unison, the
Temple Service is dramatically relived.
There is life and stir in the synagogue when the time comes
for this prayer. The cantor sings, but not alone; the worshipers
join him in a wordless, exalted melody. And when he mentions the
prostration in the court of the Temple, all throw themselves to
the ground and bury their faces, exactly as did their ancestors
in the Temple in Jerusalem when they heard the High Priest call
out the ineffable Name of God.
Afternoon and Evening
A third exalted moment comes at the N'iloh or concluding
prayers of Yom Kippur. The word means closing, and it originally
meant the closing of the gates of the Temple. But it was
interpreted to mean the closing of the gates of heaven, when one
has the final opportunity to do penance whole-heartedly and to
plead for a successful year.
It is an extraordinary moment. The sun is already setting,
and shadows begin to fall. The great Yom Kippur candles are
almost burned down. The congregation stands, weakened from the
long fast and arduous prayers. This is the end. In a moment, a
man's fate will be sealed.
Pale stars begin to appear in the sky. The shofar is blown,
one long, resounding t'kioh. And the trumpet call is answered
with the cry and hope that next year will find them all in
With lightened spirits they recite the evening prayers. Yom
Kippur is over. If it is a clear evening, the people do not rush
home to eat. First they recite the appropriate blessing for the
appearance of the New Moon.
Pious Jews partake of the barest amount of food necessary
and then begin preparations for the building of the Sukkoh,
the booth for the Sukkos holiday. Only after they have observed
this religious precept do they really sit down to the feast that
breaks their fast.
Worshipers arise earlier than usual on the morning after Yom
Kippur. They do this so that Satan will have no cause to argue
before God that, once Yom Kippur is over, Jews become lax and are
too lazy to get up for the morning services.
Well, there it is, or as it was, in some orthodox Jewish
communities, maybe still is somewhere. Tradition, tradition, and
more tradition, as the Jews themselves would say, the Jews in
"Fiddler on the Roof" said it anyway.
Sadly, all in vain, it scores no points with God as they have
rejected Christ. They are blinded (as Paul wrote about in Romans
9 through 11) and cannot see that they cannot see the light of
THE truth. One day they will have the blinding cover cast over
their minds, removed, and they will come to see the true light of
the world - Christ Jesus and the New Covenant.
Next the writer will take us on a journey of the customs and
ceremony of the Jewish Feast of Atonement, where much of it came
from. That's the next chapter.