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Peninei Halakha > Days of Awe (Yamim Nora'im) > 07 – Laws of Yom Kippur

07 – Laws of Yom Kippur

01. Honoring the Day

Like Shabbat and holidays, Yom Kippur is called “a sacred occasion” (mikra kodesh), as we read, “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you” (Vayikra 23:27). With regard to Shabbat and festivals, this means enjoying and honoring them, as our Sages say (Sifra, Emor 12:4), “How does one sanctify a festival? With food, drink, and clean clothes” (codified in MT, Laws of Yom Tov 6:16; SA OḤ 529:1). However, we cannot say the same for Yom Kippur, when we must fast. Thus, our Sages (Shabbat 119a) expound the verse “The Lord’s holy day (should be) honored” (Yeshayahu 58:13) as referring to Yom Kippur. “There is no eating and no drinking on it, so the Torah says: Honor it with clean clothes” (Rif; Rosh on Yoma 8:9).

Many people, men and women, wear fine, elegant white clothes on Yom Kippur, imitating the ministering angels. On Yom Kippur we are not seduced by temptations of the flesh; we are sin-free, like the angels. Women, even those who do not wear white, avoid wearing jewelry and fancy clothes on Yom Kippur, due to the dread of impending judgment (Mordekhai; Rema 610:4; MB ad loc. 16-17). Many Ashkenazic men wear a white cloak called a kittel, which, in addition to being angelic, is also similar to a burial shroud. The kittel reminds us of death, leaving us contrite and humble, and inspiring us to repent. A kittel must be removed before using the bathroom, unless one is only urinating (Mateh Ephraim ad loc. 12; MB ad loc. 18).

It is a mitzva to clean the house before Yom Kippur and to cover the table with a nice tablecloth, just as one does before Shabbat (Mordekhai; Rema 610:3; AHS ad loc. 2). There is also a mitzva to take a shower in honor of Yom Kippur, just as one does for Shabbat. Some immerse in a mikveh as well (5:10 above).

It is a mitzva to clean the synagogue and prepare it for Yom Kippur so that it will look its best. There is also a mitzva to leave on all the lights in the synagogue in honor of the day, as we read (Yeshayahu 24:15), “Therefore, honor the Lord with lights” (SA 610:3-4; MB ad loc. 9).

On Tisha Be-Av, which is a mournful day commemorating the destruction of the Temple, we make a point of not smelling aromatic spices (SA 559:7; SHT 556:1). In contrast, on Yom Kippur some make a point of smelling aromatic spices and reciting the berakha over them. Since Yom Kippur is a festival, there is a mitzva to honor the day in any permissible way.

02. The Prohibition of Melakha and the Mitzva to Desist from Work

There is a positive mitzva to refrain from melakha on Yom Kippur, as we read, “It shall be a Shabbat of complete rest for you” (Vayikra 23:32). If one works on Yom Kippur, not only is he not fulfilling the positive mitzva to desist from melakha, but he is also violating the negative mitzva, “You shall do no melakha throughout that day” (ibid. 23:28). Since Yom Kippur is referred to as Shabbat, the thirty-nine categories of melakha prohibited on Shabbat are also prohibited on Yom Kippur. It is only regarding punishment that there is a difference between Yom Kippur and Shabbat. While someone who knowingly undertakes melakha (in the presence of witnesses after being duly warned) is subject to stoning on Shabbat, he is subject to karet on Yom Kippur. (One who unknowingly does melakha on either day must offer a sin offering.) Thus we read (ibid. v. 30), “And whoever does any melakha throughout that day, I will cause that person to perish from among his people” (MT, Laws of Resting on the Tenth 1:1-2; SA 611:2).

As on Shabbat, the mitzva to rest on Yom Kippur includes an obligation not to treat it as a weekday. That is, in addition to refraining from melakha, one is meant to refrain from doing burdensome activities. One must not open a store or move heavy items in preparation for weekday activities. Even though one who does so is not engaging in one of the thirty-nine melakhot, he is negating the mitzva to rest on Yom Kippur, as it is written, “It shall be a Shabbat of complete rest for you” (Vayikra 23:32). The mitzva is to preserve the sanctity and character of the day. One’s entire demeanor is meant to be different than on a weekday (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 22:1). In general, all laws of Shabbat apply to Yom Kippur, and there is the additional mitzva of fasting on Yom Kippur, so it involves a more complete withdrawal from mundane affairs.

03. The Mitzva of Confession (Vidui)

Yom Kippur is a time of forgiveness and atonement, as we read, “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall purify yourselves before the Lord” (Vayikra 16:30). Therefore, a mitzva is incumbent upon every individual to repent and to confess his sins on this day (MT, Laws of Repentance 2:7).

The process of repentance is completed when a person explicitly verbalizes a confession. As is the case with our mission in this world in general, here too, we must actualize the good intentions present in our thoughts and hearts. Explicit, verbal confession clarifies and crystalizes the thoughts and emotions accompanying repentance. Regret is deeply and keenly felt, and the penitent’s resolution to refrain from sin is reinforced. This is why the Torah commands those bringing an offering to confess their sins, as we read, “Speak to the children of Israel: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done” (Bamidbar 5:6-7). Similarly, we read, “When he realizes his guilt in any of these matters, he shall confess that wherein he has sinned” (Vayikra 5:5). Just as someone offering a sin offering must confess, so too, any penitent must confess. This is the final step of his repentance (MT, Laws of Repentance 1:1).

Confession should also be practiced all year round. If one sinned unknowingly, he should say “I have sinned” (ḥatati); if he sinned knowingly, he should say “I have done wrong” (aviti); and if he sinned spitefully, he should say “I have rebelled” (pashati). By doing so, he has fulfilled the mitzva of confession, even though he has not detailed specific sins. In general, it is preferable to specify sins, although there are some situations where it is preferable not to do so (SA 607:2; MB ad loc. 5; SHT ad loc. 11; see sections 4-6 below for details).[1]

[1]. Many authorities consider vidui to be the primary element of repentance, for it completes the process of repentance (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:40; Ramban; Smak; Sefer Ḥaredim). Ramban explains that repentance must be expressed in thought, speech, and action. “Thought” refers to regret for past misdeeds. “Speech” refers to vidui. “Action,” in Temple times, referred to leaning on a sacrificial animal before offering it (Ramban on Vayikra 1:9; Sefer Ha-ikarim 4:26). Nowadays, when there are no sacrifices, the verbal confession, which involves moving the lips, is considered to be action as well as speech (Yad Ketana). The customary bending over and striking the heart while reciting vidui (SA 607:3; MB ad loc. 10) is also a type of bodily action.

Rambam writes, “When a person repents and turns away from his sin, he must confess before God, blessed be He” (MT, Laws of Repentance 1:1). Many understand Rambam to be saying that repentance is not a positive mitzva per se, as the necessity for it goes without saying; rather, the mitzva is vidui which is part of the process of repentance (Pri Ḥadash; Minḥat Ḥinukh; Mishpat Kohen §128). Others maintain that Rambam considers repentance to be a mitzva, whereas vidui is a necessary part of that mitzva (Mabit, Kiryat Sefer).

04. The Laws of Vidui

During Temple times, the Kohen Gadol confessed on Yom Kippur on behalf of the entire Jewish people, as we read, “Aharon shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins” (Vayikra 16:21). According to the maḥzor, this was the formula of the vidui:

Please, Lord, Your people, the house of Israel, have sinned, have done wrong, have rebelled before You. Please, by Your name, grant atonement for the sins and for the wrongs and the rebellions that they have sinned, and done wrong, and rebelled before You – Your people, the house of Israel. As it is written in the Torah of Moses Your servant, at the word of Your glory, ‘For on this day, you will be atoned for and made pure of all your sins before the Lord.’”

