Today I had the privilege to attend a Jewish synagogue for the first time and participate in Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). It was such a beautiful service full of deep symbolism and tradition. I wanted to share a few things I learned with you.
The majority of the service was recited from the Machzor, a special prayer book used for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It was fun to try to follow along in English as the words were recited in Hebrew. One of my favorite readings was a 13th century poem about the High Holy Days. Here is an excerpt:
“In truth you are Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness. You write and You seal. You record and recount. You remember deeds long forgotten. You open the book of our days, and what is written there proclaims itself, for it bears the signature of every human being.
On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be; who shall live and who shall die…
But REPENTANCE, PRAYER, AND CHARITY temper judgment’s severe decree.
This is Your glory, You are slow to anger, ready to forgive: It is not the death of sinners you seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live. Until that last day you wait for them, welcoming them as soon as they return to you.”
Perhaps the most moving part of the service for me was the special Yom Kippur Amidah prayer which contained a recitation of common human sins (pride, anger, dishonesty, etc) followed by the plea:
“For all these sins, O God of mercy, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement!”
The congregation then sat in silence as we all contemplate our own sins. After the silence the Cantor (Jewish musical clergy) sang the most beautiful song taken from Psalms 19:14:
“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
He sang it first in Hebrew and then in English. I found a recording of this morning’s service if you want to watch. The song start about minute 26. Click Here
I felt the spirit strongly as I sat with hundreds of people openly recognizing our weaknesses and flaws, calling out to God to cover us with His atonement. It was a holy moment.
I also really loved the part of the service where the ark of the covenant is opened and the Torah is removed. Such beautiful scrolls, clearly cherished by the people. The Torah is carried throughout the congregation while people reach out with their prayer books to touch it and then kiss their prayer books. (minute 39 on the recording) I too love the words of (what I refer to as) the Old Testament so I reached out and touched it and kissed my book. It made me wonder if I could do more to love an appreciate the word of God in my life. Scriptures are more than just books, they are a way to feel God’s presence in our lives.
As much as I loved the Yom Kippur service, I realize that I only got to experience a tiny portion of this Holiest Day of the Jewish Calendar. Starting at sundown, Jews begin a 24 hour fast and return to the synagogue again and again for services, prayer meetings, and remembrances. As a Latter-day Saint, one thing I would like to borrow from Yom Kippur is the significance it gives to their fast. Growing up fasting the first Sunday of every month, I have let this ritual become a little too routine. I am excited to incorporate some of the solemnity and purpose of The Day of Atonement into my next Fast Sunday in hopes that I can feel that same spirit of deep contrition and desire for God to cover me with his grace.