On Yom Kippur, we enter the synagogue in awe and trembling because the books of the living and the dead are open before God.
Included in the Yom Kippur machzor (prayer book) are psalms and prayers from Temple times; anthems and liturgical poetry from the Middle Ages; and more recent compositions. The Yom Kippur machzor is, therefore, a collection of stories, poems, songs and prayers from the Bible, Talmud, Midrash and medieval literature.
The theme of the Yom Kippur liturgy is that repentance can repair man’s alienation from God, which has been caused by sin. This repentance must constitute more than just remorse: it must comprise confession, restitution and inner change.
The Yom Kippur prayers and resolutions are the means by which a Jew can fashion a new spirit for him/herself. Congregational prayer is always important in Jewish worship, but even more so on Yom Kippur. God does not reject prayer from a group, even if an individual in it is a sinner. The more people who raise their voices together, the more likely their prayers are to be heard. In this way, the individual can have confidence that God will forgive and pardon his sins.
Kol Nidrei (special preliminary evening service for Yom Kippur)
The literal meaning of the name ‘Kol Nidre’ is ‘all my vows’. The purpose of this service is to release anyone who has made an oath (especially under great emotional strain) and who has been unable to keep this oath due to negligence or unforseen circumstances. It relates only to oaths taken by a person individually; no oath involving another person is included in Kol Nidre.
The haunting melody of Kol Nidre is chanted directly before the evening service of Yom Kippur. For many Jews it is the most moving of all synagogue services.
It is believed that Kol Nidre entered our liturgy when Jews were forced to pledge allegiance (make a forced ‘vow’) to Christianity in the Middle Ages. One day a year, they risked their lives to assemble to recite the Yom Kippur prayers together. They proclaimed in front of one another that even though they pretended to be Christians, they were still Jews in their hearts. They proclaimed that all their actions in the coming year until next Yom Kippur were not to be seen as an adoption of the Christian faith.
The Kol Nidre prayer is recited three times – the first time quietly, then with increasing intensity the last two times. The congregation repeats, “May all the congregation of the Children of Israel be forgiven, as well as the resident who dwells in their midst, for all the people act inadvertently”.
Ma’ariv (Evening Service) is said after the completion of the Kol Nidrei Service.
Shacharit (Morning Service)
When the Shema is read on Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur, we say “Baruch sheim k’vod malchuto” out loud, instead of whispering it to ourselves as we usually do.
Hallel is not recited on Yom Kippur.
Two Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) are taken out. From the first Torah we read Parashat Acharei Mot in Leviticus, and six people are called up. Six are called to the Torah to correspond with the theme of the day, which is atonement for the world, which was created in six days. If Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, seven people are called up.
The portion of Acharei Mot is about the death of Aaron’s sons. It is read on Yom Kippur as an atonement for the sins of Israel. By making a memorial of the sacrifice of Aaron’s sons, we may be atoned.
For the Maftir, Parashat Pinchas is read from the second Torah. This is relevant as it is about the Yom Kippur sacrifices.
The Haftarah (Reading from the Prophets) is from Isaiah, and is chosen for this time due to references in it to the subject of the day, such as “Is such the fast that I have chosen? The day for a man to afflict his soul?” followed by “And the holy of the Lord honourable” which the Talmud (Shabbat 110a) says “that is Yom Kippur”.
Yizkor is recited after the Torah service, to honour the deceased.
‘Yizkor’ means ‘he will remember’. On Yom Kippur, as on selected days of other major Jewish holidays, memorial services are conducted in which the names of people who have passed on are read out. It is customary for people whose parents are still alive to wait outside the synagogue whilst the Yizkor prayers are being said.
The Vidui (confession) prayer is said aloud a number of times on Yom Kippur (unless it is Shabbat). This is the famous prayer which lists all the sins that a person may or may not have committed. Ashamnu and Al Chet are the two best-known prayers in the Vidui. In saying the Vidui aloud, we pray as individuals and as a community for forgiveness.
The Vidui begins, “On the New Year it our destiny] is written down and on the Day of Atonement it is sealed… who shall live and who shall die, who shall live out the full measure of his days and who shall pass away before it….”
Although the prayer describes all the punishments that may await sinners, our tradition teaches that there is always hope of redemption. The prayer concludes, “But penitence, prayer and charity avert the severe decree!”
Musaf (Additional Service)
We say the Avodah prayer during the repetition of the Amidah. The Avodah relates the role of the kohen (priest) in the Temple. The climax of this part of the service is the threefold prayer for atonement recited by the High Priest, invoking the otherwise unuttered name of God. While reciting this section of the Avodah, the congregation falls on their knees four times in an expression of total submission to the name and glory of God. When we fall to the ground, we lie our heads on top of our hands.
Minchah (Afternoon Service)
We do not say Ashrei Uva L’tzion. We begin with the Torah service where three people are called up and we again read from Parashat Acharei Mot. The third aliyah (call up) is Maftir. We read from Yonah (the Book of Jonah) for the Haftarah (Reading from the Prophets). This is relevant because in the story of Yonah we see the people of Nineveh being saved due to teshuvah (repenting and changing).
This is the closing prayer service of Yom Kippur which is recited ‘as the gates of heaven are closing’ (i.e.: at sunset). In it we ask God to open those gates for us. It is a prayer recited with a dual tone of seriousness and hope.
We begin Ne’ilah with Ashrei Uva L’tzion. During the Amidah, we substitute “inscribe us” with “seal us”, and “inscribed” with “sealed”.
At the conclusion of Ne’ilah, we say “Shema Yisrael….” loudly once, then “Baruch shem….” three times, and “Hashem hu Ha’elokim” seven times. The shofar is blown once, and we all say “L’shana haba’a b’yrushalayim“.
During the whole of the Ne’ilah service, the ark is kept open.