“Sins” are unknowing, “wrongs” are knowing, and “rebellions” are spiteful. This order is logical, as it is reasonable to ask for forgiveness beginning with the less serious offenses (Yoma 36b; SA 621:5).

With this vidui, the Kohen Gadol fulfilled the mitzva of vidui on behalf of all Israel, even though presumably it was still valuable for each individual to confess his personal sins. An advantage of the Kohen Gadol’s vidui was that it allowed the entire nation to participate in repentance. This made the repentance deeper and more comprehensive. For this reason, after the Temple was destroyed, the Sages ordained that every Jew confess in the plural. During this recitation, each individual should keep in mind his personal sins as well (Yere’im; R. Sa’adia Gaon).

The minimum mandated vidui on Yom Kippur is: “But we have sinned, wronged, and rebelled” (Yoma 87b; MT, Laws of Repentance 2:8; Pri Ḥadash; MB 607:12). Common practice is to add a more extensive list of sins in alphabetical order (R. Amram Gaon):

We have sinned (ashamnu), we have acted treacherously (bagadnu), we have robbed, we have spoken slander. We have acted perversely, we have acted wickedly, we have acted presumptuously, we have been violent, we have framed lies. We have given bad advice, we have deceived, we have scorned, we have rebelled, we have provoked, we have turned away, we have committed iniquity, we have transgressed, we have persecuted, we have been obstinate. We have done wrong, we have corrupted, we have acted abominably, we have strayed, we have led others astray.

We continue with another list of sins, each of which is introduced by the phrase “For the sin we have sinned before You” (al ḥet she-ḥatanu lefanekha). Taking these as a starting point, each ethnic/geographical community has its own version.[2]

One might ask: How can a righteous person declare, “We have rebelled, we have provoked, we have turned away, we have committed iniquity,” when clearly he did not sin knowingly or rebelliously? How can someone who is careful with other people’s money declare, “We have robbed”? The answer is that the mitzva of vidui on Yom Kippur is communal. Therefore, the Sages ordained that every individual recite his vidui in the plural on behalf of the entire nation, just as the Kohen Gadol confessed on behalf of the entire nation.

Additionally, even if a person himself did not sin, it could be that he bears some responsibility for the sins of family members or friends. Sometimes he was in a position to object to their behavior but did not do so. Other times, he could have inspired them to repent, had he made the effort. It is also possible that had he been a better role model, he would have positively influenced them, so they would not have sinned. Finally, all Jews bear responsibility for one another. We are like one body made up of many parts. Therefore, the sin of any Jew is the responsibility of all. Thus, even the righteous must confess. It cleanses them of their share in the sin and inspires others to repent (Sefer Ḥasidim §601; Arizal; Ben Ish Ḥai, Ki Tisa).

One must stand for the entire vidui, until, “And for the sins for which we incur the four types of capital punishment…King who pardons and forgives” (SA 607:3; MB ad loc. 10). It is proper to bow the head or bend over a little during vidui, to show humility. Some are meticulous and bow more deeply, like we do when reciting the prayer of Modim (Shlah). Others who want to do so but find it difficult to stay bent over for a long time should bow deeply when reciting Ashamnu but just bend slightly when reciting Al Ḥet. It is customary to beat the chest during the recitation of vidui, as if to say, “My heart caused me to sin” (MB 607:11).[3]

[2]. Some maintain that one does not fulfill the obligation of vidui simply by reciting “I have sinned, I have wronged, I have rebelled.” Rather, one must specify the sins, and so one must recite “Ashamnu, bagadnu, etc.” (Shlah; Perisha). Even though this list, too, is not specific, since it specifies more types of sin in alphabetical order, it includes, explicitly or implicitly, all sins.

It is proper to confess for our ancestors’ sins as well (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:40). Therefore, our vidui includes the line, “For in truth, we and our fathers have sinned” (Shlah). There is a profound wisdom here. Alongside the mitzva to honor one’s parents, one must also repair his family’s bad habits. When one confesses his ancestors’ sins, he can free himself of them and repair them. If he does not confess them, we are afraid that he will repeat them inadvertently. This vidui is also fulfilled with the general formula (“we and our fathers have sinned”); but if someone feels it will facilitate his repentance, he should specify the sins, as explained below in section 6.

[3]. One should make sure to stand from the beginning of vidui, meaning from “Our God and God of our fathers” (prior to “Ashamnu”) through the concluding words. In congregations where the congregants are not required to recite vidui during the repetition of the Amida, one must stand only when the ḥazan recites the crux of vidui: “But we and our fathers have sinned” (SAH 607:8). However, in practice, all communities recite vidui during the repetition, so everyone must stand for the entire recitation (MB 607:10). One who finds it difficult to stand should stand for the crux of vidui. If he can, it is preferable that he stand for the recitation of Ashamnu as well.

Many bend over slightly or bow their heads while reciting vidui. Others bow more deeply, as when reciting Modim (Shela). One who has difficulty bowing but wants to be stringent should bow deeply during the recitation of the crux of vidui, and if possible also for the recitation of Ashamnu. The rest of the time, it is enough just to bow the head a bit.

Both Ashkenazim and Sephardim customarily beat their chests during the recitations of Ashamnu and Al Ḥet. However, in the section listing the sacrifices relevant for different sins, many do not bow or beat their chests because these statements are general and do not include the phrase “For the sin we have sinned before You.” Many Yemenites do not strike the chest at all during vidui.

05. The Times of Vidui

Since Yom Kippur is the time of forgiveness, atonement, and acceptance of the Jews’ repentance, and since repentance requires vidui, it is a mitzva to confess as soon as Yom Kippur begins, meaning, at Ma’ariv. However, the Sages were concerned that something might go wrong at the pre-fast meal – someone might get drunk and be unable to confess during Ma’ariv or might choke during the meal and die before confessing. Therefore, they ordained that each person confess at Minḥa, prior to the pre-fast meal. Nevertheless, vidui must be repeated at Ma’ariv on Yom Kippur, as that is still the primary time for vidui and atonement. Despite having confessed at Ma’ariv, we confess again at Shaḥarit, Musaf, Minḥa, and Ne’ila (Yoma 87b). Given that we have just confessed and have not had time to sin, this would seem to be unnecessary. Nevertheless, whenever we stand in prayer before God on Yom Kippur, it is appropriate to confess, as repentance is the mitzva of the day. (This is different from the rest of the year, when even those who confess every day do not do so during the Amida.) Additionally, it is possible that one sinned after Ma’ariv, so he must confess again at Shaḥarit. Similarly, he may have sinned after Shaḥarit, so he must confess during Musaf, and so on. For Yom Kippur continues to atone until the end of the day, when it gets dark (Levush, SAH 607:1).

During each silent Amida, vidui is recited after the conclusion of the berakhot and before the recitation of Elokai Netzor. During the repetition of the Amida, it is recited within the middle berakha (the sanctification of the day). Technically, an individual is not required to confess during the repetition, though he must stand (SA 607:3). However, in practice, the Rishonim write that it is proper for the members of the congregation to recite vidui together with the ḥazan (Ran; Rema) so that everyone recites vidui ten times over the course of the day, corresponding to the ten times that the Kohen Gadol uttered the Tetragrammaton (10:15-16 below). The ten confessions are: one before the fast during the silent Amida of Minḥa, one at night during the Amida of Ma’ariv, and eight more during the four prayer services of the day: Shaḥarit, Musaf, Minḥa, and Ne’ila. In each of these four services, one vidui is recited during the silent Amida and a second is recited during the ḥazan’s repetition. The vidui that we recite during the Seliḥot after the Amida of Ma’ariv does not count, as it is not recited within an Amida (Tur 621; MB ad loc. 2).

