Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is upon us once again, beginning in a few hours time here in Israel, when we will be entering a 25-hour fast with day-long prayer services, composed of beautiful, spiritual and emotional prayers and songs, being held in shuls and community centers throughout the Jewish world. It is a day when we must ask forgiveness from our fellow man if we have wronged them, forgive those who have wronged us if they ask to be forgiven, and pray that Hashem will seal us in the Book of Life.
In Israel, traffic comes to a complete halt throughout the country, even in the most secular towns, and a serene and holy calmness pervades throughout the land. Even the international airport and public transport close down for the day, starting from a few hours before the fast until an hour or so after the fast ends.
You can read more about Yom Kippur at Aish.com who have a great Yom Kippur info-graphic.
In time for Yom Kippur, Yad Vashem showcased a handmade Yom Kippur prayer book that survived the Shoah:
Ahead of the Day of Atonement, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center is showcasing pages of a mimeographed copy of a Yom Kippur liturgy, handwritten by a prisoner of the Saint Cyprien internment camp in France in 1940.
The two pages of prayers, which were uploaded to Yad Vashem’s online exhibition in recent days, were donated to its Artifacts Collection in 1973 by Martin Friedman, the son of Ludwig Friedmann – one of the group of Jews who prayed from the liturgy.
Friedmann was a German refugee who had escaped to Belgium shortly before the outbreak of World War II. In May 1940, as the Germans were invading Belgium, Belgian authorities rounded up German and Austrian citizens, most of them Jews, and deported them to southern France in a train bearing signs that announced they were a “Fifth Column.”
Martin Friedmann escaped the Holocaust on a kindertransport to Switzerland and today lives in the UK. When he donated the pages to Yad Vashem, little was known about the sender or the prayer book.
But more than a decade of research has revealed many more details about the circumstances and people connected to the prayer book, Sara Shore, manager of the Artifacts Collection of Yad Vashem Museum, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
All the information we had was that his father [Ludwig Friedmann] had been a German-born refugee who had been sent to a detention camp in France, and that it [the prayer book] was from Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur at the end of 1940,” said Shore, who spearheaded the research.
“But while we were computerizing the collection we went through each artifact, and I noticed a similarity between this and a Pesach Haggada we have which was in the same kind of format,” Shore explained.
The description of the Rosh Hashana prayers in the camp is chilling yet inspiring:
A testimony by Ansbacher, a German refugee deported from Belgium to the camp, relates how they put together a Passover Haggada. He also describes the prayers held in the camp for the New Year:
“There on the earth of St. Cyprien, what stands out as unforgettable was Rosh Hashana [the Jewish New Year 5701 – on the 3rd and 4th of October, 1940]. On that holiday morning we stood under a clear sky, thousands of people sharing a single fate, a simple choir led the congregation, then the ‘sermon.’ At that moment we all prayed as if from one soul, one voice rose to God from a thousand hearts. Those that took part thought of that and much more on that morning in October.”
Read the rest of the article to see how the Haggada and the Machzor were finally connected. And there is a happy end to the story, with the great-grandchildren of two of the survivors married each other.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the preeminent philosopher and thinker of the Jewish people in these days, has written a beautiful article on Yom Kippur Thoughts. Here is just a sample, where he talks about Kol Nidre:
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the supreme moment of Jewish time, a day of fasting and prayer, introspection and self-judgment. At no other time are we so sharply conscious of standing before God, of being known by Him. But it begins in the strangest of ways.
Kol Nidre, the prayer that heralds the evening service and the beginning of the sanctity of the day, is the key that unlocks the Jewish heart. Its melody is haunting. As the cantor sings, we hear in that ancient tune the deepest music of the Jewish soul, elegiac yet striving, pained but resolute, the song of those who knew that to believe is to suffer and still to hope, the music of our ancestors that stretches out to us from the past and enfolds us in its cadences, making us and them one. The music is sublime. Tolstoy called it a melody that “echoes the story of the great martyrdom of a grief-stricken nation.” Beethoven came close to it in the most otherworldly and austere of his compositions, the sixth movement of the C Sharp Minor Quartet, opus 131. The music is pure poetry but the words are prosaic prose.
