Yom Kippur marks a season of repentance

Times Staff Writer

It’s called Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. And at 7:28 tonight, this Jewish day will officially end.

But in actuality, the arrival of sunset caps a roughly weeklong process of atonement and an entire season of teshuvah, or repentance. This season stretches at least from Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year 10 days earlier, to today.

“God has said to us, ‘Use this season to engage in examination of yourself. Use this season to repent. Use this season to project a new image of yourself that is more righteous, more pious and more holy,’ ” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox congregation in West Los Angeles.

Rabbi Joel Rembaum of Temple Beth Am, a conservative synagogue in West Los Angeles, described the lead-up to Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, in more contemporary terms: “The same way the baseball season culminates in the World Series and the football season culminates in the Super Bowl, so the yearlong season of repentance culminates in the High Holidays.”


Under Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur is the day that one’s fate in the coming year will be determined and sealed by God.

Jews around the world fast and repent for their sins in the last year, reflecting on the wrongs they have committed and begging God’s forgiveness.

For many, the season of teshuvah and preparation for the High Holy Days begins a month earlier in the Jewish month of Elul. During the 10 days of repentance, people traditionally make extra efforts to reconcile relationships with others and with God.

As part of the tradition, some partake in tashlich, a ceremony in which many Jews throw bread crumbs into water while reciting prayers to symbolize the cleansing of their sins.


Though the whole season is one of repentance, many Jews focus purely on today, Yom Kippur, to set the year right. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a single day can make up for a year, or a lifetime, of sin.

“This is supposed to be a paradigm for daily behavior,” Rembaum said. Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, said repentance should be done daily, that each day could be one’s last on earth, so one should “clean the docket” before death, Rembaum said.

“This is the time of year that gives you a chance to focus on it and clean up any loose ends, not to initiate the process,” Rembaum said. “It’s the culmination and not the initiation that’s the ideal.”

For Shella Sadovnik, 24, a formerly nonobservant Jew who has become more orthodox during the last couple of years, once a year is not enough. She said she has tried to set small goals for herself throughout the year.


“A lot of people just say sorry to everyone,” Sadovnik said. “They write these mass e-mails, but I don’t really believe in that. It’s not going to change you, and you’re not actually sorry if you’re saying it to 1,000 people at one time.”

On Yom Kippur, Jews say the prayer Ashamnu, literally “we have become guilty,” numerous times throughout the day, beating their chest with a fist as they recite each sin.

We have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have spoken slander. We have caused perversion, we have caused wickedness, we have sinned willfully, we have extorted, we have accused falsely.

We have given evil counsel, we have been deceitful, we have scorned, we have rebelled, we have provoked, we have turned away, we have been perverse, we have acted wantonly. . . .


Although many other religions, such as Christianity, allow people to beg God’s forgiveness and receive cleansing from God for such sins, in Judaism the sages state that God can forgive sins committed only against God; those committed against other human beings must be squared away at their source.

“There are even some authorities, some significant ones, that argue you are not forgiven by God for sins between man and God unless you also secure forgiveness from other people,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, an adjunct chair in Jewish law at Loyola Law School. “The two are contingent upon one another. So that makes the securing of forgiveness among human beings the linchpin, the single most important element in the process of teshuvah.”

Jack Josephson, 42, an attorney who lives in West Los Angeles, experienced this firsthand this High Holiday season.

His parents had married each other after the deaths of their previous spouses and then had him, making him the youngest of 10 children in the combined family. About seven years ago, Josephson’s mother gave him a family heirloom once belonging to his father, who by that time had also died. It was a turquoise sun wall-hanging on which his father had placed the family’s college tassels, some of which dated to the 1960s.


When one of Josephson’s sisters then asked for her tassel back, a family feud erupted and the two rarely spoke.

“Through trying to make teshuvah and thinking about what’s really important in this world, I decided that it’s just a physical item and wasn’t as important as the love between people and brother and sister. And so I apologized and offered her the tassel,” Josephson said.

He said her reaction was a relief. “Not only did her face immediately soften and a smile come to it, but she didn’t want the tassel back. It was just the principle.”

What’s more, when Josephson was 2 years old, this sister saved his life when he nearly drowned in the family pool.


“In a way, of all the people I needed to correct with, I owe her my life,” Josephson said.

The rabbis say Josephson’s case is not unique. Many people use the High Holy Days as a time to address rifts, grievances and guilt accumulated over the year or years before. However, an apology is merely one part of true teshuvah. One must also make a “firm commitment” to not repeat the offense in the future, Adlerstein said.

But it is also incumbent upon the person receiving the apology to forgive. The Talmud, or compendium of Jewish law, states that one should not be cruel and withhold forgiveness from a person when it is asked for multiple times with genuine remorse.

“If we change our own nature and become bending and forgiving, we maximize the probability that God will do that for us,” Adlerstein said.


In one prayer used during the High Holy Days, the importance of receiving God’s forgiveness is clear:

On Rosh Hashana will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire. . . .

Yet it is not for fear of the consequences, rabbis say, that one should observe the High Holy Days.

“In the final analysis,” Kanefsky said, “we’ll talk about, of course, life and death. We’ll talk about punishment; we’ll talk about having sustenance or not having sustenance. We talk about some really serious issues.


“But in the deepest essence, what we’re really after is the opportunity to draw closer to God and God’s service. That’s what it’s really, really all about.”