According to Ramban, in addition to the confessions recited on Yom Kippur, one must recite the vidui after the pre-fast meal, before dark, so as to start Yom Kippur in a state of repentance. Aḥaronim write that it is proper to follow this stringency (Shlah). However, there is concern that some people will not be able to recite it because they drank during the meal. Therefore, they ordained the recitation of vidui at Minḥa as well, before the meal. The main purpose, however, is to enter Yom Kippur with the right mindset. One may fulfill this vidui by reciting the minimum: “But we have sinned, done wrong, and rebelled.” In practice, two customs have developed to fulfill the stringency right before Yom Kippur: Ashkenazim recite Tefila Zaka, which contains detailed confessions (MB 607:1), while Sephardim recite the poem Lekha Keli Teshukati, which includes confessions. There is an opinion that these prayers must be recited while standing, since they are a type of vidui (Pri Ḥadash). Nevertheless, the custom is to recite them while seated, as be-di’avad one may confess while sitting.

Those who will not attend the synagogue are not obligated to recite ten confessions. During each Amida that they pray, they should recite the appropriate vidui. At least one vidui must be made, as this is an obligation of the day. If at all possible, two confessions should be made, one at the beginning of Yom Kippur and another one at the end, at the time of Ne’ila. (See 6:3 n. 1 above.)

06. Specifying Sins in Vidui

It is better for one to express specific sins he committed, as doing so deepens regret and strengthens repentance. This is the opinion of R. Yehuda b. Bava in the Gemara. He bases it on the confession of Moshe Rabbeinu following the sin of the Golden Calf: “Moshe went back to the Lord and said, ‘Alas, this people is guilty of a great sin in making for themselves a god of gold’” (Shemot 32:31). At the same time, specifying one’s sins, on some level, impinges on the honor of heaven, for the goal of repentance is to minimize the importance of sins, and speaking about sins grants them significance. Additionally, shame over one’s sins is fundamental to repentance, as the Sages say, “If one sins and is ashamed of it, he is forgiven for all his sins” (Berakhot 12b). One who specifies his sins may seem as though he is not ashamed of them. Thus, R. Akiva maintains that one who confesses need not specify his sins, as it says, “Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over” (Tehilim 32:1).

In practice, one can fulfill his obligation to confess without specifying his sins. He can simply declare, “I have sinned, I have wronged, I have rebelled.” Certainly, then, reciting Ashamnu fulfills the obligation. One who knows that specifying his sins will deepen his repentance should specify them silently. For example, if he ate non-kosher food, he should say, “I have eaten non-kosher food” (SA 607:2; Vilna Gaon ad loc.; SHT ad loc. 3).[4]

There is a disagreement among the Sages as to whether one who confessed his sins the previous Yom Kippur should confess the same sins again (Yoma 86b). Some say, “Of him, Scripture says, ‘As a dog returns to his vomit, so a dullard repeats his folly’ (Mishlei 26:11).” In contrast, R. Eliezer b. Yaakov says, “He is certainly praiseworthy, as we read, ‘For I recognize my transgressions and am ever conscious of my sin’ (Tehilim 51:5).” Shulḥan Arukh rules that one may confess again for sins to which he confessed the previous year (SA 607:4).

Perhaps we can suggest a guideline: If one feels that his repentance is incomplete, and that he has not yet managed to erase the sin from his heart completely, it is better for him to confess again. But if one feels that his repentance is complete and the sin is erased from his heart, it is not appropriate to confess, as doing so displays a lack of faith in the power of repentance. Sometimes a person repents completely and erases a sin from his heart, but a few years later suddenly thinks about it again and is distressed by it. This happens because his repentance was sufficient for his former spiritual stature; no trace of the sin was discernible. However, after he attains a greater, more illuminated spiritual stature, his previous repentance is no longer sufficient to cleanse him of any trace of sin. Therefore, he must confess again to erase the faint but lingering impression of his sin (Tzidkat Ha-tzadik 134:67).

[4]. Beit Yosef infers from Rif and Rosh that the halakha follows R. Akiva, and one who confesses need not specify his sins. Itur, Or Zaru’a, Me’iri, and Tur seem to rule this way as well. However, Rambam follows R. Yehuda b. Bava and requires that the sins be specified (MT, Laws of Repentance 2:3). This is also the position of Smag, Raavya, Roke’aḥ, and Sefer Ḥasidim. Moreover, there is disagreement about how to understand R. Akiva’s view. Some take it to mean that specifying one’s sins is actually forbidden (Pri Ḥadash), while others say that it is permissible to do so silently, and sometimes even preferable (Beit Yosef). It would seem that R. Akiva himself would agree that there are two sides of this: On the one hand, it expresses profound regret; on the other hand, it indicates shamelessness and impinges on the honor of heaven. Therefore, R. Akiva says that it is not necessary to specify sins, but he would agree that when specifying sins will enhance one’s repentance, he should do so silently. This understanding accords with the ruling of Shulḥan Arukh (607:2). Halakha accords with R. Akiva that one is not required to specify his sins, but it is proper to do so silently.

But how can we accept the ruling of Shulḥan Arukh when several Rishonim say that one must specify his sins? It could be that we fulfill both views by reciting Ashamnu. On the one hand, it is quite specific and thus meets the requirements of R. Yehuda b. Bava (Tosfot Yeshanim, Yoma 86b). On the other hand, since everyone recites the same list, there is still an element of the individual covering up his sins and showing that he is ashamed of them (Rema in Darkhei Moshe 607 and on Shulḥan Arukh 607:2). I therefore wrote above that it is not necessary for an individual to detail his sins, but that it is good to do so if it will help him repent. See Harḥavot.

07. Public Vidui

The Gemara (Yoma 86b) raised another important question in the context of vidui: Is it proper for a sinner to confess publicly? On the one hand, we have seen that a person should be ashamed of his sins and not confess them in the presence of others, as it says, “Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered over” (Tehilim 32:1). On the other hand, we have learned that a sinner should not try to cover up his crimes. Rather, he should publicly confess them, as it says, “He who covers up his faults will not succeed; he who confesses and gives them up will find mercy” (Mishlei 28:13).

The Gemara records two views. Rav explains that if a sin was committed in private, it should be confessed in private as well, as public confession impinges on the honor of heaven and publicizes that some people brazenly violate Torah commandments. However, if the sin was committed in public, it was a desecration of God’s name. The sinner can only rectify this by confessing publicly, so that the masses know that he repented. This will sanctify God’s name (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:18).

  1. Naḥman explains that one should confess interpersonal sins publicly, so that everyone sees that his friend’s honor is important to him, which will also help his efforts to placate his friend. However, one who proudly hurts his friend publicly but asks for forgiveness privately has not repented adequately. In contrast, when sins are between man and God, generally it is preferable to confess privately, to avoid further desecration of God’s name.

In practice, one should consider both factors, namely, God’s honor and his friend’s honor and appeasement. In general, sins between man and God should preferably be confessed privately, though if the sin was committed publicly, in a way that desecrated God’s name, the confession should be public as well, as this restores divine honor. In contrast, interpersonal sins should generally be confessed publicly, as this is a better way for the offender to placate the injured party. However, in cases where a public confession would make things worse (for example, when only the two of them are aware of the offense, or when the injured party would prefer that the whole embarrassing incident be forgotten), clearly it is forbidden for the offender to confess publicly.[5]

[5]. Some say that Rav and R. Naḥman disagree (Leḥem Mishneh, based on its understanding of Rambam, Laws of Repentance 2:5), while others maintain that they generally agree, except in rare cases (Kesef Mishneh). Still others argue that their views are complementary (Sha’arei Teshuva 1:18; this would seem to be the position of Raavad as well). This last approach is the one I present above, because each position has merit, and many poskim understand them this way. Additionally, even according to those who maintain that there is a disagreement between Rav and R. Naḥman, in most cases they still agree with one another. For example, they may disagree about an interpersonal sin that was committed in public (when Rav says it is preferable to confess in public, while R. Naḥman maintains it is preferable to do so in private – Kesef Mishneh). But when the sin involves a desecration of God’s name, even R. Naḥman agrees that the vidui should be public. Similarly, they may disagree when an interpersonal sin was committed in private (when Rav says it is preferable to confess in private, while R. Naḥman maintains it is preferable to do so in public). But when a public confession could further hurt the injured party, it is clear that R. Naḥman would agree that the confession should not be public. Therefore, I focus on the cases where both agree. In a case where they might disagree, the offender must weigh the factors and determine which approach is better in the particular instance.

