Memories of Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was always a very special day for me. My family began preparations for the high holiday season a month earlier. During that month of Elul immediately before Rosh Hashanah, special New Year greetings were common. We sent cards to family and friends, and even bought space in the weekly Jewish newspaper to print our holiday greetings.
Rosh Hashanah, 10 days before Yom Kippur, was quite festive. We wore new clothes, and the rabbi, the choir and the cantor all wore pure white. The special anthems and chants sounded more medieval, more haunting than usual. Combined with the shofar’s 100 blasts it was indeed a special time. There was always a mystique to it. We had entered the Aseret Y’mai T’shuva, the Ten Days of Penance.
Then came Yom Kippur, the most important of Jewish holidays, the holiest of all. It seemed to me the pinnacle of Jewish life. We had a lot of fun on Hannukah and Purim. Our festivities continued with Passover and Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah, but during Yom Kippur a new level of awe and reverence came upon us. This was not just a holiday, but a holy day.
Yom Kippur began” with a huge meal. Actually the meal was on the eve of the holiday, because Yom Kippur is a fast day. We had to eat before sundown, and we always ate well to get us through the following day. We would not be allowed to eat again until after sunset the next day. It seemed like such a long time.
As evening fell, we went to the synagogue to hear the haunting melody of Kol Nidre, the recanting of all vows made by the Marranos in Spain. Due to great persecution of our people in Catholic Spain in the 15th century, a large segment of Jews had converted to Catholicism to avoid the oppression, but the Marranos continued to observe Jewish customs in the secrecy of their homes. Outwardly they were Christians; inwardly they were Jews. Each year on Yom Kippur they recanted their Catholic vows by reciting, “All the vows (Kol Nidre) that we have vowed may they…be nullified and not counted against us.…” The chanting of Kol Nidre remains part of the Jewish liturgy for that holiday and marks the beginning of this awesome Day of Atonement.
After all the prayers of repentance, we went home from the synagogue, and I wondered if God would forgive me this year. Early the next morning we put on our new clothes and returned to synagogue. We children had our own service. It was not as serious as the adults’, but at noon we joined our parents in the sanctuary. After a couple of hours of repenting and asking God for atonement, the kohanim, those descended from the priestly line of Aaron, blessed us with the Aaronic benediction from Numbers 6:24-25:
“The Lord bless thee, and keep thee;
The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”
Draped in their striped taleysim (prayer shawls) of fine wool or silk, they formed their hands into an odd prayer position which, according to legend, only true descendants of Aaron were able to do. They were supposed to be representing God to us, so we were not allowed to look at them. What a mystery!
I remember one year when I was about 11 years old I left the Yom Kippur service to take a walk. As I walked, I noticed the beautiful fall colors of Kansas City, and then I did something terrible. The food smells from the local hamburger stand around the corner became unbearable to resist, and I ordered a hamburger and Coke. As I bit into the burger, I felt awful. My parents, my grandparents and my entire community of faith were all in their seats across the street praying with sincerity, and here I was, doing the unthinkable, or at least the unallowable. I was eating on Yom Kippur! How could I expect God to forgive me for anything when I was committing yet another sin? Those are my early memories of Yom Kippur—a day to seek God, and wonder if I would be forgiven.
People often ask me if I continue to celebrate Jewish holidays now that I am a believer in Yeshua. I say yes, then I attempt to explain how certain holidays carry different meanings for me than they once did. Yom Kippur is one of those. I no longer recant vows I have made. I will never take back my vows to give my life to Yeshua; I no longer weep and wail and fast to obtain God’s forgiveness. I do take the day off and acknowledge God’s role in my salvation. I do identify with my people by prayer, sometimes (but not necessarily) accompanied by fasting. I do continue to repent of my sins. I also use Yom Kippur, as solemn an occasion as it is, to celebrate. I can celebrate because I know that in Yeshua, I have been forgiven.
One legend of our people is that of the scarlet thread. Supposedly each year on the Day of Atonement, a scarlet thread was hung outside the Temple. When the High Priest inside the Holy of Holies had obtained God’s forgiveness for the people’s sins, the scarlet thread turned white. This sign that forgiveness had been granted ushered in several days of festivity that culminated in Succot, the Feast of Tabernacles. The Talmud recounts (Yoma 39b) that 40 years before the destruction of the second Temple the scarlet thread no longer turned white. That was approximately 30 A.D., around the time of the earthly ministry, death and resurrection of Yeshua. I see this account, if it is true, as symbolic of the fact that forgiveness no longer would be granted by means of the Mosaic institutions, but by a new and living way, through the atoning death of the Messiah. It is he whom I celebrate on Yom Kippur. He is my forgiveness. He is my cleansing. He is my atonement. He alone makes me “at-one” with Almighty God.
Yes, I still celebrate Jewish holidays now that I am a believer in Yeshua. By celebrating them with Yeshua in my heart, I come into the presence of God, and that is the main purpose of all the holidays anyway.
Bob Mendelsohn is the leader of Jews for Jesus' work in Sydney, Australia. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Kansas City, but became a college drop-out when he decided to look for the meaning of life in the counterculture of the '60s. He found meaning and relevance in Jesus which caused him much trouble at home. But he says, It was worth the cost." Bob has worked for Jews for Jesus since 1979, and served as the leader of our work in Washington DC and New York City before moving to Sydney in 1998. Bob and his wife Patty both graduated from the University of Kansas and Fuller Seminary. The Mendelsohns live in Sydney near their son. Their two daughters and one grandson live in the US.