For many years I dreaded the holidays of Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur, especially when the latter fell on a Shabbat.  The services were long, fasting difficult and at the end I never knew if my sins were forgiven! Most of my family did not take the spiritual aspect of these holy days seriously, except for my mother’s mother.  Even unto her 90th birthday, Grandmother could not be convinced to leave the synagogue even for one minute of rest or refreshment. Growing up in the reform movement, our observance was much less stringent than in the orthodox community.  So when I visited the small religious synagogue of the orthodox in Brooklyn, NY I was very uncomfortable.  The services were all in Hebrew (which I couldn’t read) and the men and women sat separately.  The highlight of the services had always been the Memorial Service when I could remember my grandfather, but I was told I could stay.  Here the Memorial was only for recently deceased. Unlike in America, in Israel the entire country comes to a halt and there is an uncommon sense of peace. Here are some of the traditions and rituals of modern Jewish practices.


A few orthodox Jews  practice “kapparot,” which is the sacrifice of roosters (for men) and chickens (for women). In other communities money is used instead and given to charity. The fowl literally becomes a religious and sacred vessel and is swung around the head and then sacrificed on the afternoon before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The purpose of the sacrifice is for the expiation of the sins of the man/woman as the fowl symbolically receives all the man’s sins, which is based on the reconciliation of Isaiah 1:18.

“Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool.”

The ritual is preceded by reading Psalms 107:17-20 and Job 33:23-24.

Fools, because of their transgression, And because of their iniquities, were afflicted. Their soul abhorred all manner of food, And they drew near to the gates of death. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, And He saved them out of their distresses.  He sent His word and healed them, And delivered them from their destructions. (Psalms 107:17-20)  

Modern Religious Observances

Without the Temple for sacrifices, the religious have to find other options.

[In the shuck – the chicken is not sold, only the opportunity for putting one’s sins upon its life.]

While swinging the chicken or money, the following paragraph is recited three times:

This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. (This rooster (hen) will go to its death / This money will go to charity), while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace.


  1. No eating and drinking
  2. No wearing of leather shoes
  3. No bathing or washing
  4. No anointing oneself with perfumes or lotions
  5. No marital relations

A parallel has been drawn between these activities and the human condition according to the Biblical account of the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Refraining from these symbolically represents a return to a pristine state, which is the theme of the day. By refraining from these activities, the body is uncomfortable but can still survive. The soul is considered to be the life force in a body. Therefore, by making one’s body uncomfortable, one’s soul is uncomfortable.By feeling pain one can feel how others feel when they are in pain.This is the purpose of the prohibitions. Total abstention from food and drink usually begins 20 minutes before sundown  and ends after nightfall the following day. Although the fast is required of all healthy adults over 12 or 13, it is waived in the case of certain medical conditions. Virtually all Jewish holidays involve a ritual feast, but since Yom Kippur involves fasting, Jewish law requires one to eat a large and festive meal on the afternoon before Yom Kippur, after the Mincha (afternoon) prayer. Wearing white clothing (kittel)  is traditional to symbolize one’s purity on this day. Many Orthodox men immerse themselves in a mikveh (ritual bath) on the day before Yom Kippur.


Many married men wear a kittel, a white robe-like garment for evening prayers on Yom Kippur, otherwise used by males on their wedding day. They also wear a tallit (prayer shawl), which is typically worn only during morning services.

The Kol Nidrei

Prayer services begin with the Kol Nidrei prayer, which is recited before sunset. Kol Nidre was in existence as early as the 6th century. Essentially it is a disavowal of all personal oaths and pledges made between man and God especially those taken under stress particularly during the Spanish Inquistion.  Over the years it was abused and caused many  Gentiles to distrust Jews.  Thus the Kol Nidrei has undergone a process of revision and explanation to honor God who takes vows seriously

“All [personal] vows we are likely to make, all [personal] oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our [personal] vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.”

It is recited in a dramatic manner, before the open ark, using a melody that dates back to the 16th century.Then the service continues with the evening prayers and an extended  service.

The morning prayer service is preceded by litanies and petitions of forgiveness called selichot; on Yom Kippur, many selichot are woven into the liturgy of the mahzor (prayer book). The morning prayers are followed by an added prayer (Mussaf) as on all other holidays. This is followed by Mincha (the afternoon prayer) which includes a reading (Haftarah) of the entire Book of Jonah, which has as its theme the story of God’s willingness to forgive those who repent. The service concludes with the Ne’ila (“closing”) prayer, which begins shortly before sunset, when the “gates of prayer” will be closed. Yom Kippur comes to an end with a recitation of Shema Yisrael and the blowing of the shofar,which marks the conclusion of the fast.

Repentance and confessional

The Talmud states, “Yom Kippur atones for those who repent and does not atone for those who do not repent”. Repentance in Judaism is done through a process called Teshuva, which in its most basic form consists of regretting having committed the sin, resolving not to commit that sin in the future and to confess that sin before God.

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