The Sages say that one who tells others of a sin he committed in private is called brazen, as he desecrates God’s name. They then ask: How could Reuven have confessed to changing his father’s sleeping arrangements? They answer that a sinner must confess when there is a possibility that not doing so will result in someone else being wrongfully suspected (Sota 7b). With this precedent, some Aḥaronim say that it is permitted to publicly admit to one’s sins when there is a legitimate need to do so (Pri Ḥadash; Sha’arei Teshuva 607:2).

08. The Beginning, End, and Other Relevant Times of Yom Kippur

For all Torah matters, night precedes day, so Yom Kippur begins at night and concludes at the end of the following day. However, it is unclear as to precisely when day ends and night begins. Does the day end when the sun sets and is no longer visible, or when it gets dark enough to see three medium-sized stars? In Eretz Yisrael, the difference between these times is about twenty minutes, with some seasonal variation. The twilight period between shki’a (sunset) and tzeit ha-kokhavim (nightfall) is referred to as bein ha-shemashot. Since the mitzva to refrain from work on Shabbat and Yom Tov is of Torah origin, we are stringent about the timing, in accordance with the well-known principle, “We are stringent in cases of uncertainty about Torah law.” Thus, Shabbat and Yom Tov begin at shki’a and end at tzeit.

There is also a mitzva to extend Shabbat and Yom Tov, meaning to accept the sanctity of the day a little before its starting time and extend it a little past its ending time. Accordingly, it is a mitzva to accept the day’s sanctity a few minutes before shki’a, and to end it a few minutes after tzeit. The custom is to wait about ten minutes past tzeit (SA 608:1; Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:1-2). Adding time shows that these days are beloved and very precious to us. Furthermore, by taking mundane moments and transforming them into sacred ones, we show the potential of the mundane. This transformation extends the day’s holiness to all the weekdays and elevates them.[6]

It is a mitzva to verbally accept the holiness of the day. Women generally accept the sanctity of Yom Kippur when they recite the berakhot over candle lighting, when the day is invoked (see the next section). Men accept the sanctity of the day either upon reciting the berakha of She-heḥeyanu in the synagogue or by verbally accepting Yom Kippur (section 10 below).

One who concludes his pre-fast meal early may continue eating and drinking until he accepts upon himself the holiness of the day. If he was negligent and did not accept it upon himself before shki’a, all the Yom Kippur prohibitions nevertheless go into effect at shki’a (SA 608:1-3). One may accept the holiness of the day as early as plag ha-minḥa, which is about an hour and a quarter before shki’a (MB 608:14; Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:2 n. 2).

[6]. The halakha that requires adding time from the weekday to sacred occasions is derived from a verse about Yom Kippur: “It shall be a Shabbat of complete rest for you, and you shall deprive yourselves; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your Shabbat” (Vayikra 23:32). The Sages expound: On the one hand, it is impossible that we are meant to fast on the day of the ninth, as the verse says “at evening.” On the other hand, it cannot be that the fasting begins only at night with the onset of the tenth, as the verse clearly prescribes deprivation on the ninth. Rather, the verse is teaching us that we must add from the mundane to the holy, accepting Yom Kippur upon ourselves while it is still day. We also lengthen Yom Kippur at its departure, since “from evening to evening” implies that the holiness of the day is to be extended into the night. The fact that the verse says “observe this your Shabbat” (tishbetu Shabbatḥem) teaches us that on all the days we desist from labor – Shabbat and holidays – we must extend the day’s sanctity (Rosh Ha-shana 9a).

09. Accepting Yom Kippur: Candle Lighting

There is a mitzva to light candles to honor Yom Kippur, just as there is a mitzva to light candles to honor Shabbat. Though the main reason for lighting Shabbat candles is to enhance and honor the festive meal (which is why the candles are lit where we eat), nevertheless, even on Yom Kippur when eating is forbidden, lighting candles still honors the day. Additionally, it helps promote a peaceful household, as it allows the household members to see where things are and to avoid tripping over them.

In the past, there were places where people did not light candles on Yom Kippur. Since people dress nicely in honor of Yom Kippur, there was concern that candlelight might create a romantic ambience and arouse sexual desire (and sexual relations are forbidden on Yom Kippur). Others said that, on the contrary, it is better to light candles, since sexual relations are forbidden where there is light; the candles actually deter sin. The Sages declared that each community should follow its custom: Where the custom is to light, one should light, and where it is not to light, one should not light (Pesaḥim 53b; SA 610:1). The Sages added that the custom to light is more praiseworthy, so where there is no custom, it is better to enshrine the custom to light (y. Pesaḥim 4:4). This is the longstanding widespread custom.

All the laws that apply to lighting Shabbat candles apply to lighting Yom Kippur candles as well. The usual berakha recited is “Barukh ata Hashem Elokeinu Melekh ha-olam, asher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu le-hadlik ner shel Yom Ha-Kippurim” (“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to light Yom Kippur candles”). If Yom Kippur is on Shabbat, the berakha ends “le-hadlik ner shel Shabbat ve-shel Yom Ha-Kippurim” (“to light Shabbat and Yom Kippur candles”).[7]

Women generally accept the sanctity of the day with candle lighting. Therefore, those who recite the berakha on the candles should recite She-heḥeyanu immediately afterward. Those who recite the berakha before lighting the candles should recite She-heḥeyanu when they finish lighting, because once they have recited She-heḥeyanu they may not perform any further melakha, including candle lighting.

If a woman wishes to drive to synagogue after lighting candles, she should have in mind that she is not accepting the sanctity of the day with her candle lighting. Instead, she should accept the sanctity of the day in the synagogue when the congregation recites She-heḥeyanu (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:3; SSK 44:14).[8]

[7]. Some say that no berakha should be recited upon lighting Yom Kippur candles (Mordekhai; Maharil; Pri Ḥadash; Vilna Gaon), since Shabbat candles were instituted for the meal, and because lighting candles before Yom Kippur is only a custom (and not even a universal one, as we saw). Nevertheless, in practice we do recite the berakha, since lighting candles on Yom Kippur is a mitzva in honor of the day and to maintain domestic tranquility (Rosh, Yoma 8:9 and 8:27). In some places, even though it is a mitzva, people did not light out of concern that it would result in sexual relations. But everywhere else, the halakha reverts to the original practice, as it is a mitzva to light and recite the berakha. Indeed, this is the practice today (Rema 610:2; Levush; Baḥ; SAH; Ben Ish Ḥai, Vayelekh §9; Ḥazon Ovadia, p. 256; SSK 44:13).

Since one of the reasons for the custom to light Yom Kippur candles is to prevent a couple from engaging in sexual relations, it would seem that the candles should be lit in the bedroom (Rema 610:1) and that they should burn all night. Yet no one seems to be concerned about these issues (Shulḥan Gavo’ah 610:1). I would like to offer two possible explanations for this. First, most people in the past lived in small houses without separate bedrooms; everyone ate and slept in the same room. Those who felt that having light would prevent them from being tempted to sin could have made sure that their oil or candles would last until they fell asleep. Nevertheless, the concern about intimacy is not the primary reason why the Sages instituted lighting Yom Kippur candles. Lighting has intrinsic value, namely honoring Yom Kippur (as we indicate by reciting a berakha). Therefore, even people who have large homes with bedrooms (as most people do nowadays) are not obligated to light additional candles in their bedroom. A second reason that there is no custom to light in the bedroom is that it was customary on Shabbat and Yom Tov to fulfill the mitzva of marital intimacy. The nice clothes and candles in the main room contributed to a celebratory atmosphere and facilitated intimacy. However, in later years when it became apparent that candles do not really lead to marital intimacy, it was deemed unnecessary to light a candle in the bedroom on Yom Kippur, just as it is unnecessary to light a candle when the wife is a nidda at other times of the year. Nevertheless, many Aḥaronim write that it is a good idea le-khatḥila to have a little light in the bedroom on Yom Kippur night, as a subtle reminder of the prohibition of sexual relations.

