Hi, I’m Rachel Lindsey and work in the Internal Comms Team. Growing up with a Jewish father (in Judaism you’re only considered Jewish if your mother is - which mine isn’t), Yom Kippur has always played a part in my life, not directly, but as ‘the day when Dad fasts’. And who better to tell us about the traditions of Yom Kippur than Michael Lindsey himself…
What is Yom Kippur?
Literally translated, it means ‘day of atonement’ and is arguably the holiest and most important date on the Jewish calendar. It is the culmination of a 10 day period, starting with Jewish New Year, where you reflect on the last year and the sins you may have committed during that time, and ask for forgiveness. In my case, a day always seems far too short but I do my best nevertheless! Tradition dictates that by the end of this day your fate for the coming year will be sealed…will you be ‘inscribed in the book of life’ or will a less attractive scenario await you?
How is it celebrated and recognised within the Jewish community?
As soon as you mention Jewish New Year, people think of parties etc, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The lead up to Yom Kippur, and the day itself, are incredibly solemn. It is a time to pause, reflect and atone. Ever since I was a schoolboy (many many years ago!) I have always had this time off school. As I continued into working life, I would always book leave for this period. It would be unimaginable for me, and many other Jews, to be working on this day. It is a time for important reflection.
What does a synagogue service for Yom Kippur include?
It is the only service in the entire Jewish calendar that lasts all day. In fact, as Jewish days run from one night to the next, there is a service the night before and a full day service on the day itself, from around 10am to 8pm. Combine that with the fasting (see below) and you will see that it can be an exhausting day and, important as it is, not one that I particularly relish. Pre-covid, these services were/are held in synagogues all round the world, but since March last year our services have been held on Zoom. The content of the service is mostly prayers and repentance (we need to do an awful lot of that!). But the one specific prayer that most people place great importance on is the one where we remember loved ones who have passed away over the years. For me, this is one of the most emotional parts of the service. The end of the service (and the fast!) is denoted by the sound of someone blowing a ram’s horn - just one long eerie blast. A very powerful and emotive ending to a very powerful and emotive day.
Tell us about the fasting period?
Yom Kippur is an official fast day - a staggering 25 hour period! Once you reach a certain age you are normally expected to fast. Some people are surprised to learn that this means not drinking as well as not eating. But this is a very personal thing. The food police are not on duty monitoring your intake. It’s down to you and your conscience. And it’s very important to point out that there is a general ‘medical exemption’ - in other words, you can refrain from fasting if it adversely affects your health. For many years I would fast, and in recent times this was making me progressively more and more ill by the end of the day (due to underlying existing health issues). My wife was getting concerned that this was becoming counterproductive so I stopped officially fasting and now I just eat very lightly during the day.
How do you celebrate breaking the fast and are there traditional meals/foods typically eaten?
Each family tends to have their own traditions when it comes to breaking their fast. It can vary hugely from one household to another. In our family, we always have (and I accept this is very much an acquired taste!) cold fried fish, accompanied with smoked salmon, salads and cholla (a traditional jewish bread made with egg and plaited into shape). Plus lashings and lashings of tea - you are usually incredibly thirsty by this point.