Kol Nidre means “all vows.” The passage itself is not a prayer at all, but a dry legal formula annulling in advance all vows, oaths and promises between us and God in the coming year. Nothing could be more incongruous, less apparently in keeping with the solemnity of the day. Indeed, for more than a thousand years there have been attempts to remove it from the liturgy. Why annul vows? Better, as the Hebrew Bible and the rabbis argued, not to make them in the ﬁrst place if they could not be kept. Besides, though Jewish law admits the possibility of annulment, it does so only after patient examination of individual cases. To do so globally for the whole community was difficult to justify.
From the eighth century onwards we read of gaonim, rabbinic leaders, who condemned the prayer and sought to have it abolished. Five centuries later a new note of concern was added. In the Christian-Jewish disputation in Paris in 1240, the Christian protagonist Nicholas Donin attacked Kol Nidre as evidence that Jews did not feel themselves bound by their word, a claim later repeated by anti-Semitic writers. In vain, Jews explained that the prayer had nothing to do with promises between man and man. It referred only to private commitments between man and God. All in all, it was and is a strange way to begin the holiest of days.
Yet the prayer survived all attempts to have it dislodged. One theory, advanced by Joseph Bloch in I917 and adopted by Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz, is that it had its origins in the forced conversion of Spanish Jews to Christianity under the Visigoths in the seventh century. These Jews, the first Marranos, publicly abandoned their faith rather than face torture and death, but they remained Jews in secret. On the Day of Atonement they made their way back to the synagogue and prayed to have their vow of conversion annulled. Certainly some such reason lies behind the declaration immediately prior to Kol Nidre in which the leaders of prayer solemnly grant permission “by the authority of the heavenly and earthly court” for “transgressors” to join the congregation in prayer. This was a lifting of the ban of excommunication against Jews who, during the year, had been declared to have placed themselves outside the community. That, surely, is the significance of Kol Nidre in the Jewish imagination. It is the moment when the doors of belonging are opened, and when those who have been estranged return.
The Hebrew word teshuvah, usually translated as “penitence,” in fact means something else: returning, retracing our steps, coming home. It belongs to the biblical vision in which sin means dislocation, and punishment is exile: Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden, Israel’s exile from its land. A sin is an act that does not belong, one that transgresses the moral boundaries of the world. One who acts in ways that do not belong eventually finds that he does not belong. Increasingly he places himself outside the relationships – of family, community and of being at one with history – that make him who he is. The most characteristic sense of sin is less one of guilt than of being lost. Teshuvah means finding your way back home again.
That, on this night of nights, is what Jews do. The synagogue is full of the faces of those who rarely visit it. During the year – albeit less dramatically than their medieval predecessors – they may have been Marranos, hidden Jews. They have worn other masks, carried different identities. But on Yom Kippur night the music of Kol Nidre has spoken to them and they have said: here is where I belong. Among my people and its faith. I am a Jew.
Rabbi Sacks also addresses the issues of repentance, confession and more. Go and read it all. You will be inspired. He concludes with these beautiful words:
Yom Kippur is a day of awe. Yet the Talmud calls it one of the most joyous days of the year. Rightly so, for its message is that as long as we breathe, there is no final verdict on our lives. “Prayer, penitence and charity have the power to turn aside the evil decree.” God has given us free will and thus the strength to turn from bad to good. He has granted us a Day of Atonement, and thus the chance to unwrite our wrongs and find forgiveness. There is no equivalent in Judaism to the Greek ideas of fate and tragedy, the decree that cannot be averted and the futility of our attempts to escape it. Those concepts are utterly alien to the Jewish mind along with all theories that see our behavior as determined by causes outside ourselves. Instead, we believe that there is always a chance to begin again. For though we may lose faith in God, God never loses faith in us. On this day of days we hear His voice, gently calling us to come home.
In the spirit of the day, I would like to ask forgiveness from anyone whom I might have offended or hurt.
To those who are fasting I wish an easy and meaningful fast.
I would like to take this opportunity to wish my family, friends and readers Gmar Hatima Tova – May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.
גמר חתימה טובה