[8]. Many women recite She-heḥeyanu when lighting candles for any holiday. In truth, kiddush is a better time for this berakha, but those who wish to recite it when lighting may do so (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 2:2). On Yom Kippur, though, kiddush is not recited, so the assumption is that women accept the sanctity of Yom Kippur when they light candles, and they recite She-heḥeyanu at that point (Ben Ish Ḥai, Vayelekh §9). However, one who wants to drive to the synagogue after lighting candles may have in mind that she is not yet accepting the sanctity of the day, as she can do on any Shabbat (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:3). She then recites the berakha of She-heḥeyanu in the synagogue, for if she recites it at home after lighting the candles, she has accepted Yom Kippur and must refrain from any further melakha (MB 619:4; Ben Ish Ḥai, Vayelekh §9; SSK 44:14).

As we explained in Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 4:4, Ashkenazim and some Sephardim light Shabbat candles first and then recite the berakha, because some say that with the recitation of the berakha, they have accepted Shabbat and are no longer allowed to light the candles. It follows that on Yom Kippur, after reciting the berakha over the candles, they should recite She-heḥeyanu and accept all the Yom Kippur prohibitions upon themselves. Many Sephardim recite the berakha over Shabbat candles before lighting them, as they do not intend to accept Shabbat until after they light. On Yom Kippur, though, since they are accepting the sanctity of the day with the recitation of She-heḥeyanu, they should recite it only after lighting the candles (Ḥazon Ovadia, p. 257).

10. Accepting Yom Kippur: Kol Nidrei

As we have seen, there is a mitzva to add from the mundane to the sacred and to accept the holiness of the day before shki’a. This acceptance needs to be verbalized. There are two customs regarding when this is done in synagogues, based on when Kol Nidrei is finished.

Some congregations make sure to finish Kol Nidrei before shki’a, as there is a principle that we do not annul vows on Shabbat unless doing so meets some Shabbat need (Shabbat 157a). Since this principle applies to Yom Kippur as well, Kol Nidrei should not recited on Yom Kippur itself. True, some maintain that Kol Nidrei is primarily meant to neutralize future vows (5:12 above) and thus is not considered nullification of vows; nevertheless, others maintain that it is similar to the annulling of vows, and therefore should not be recited once the day has begun (Rema 619:1; MB ad loc. 5). These congregations should accept the day’s holiness with the recitation of She-heḥeyanu at the conclusion of Kol Nidrei. Since this berakha expresses our thanks for this day, it is an appropriate time to accept the day’s sanctity. Even though on other holidays we recite She-heḥeyanu over wine at kiddush, on Yom Kippur, when we do not recite kiddush over wine, we recite She-heḥeyanu at its onset (Eruvin 40b; SA 619:1).

Most congregations, however, finish Kol Nidrei after shki’a, with some even starting it after shki’a. Even though the halakha is that we do not annul vows on Shabbat, when it meets a Shabbat need it is permitted. Since the recitation of Kol Nidrei is meant to cleanse us of the sin of unfulfilled vows, it meets a Yom Kippur need. (See Shabbat 157a; SA 341:1.) These congregations must accept the day’s holiness before shki’a to fulfill the mitzva of extending the day’s sanctity. To ensure that people do not forget to fulfill the mitzva, the gabbai should announce: “We hereby accept upon ourselves the sanctity of Yom Kippur.” Sometimes the ḥazan thinks he will reach She-heḥeyanu before shki’a, but during the recitation of Kol Nidrei it becomes clear that he will not. In such a case, he should pause before shki’a to announce that the holiness of the day is being accepted, and then continue his recitation.[9]

[9]. According to Rabbeinu Tam, the recitation of Kol Nidrei is meant to disclaim future vows; annulling past vows requires that they be specified before a “court.” In contrast, Rosh maintains that Kol Nidrei nullifies past vows, but does not disclaim future vows, because that would lead people to stop taking vows seriously. In practice, we nullify past vows and disclaim future vows, as explained above in section 5:11-12. Kol Nidrei may be recited during twilight (after shki’a) and even after tzeit, since it serves a Yom Kippur need – cleansing people of the sin of unfulfilled vows. See Responsa Rivash §394; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 619:25; Yeḥaveh Da’at 1:59. An additional reason to permit annulling vows on Yom Kippur can be extrapolated from the laws of Shabbat. After an individual has accepted Shabbat, the Sages permit him to disregard rabbinic decrees for the sake of a mitzva (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:4). Some maintain that this permission applies even after the entire community has accepted Shabbat upon itself (ibid. n. 4). Since the prohibition of nullifying vows on Shabbat and Yom Kippur is rabbinic, and Kol Nidrei’s nullification is being done in the service of a mitzva, it is permissible.

11. Ma’ariv

The Yom Kippur prayers begin with the removal of two Torah scrolls from the ark. Two prominent members of the congregation carry the scrolls to the bima. The ḥazan stands between them and declares, “With the agreement of God and of the community, in the heavenly council, and in the council of man, we permit praying with transgressors.” Some congregations take out only one Torah scroll, while others take out more than two. There are also slight variations in the formulation of the declaration. Each congregation should follow its custom (SA 619:1 and commentaries).

This opening declaration expresses a theme of Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, the holy soul within each Jew is manifest. Even people who act sinfully all year long – pariahs in the eyes of both heaven and earth, with whom it is inappropriate to pray – are invited to join the congregation. Just as we judge these sinners favorably and treat them with benevolence and love, so we hope that God judges us favorably and showers us with His love and benevolence.

The Sages state, “Any fast in which the sinners of Israel do not participate is not deemed a fast. For though galbanum smells bad, it is nonetheless listed by Scripture as one of the spices of the incense” (Keritot 6b). Every Jew has his own divine spark, so if even one Jew is missing, the entire nation is lacking. Therefore, when sinners join the prayers, sanctifying God’s name, the Jewish people are united and become rooted in the land.

Following the declaration, Kol Nidrei is recited. It releases us from the chains of vows or obligations that we were unable to fulfill and ensures that they will not impede our repentance on Yom Kippur.[10]

We then recite verses about forgiveness, expressing the theme of the day. This is followed by She-heḥeyanu and the return of the Torah scrolls to the ark.

When the Torah scrolls are carried, first to the bima and later back to the ark, many people lovingly kiss them, intending this to serve as a request for forgiveness and atonement for any disrespect they may have shown to the holy Torah or its mitzvot.

In many congregations, the rabbi delivers a Kol Nidrei sermon before Ma’ariv that focuses on character development, inspiration, and repentance (Mateh Ephraim 619:9).

Even though normally a talit is not worn at Ma’ariv, on Yom Kippur it is customarily worn by all who wear a talit for Shaḥarit daily. When putting on the talit, one should focus on remembering all the mitzvot through the tzitzit, on how they shield every part of our souls from external evils, and on how God will spread divine peace upon us. The talit should be put on before shki’a so that the berakha may be recited over it. One who puts on a talit after shki’a should not recite the berakha (SA and Rema 18:1; MB ad loc. 7).

It is proper to study Torah after Ma’ariv. There is a special mitzva to learn Torah on every holiday, and certainly on Yom Kippur. People should make every effort to set aside time to study then. Since the vast majority of the day is dedicated to prayer, the best time to study is after Ma’ariv (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:5-6; MB 619:16).

We will not go into detail here about the different prayer formulations, as these can be easily found in the maḥzorim of the various communities. We will focus on prayer laws and customs which express the meaning of the day.

[10]. Repentance is linked to freedom. Therefore, “freeing” a person from the chains of all the vows with which he has bound himself is appropriate on this day. This is reflected in the law which frees slaves and returns fields to their previous owners on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee (6:11 above).

12. Barukh Shem Kevod Malkhuto

The daily mitzva of accepting the yoke of heaven is fulfilled primarily by declaiming the verse, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Devarim 6:4). We immediately follow this with the quiet recitation of the sentence, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever (Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va-ed).” Even though this sentence does not appear in the portion of Shema, or in the Torah at all, the Sages ordained its silent recitation (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 15:7 n. 1). The Talmud recounts the origin of this sentence: Before our patriarch Yaakov died, he gathered all his sons around him and wanted to reveal to them the end of days, but the Divine Presence left him. He said to his sons, “Perhaps one of you is not worthy. After all, Avraham had Yishmael, and Yitzḥak had Esav. Is that why I cannot reveal the end to you?” They responded by declaring unanimously, “‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one.’ Just as the one God alone is in your heart, so too, the one God alone is in our heart.” At that point Yaakov said, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” This story posed a dilemma to the Sages: What to do? Should we recite the sentence? It does not appear in the Torah! Yet how can we not recite it? Our patriarch Yaakov said it! Therefore, they ordained that it be recited quietly. “This is like a princess who smelled food stuck to the bottom of the pot (and craved them). If she were to admit to the craving, she would embarrass herself; if she were to say nothing, she would miss out. So her servants started sneaking them to her” (Pesaḥim 56a).

Another tradition maintains that Moshe Rabbeinu ordained this recitation. When he ascended to heaven, he heard the ministering angels praising God by saying, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” Upon his descent, Moshe ordained that the Jews recite it quietly. The question was raised: Why did he not ordain that they recite it aloud? A parable was offered in response: To what can this be compared? To a confidant of the king who stole a very nice cloak from the royal palace and gave it to his wife, saying, “Do not wear this in public; only at home.” Only on Yom Kippur, when Israel is as pure as the ministering angels, may they recite it aloud (Devarim Rabba 2:36).

To understand the meaning of these ideas, we must first explain two levels of faith in one God. The first statement, the Shema, expresses the highest level of absolute unification, referred to as yiḥud elyon (“higher unification”). At this level, every aspect and detail unites to reveal God. The second statement, Barukh shem kevod, expresses the plane which came into being after the world’s creation, referred to as yiḥud taḥton (“lower unification”). This involves acceptance of the yoke of heaven based on God’s manifestation in this world, where every creature and every aspect has a real place; God gives them all life and rules over them in accordance with their deeds. This is called the revelation of His name (shem) and kingship (malkhut). That is, His name and His governance are manifest in the world, but not His essence. If He would reveal His essence, all of creation would be annulled and melt away before His great light. (See Tanya, Sha’ar Ha-yiḥud Ve-ha’emuna.)

The higher level of faith is extremely lofty, revealed only at the root of the soul and only at times of self-sacrifice. Accordingly, we are commanded to tap into yiḥud elyon only twice a day, with the recitation of Shema. The Sages ordained pairing it with yiḥud taḥton, which acknowledges God’s manifestation within this diverse world. (See Nefesh Ha-ḥayim 3.) Yiḥud taḥton is very precious to God, as the purpose of creation is for God to be recognized within this material world, with all its beauty and glory, colors and sounds, urges and inclinations. Thus, the ministering angels praise God with the amazing paean, “Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever.” However, saying it out loud is improper, because alongside the positives of revealing the Divine Presence in this world, there are also negatives – evil impulses that can draw us to sin. Therefore, one must first connect to yiḥud elyon and only then quietly recite the praise of yiḥud taḥton, to avoid the temptations of this world.

Only on Yom Kippur, as we fast and desist from occupation with our bodily needs, to the extent that we become like ministering angels, impervious to the evil inclination, can we utter Barukh shem kevod aloud, knowing that we are privileged to sanctify His name in this world. Even though we sometimes stumble into sin, on Yom Kippur it is revealed that ultimately, we draw down His light into this world, in all its complexity. As a result, God judges the Jews with love and mercy. (See Derekh Hashem 4:4:6-7.)

13. Torah Reading and Pledges

After Shaḥarit, two Torah scrolls are removed from the ark. From the first scroll we read the description of the Kohen Gadol’s avoda on Yom Kippur, which is found in the portion of Aḥarei Mot (Vayikra 15). Six people are called up to the Torah. The number of people called up to the Torah for an aliya changes in accordance with the holiness of the day. On Yom Tov, when melakha is forbidden but food preparation is permitted, five people are called up. On Yom Kippur, when all melakha is prohibited, six people are called up. On Shabbat, when all melakha is prohibited and the punishment for desecration is greater, seven people are called up. If Yom Kippur is on Shabbat, seven people are called up (Megilla 21a, 22b; SA 621:1).[11]

The maftir is read from the second Torah scroll. It is taken from the portion of Pinḥas and deals with the additional (“musaf”) sacrifices offered on Yom Kippur (Bamidbar 29:7-11). The haftara is from Yeshayahu (57:14-58:14), which is an appropriate choice because the prophet exhorts the people to repent, and the verses mention resting on Shabbat and Yom Kippur.

At Minḥa there are three aliyot, and we read a section of the Torah dealing with prohibited sexual relations (Vayikra 18). It is meant to inspire the people to repent for and refrain from these extremely tempting but very serious transgressions that impair our holiness. The haftara is the Book of Yona, which teaches us about divine providence, from which no one can hide. It also teaches us about the great power of repentance, which is effective even when incomplete, as God does not wish to punish sinners (Megilla 31a; SA 621:1).

On Yom Kippur, it is customary to pledge money to the poor and to those dedicated to Torah study, in order to elevate the souls of parents and family members who have passed away. For the dead also achieve atonement on Yom Kippur when charity is given on their behalf (Mordekhai; SA and Rema 622:4). This is why the day is called Yom Ha-kippurim (in the plural), as it atones for both the living and the dead. But haven’t those who have died already been judged? How can charity help them? When their children and family members are inspired to donate money and do good deeds in their memory, it shows that the departed souls continue to have a positive influence on the world. Therefore, they earn the right to be judged again in the heavenly court, taking into account the additional merits they have accrued.[12]

[11]. The punishment for knowingly performing a melakha on Yom Kippur is karet, while on Shabbat it is stoning by the beit din. The more severe punishment of the Shabbat desecrator reflects the fact that in some ways Shabbat is more exalted than Yom Kippur. However, in other ways Yom Kippur is more exalted than Shabbat. Thus, when Yom Kippur is on Shabbat we fast, as explained above in section 6:6 and n. 2.

[12]. Another answer is that in the heavenly court it is said that if the deceased were still alive, they, too, would give charity. Ashkenazim recite Yizkor, the memorial prayer, on Yom Kippur, Pesaḥ, Sukkot, and Shavu’ot. The prayer is meant to be recited with the congregation but may also be recited by an individual praying alone (Gesher Ha-ḥayim, vol. 1, 32:1). Generally, before the prayer is recited, the gabbai announces “Yizkor”, and those whose parents are both still alive leave the synagogue temporarily. Several reasons are given for this practice. The primary one is that it is unpleasant to have some members of the congregation recite the prayers while others stand silent. Additionally, there are those who are concerned about bad omens. There is a common custom that the first time one is mourning a parent, he does not recite Yizkor during the year of mourning. This is out of concern that if he did recite Yizkor, his powerful grief might make it impossible for him to fulfill the mitzva of rejoicing on the holiday. (See Peninei Halakha: Festivals 2:8; Piskei Teshuvot 621:7.)

14. Bowing During Musaf

During Musaf, it is customary to bow down at various points during the description of the Yom Kippur avoda (Temple service), just as the kohanim and the spectators in the Temple courtyard bowed and fell to the ground when the Kohen Gadol uttered the Tetragrammaton. As we will see (10:15-16), the Kohen Gadol uttered it ten times: nine of them in the course of three confessions, and the final one when he announced which goat was for God. The three confessions were on behalf of himself and his wife, on behalf of his fellow priests, and on behalf of the nation. Nowadays, the general custom is to bow four times during the prayer service. We bow once during the descriptions of each of the three confessions. The timing of the fourth bow, however, is the subject of dispute. Sephardim bow when they mention the goat for God (Beit Yosef; see 10:9 below). Ashkenazim bow when reciting “we bow” (“va-anaḥnu kor’im”) in Aleinu, preceding the description of the Kohen Gadol’s avoda (Raavya; Rivash; Rema 622:4). Yemenites do not bow at all during Musaf.

There are three types of bows: prostration (hishtaḥavaya gemura), in which a person lies flat on the ground with hands and feet outspread; kida, a deep bow in which a person remains standing but bows his head all the way to the ground; and keri’a, when one first kneels and then bends forward until his face reaches the ground (Berakhot 34b; Shevu’ot 16b). Nowadays, most people do keri’a, while some do hishtaḥavaya.

It is customary to place something on the ground as a barrier between the floor and the worshipper’s face. This is because it is forbidden to bow on a stone floor, as we read, “You shall not place figured stones in your land to worship upon” (Vayikra 26:1). The reason for the prohibition may be that idolaters would worship nature and bow to stones in an attempt to become one with them. The Torah forbids bowing on stone so that no alien ideas infiltrate our prayers. Only in the Temple, where it was clear that all creations – animate and inanimate – were subservient to God, yearned for Him, and bowed to Him alone, was it permitted to bow on a stone floor (Sefer Ha-ḥinukh §349).

The Torah prohibition applies when two conditions are met: the person is lying prostrate, and his head is on a stone floor. The Sages extend the prohibition and forbid bowing when either one of these conditions is met. Thus, hishtaḥavaya is prohibited even on a dirt floor, and even kida and keri’a are forbidden on a stone floor. For this reason, people spread something as a barrier between the floor and their heads (Rema 131:8).[13]

[13]. Both keri’a and kida are permitted on a dirt floor. Bricks, which are made of sand, cement, and the like, have the same status as dirt (MB 131:41). One may perform keri’a or kida on a stone floor as long as something separates his head from the floor. It is not necessary to have something separating the rest of the body from the floor (MT, Laws of Idol Worship 6:7; Levush 131:7; MB 621:14). Alternatively, a person may kneel and incline his head toward the ground without actually touching it. One who does not have anything to use as a barrier between his head and the floor may do this. If the floor is made of stone, Aḥaronim disagree as to whether one may fully prostrate himself if he puts something down to separate himself from the floor (SHT 131:44). This may be why many people bow rather than prostrate themselves. It is also possible that the reason most people do not prostrate themselves is because there is usually not enough room in the synagogue for everyone to do so.

If the flooring is made of a material other than stone, even if it looks like stone, all agree that one may put down a separation and then prostrate himself.

15. The Meaning of Bowing

A person’s deepest desire is to draw close to God and to thank Him for all His goodness. But since God is so exalted and mighty, great and awesome, one becomes overwhelmed and awestruck when confronting His tremendous grandeur. He naturally bows and prostrates himself in self-negation before God. As we have seen, there are three types of bowing. Each has its own significance.

Prostration (hishtaḥavaya) means lying prone with one’s hands and feet extended, expressing absolute self-effacement before God. This is not a self-effacement of non-existence, but a self-effacement born of clinging to God, through which one can draw down blessing upon himself from the Source of life. King David frequently bowed to God, thanking Him for His help, as we read, “But I, through Your abundant kindness, enter Your house; I bow down in awe at Your holy Temple” (Tehilim 5:8). And similarly, “I bow toward Your holy Temple and praise Your name for Your kindness and faithfulness, because You have exalted Your name, Your word, above all. When I called, You answered me, You inspired me with courage…. High though the Lord is, He sees the lowly…” (ibid. 138:2-8).

When performing kida, one remains standing but bends his head to the ground, indicating profound submission. Even though he remains standing, he is bent double in total submission.

Keri’a involves falling to one’s knees and bending forward so his face is on the ground. It is a combination of prostration and kida, of self-effacement and submission. As in prostration, one’s entire body is near the ground; like in kida, one bends in submission to his Creator.

The Sages tell us that good things happen as a result of prostration:

Avraham returned unharmed from Mount Moriah together with Yitzḥak only in the merit of his prostration, as we read, “We will worship (ve-nishtaḥaveh) and we will return to you” (Bereishit 22:5). Israel was redeemed from slavery only in the merit of their prostration, as we read, “When they heard that the Lord had taken note of the Israelites and that He had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage (ya-yikdu va-yishtaḥavu)” (Shemot 4:31). The Torah was given only in the merit of prostration, as we read, “Then He said to Moshe, ‘Come up to the Lord, with Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel, and bow low from afar’” (ibid. 24:1). Ḥanna was remembered only in the merit of prostration, as we read, “And they bowed low there before the Lord” (1 Shmuel 1:28). Only in the merit of prostration will the exiles will be gathered in, as we read, “And on that day, a great ram’s horn shall be sounded; and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship (ve-hishtaḥavu) the Lord on the holy mount in Jerusalem” (Yeshayahu 27:13). The Temple will be rebuilt only in the merit of prostration, as we read, “Exalt the Lord our God and bow down to His footstool; He is holy!” (Tehilim 99:5). The dead will be brought back to life only in the merit of prostration, as we read, “Come, let us bow down and kneel (nishtaḥaveh ve-nikhra’a), bend the knee before the Lord our Maker” (ibid. 95:6). (Bereishit Rabba 56:6)

All who entered the Temple courtyard would prostrate themselves before God. (See m. Midot 2:3.) When the daily offering was brought and Levi’im sang and blew the trumpets, the people standing in the courtyard prostrated themselves (m. Tamid 7:3).

When a person repents and confesses before God, it is proper that he prostrate himself, following the example of Moshe who prostrated himself when he prayed to God to forgive Israel’s sins (Bamidbar 14:5, 16:22; Devarim 9:25). For this reason, the Jews standing in the courtyard would prostrate themselves when the Kohen Gadol uttered the Tetragrammaton during the Yom Kippur confessions (Yoma 66a).

Following this line of thought, the Sages ordained that people bow five times during every Amida. This bowing is done while standing but bending deeply at the waist – similar to kida (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 17:6). It was also customary to prostrate oneself after the Amida, while confessing and offering supplications to God. This became known as Nefilat Apayim (“falling on the face”) and was a precursor to today’s Taḥanun (MT, Laws of Prayer 5:1, 13-14; Tur OḤ 131; Peninei Halakha: Prayer 21:1).

However, several concerns led to the discontinuation of the custom of actually “falling on the face.” On the halakhic level, besides the problem of prostration on a stone floor, there is an additional concern as well. A prominent person is permitted to “fall on the face” only when he is certain that God will respond, as He did to Yehoshua bin Nun (Megilla 22b; SA 131:8), and who can be certain of this? However, the primary concern is based on Zohar. It speaks extensively about the power of Nefilat Apayim, during which the supplicant must truly devote himself to God and see himself as if he is dead. It continues:

This must be done with intense concentration; then God is merciful and forgives his sins. Fortunate is the person who knows how to appeal to and worship his Master willingly and intentionally. Woe is to one who tries to appeal to his Master when his heart is distant and unwilling. He is the subject of the verse, “Yet they deceived Him with their speech, lied to Him with their words; their hearts were inconstant toward Him” (Tehilim 78:36-37). If the person says, “O Lord, I set my hope on You” (ibid. 25:1) while his heart is distant, this will be responsible for his premature death. (Zohar, Bamidbar 121a)

Since we are concerned about not being fully focused when we petition God, and about not being deserving, we no longer prostrate ourselves during Taḥanun. Instead, Ashkenazim and some Sephardim sit, leaning forward and resting the forehead on the forearm. Other Sephardim avoid even that (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 21:3).

However, on Yom Kippur, thanks to the sanctity of the day and our intense devotion, we are not concerned about any of this. Therefore, the custom is to bow during the description of the avoda, as is appropriate for a penitent.

16. Birkat Kohanim During Ne’ila

In principle, the kohanim should perform Birkat Kohanim any time the ḥazan repeats the Amida. Indeed, in Eretz Yisrael, the kohanim perform Birkat Kohanim at every Shaḥarit and Musaf.[14] However, the Sages ordained that Birkat Kohanim should not be performed at Minḥa because it generally follows the afternoon meal, and there is concern that the kohanim will drink wine with the meal and then perform Birkat Kohanim under its influence, thus violating a severe prohibition. However, on fast days when Ne’ila is recited (such as Yom Kippur or fasts declared due to drought), since there is no concern that the kohanim will drink, Birkat Kohanim is performed at Ne’ila (SA OḤ 129:1; Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 7:12 n. 16).

Some say that Birkat Kohanim should be recited at Minḥa on Yom Kippur as well; since everyone is fasting, there is no concern about drunkenness. Moreover, on Yom Kippur, the time for Minḥa is late in the afternoon, just before Ne’ila (Behag), whereas all year long, Minḥa may take place at any point between just after midday and shki’a. Nevertheless, most Rishonim maintain that Birkat Kohanim it is not performed at Minḥa. Since, unlike Ne’ila, it is not recited at shki’a, people may erroneously conclude that Birkat Kohanim may be performed at Minḥa on weekdays as well (R. Amram Gaon). In practice, Birkat Kohanim is not performed at Minḥa. However, if a kohen ascends to perform it, he is not sent back to his seat; rather, he performs the blessing (Rambam; SA 129:1-2, 622:4; 623:5).

Ne’ila should be timed so that Birkat Kohanim is performed before shki’a, as many are of the opinion that this mitzva is analogous to the Temple sacrifices, which may be offered by day only (MB 623:8). Since Birkat Kohanim is a Torah commandment, we abbreviate, if necessary, the liturgical poems and supplications to reach Birkat Kohanim before shki’a. Be-di’avad, Birkat Kohanim may be recited during twilight, since it is uncertain that night has begun.[15]

[14]. Outside of Eretz Yisrael, the general custom is that the kohanim perform Birkat Kohanim only during Musaf of Yom Tov.

[15]. Bedi’avad it is permissible for Birkat Kohanim to be recited until tzeit. This is the ruling of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi (SAH 623:8); SHT 623:10 inclines this way as well. Several uncertainties factor into this ruling: 1) According to Raavya, Yere’im, and Or Zaru’a, Birkat Kohanim may be performed at night; 2) it is uncertain whether twilight is part of the day; 3) according to Rabbeinu Tam, shki’a takes place a while after sunset, which is still definitely part of the day. This ruling is accepted by R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (as cited in Piskei Teshuvot 623:13); Yeḥaveh Da’at 6:40; and Or Le-Tziyon 2:8:13. They further write that Birkat Kohanim may be performed until 13.5 minutes after sunset. See Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:1 n. 1 and Harḥavot 3:1:14, where we explain that this period is at least 14 minutes in Jerusalem and c. 19 minutes at sea level in Tel Aviv.

Some maintain that a kohen who is not fasting should not perform Birkat Kohanim, even if he is the only kohen present (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 129:5; Torat Ha-mo’adim 3:4). Others disagree and say that this kohen should still perform it (Lu’aḥ Eretz Yisrael; Halikhot Shlomo, Tefila 10:13).

17. Ne’ila

The Sages instituted an extra prayer service near the end of the fast, for all who increase their prayers will be answered. If we have not managed to be answered through the regular prayers, perhaps an additional prayer will be answered. This service is referred to as Ne’ila because it is recited at the time when the gates of the Sanctuary were locked (ne’ulim) at the conclusion of the day’s avoda. The “locking of the gates” also corresponds to the closing of the gates of heaven. For at the end of the day, the sanctity of Yom Kippur recedes, and the gates of heaven, which were open to those who knocked through repentance, are locked.

The time of Ne’ila is when the sun can be seen in the treetops in the west, approximately forty minutes before sunset. Those who wish to begin as much as an hour before sunset may do so. The ḥazan must time his prayers so that Birkat Kohanim can be completed before sunset (as explained in the previous section).

Even though the gates of the Sanctuary were locked at sunset, the gates of heaven are locked only at the end of the day, after all light has vanished. Therefore, we continue reciting prayers and supplications until tzeit. A ḥazan who extends Ne’ila past tzeit is not to be reprimanded.[16]

The Ne’ila prayers differ from all other prayers recited during the Days of Awe; wherever we ask to be “inscribed” for good, we now ask to be “sealed,” because now, at the end of Yom Kippur, our verdicts are being sealed. Nevertheless, someone who accidentally invoked “inscribing” instead of “sealing” need not repeat the prayer.

One should marshal all his strength for Ne’ila, for Yom Kippur is the culmination of the Ten Days of Repentance, and Ne’ila is the culmination of Yom Kippur. Everything leads up to the final verdict, so if not now, when? Therefore, even someone who is weak from fasting should summon his strength to pray with clear and pure focus, to resolve to repent and to increase his Torah study and mitzva observance (MB 623:3). Because Ne’ila is so important, it is customary to leave the ark open from the beginning of the repetition of the Amida until the Kaddish at the conclusion of the service (Mateh Ephraim 623:7).

[16]. Ne’ila was added whenever the Sages declared a fast due to drought or other calamities. However, Ne’ila was never recited on Tisha Be-Av, as Tisha Be-Av was instituted by the prophets.

The Yerushalmi explains that according to Rav, Ne’ila refers to the locking of the gates of heaven and may be recited until dark. Moreover, according to Rav, one who recited Ne’ila need not recite Ma’ariv (Yoma 87b). According to R. Yoḥanan, though, Ne’ila refers to the locking of the gates of the Sanctuary and may be recited only until shki’a (y. Berakhot 4:1). Most understand this to be because he maintains that one may recite Ne’ila at night. In practice, some rule in accordance with Rav that Ne’ila may recited until night (Roke’aḥ, Or Zaru’a, and Raavya), while many others rule in accordance with R. Yoḥanan and limit the time to shki’a (R. Ḥananel, R. Yitzḥak ibn Gi’at, Rambam, Maharam of Rothenburg, Ritva, and Mordekhai). This is also the ruling of SA 623:2. Nevertheless, we do not object to a ḥazan who extends the repetition of the Amida of Ne’ila past tzeit, as he has an opinion on which to rely (MB ad loc. 2). See 6:3 n. 1 above, about how Ne’ila completes the atonement of Yom Kippur.

18. Declaring Faith and Blowing the Shofar

At the conclusion of Ne’ila, before shutting the ark, as the gates of heaven, which had been open throughout the Days of Awe, are about to close, when there is no more time to confess or to add more prayers and supplications, the custom of all Israel is to accept the yoke of heaven together. During the course of the Days of Awe, we have sharpened our awareness that faith is the foundation and purpose of everything and that every Jew wants to cling to God and to perfect the world under His kingship. The stronger our faith, the more complete our repentance, and the better and more blessed the upcoming year. Therefore, we spend the last moments of this holy day reinforcing our faith.

The primary acceptance of the yoke of heaven is expressed in the verse of “Shema Yisrael” and in “Barukh shem kevod.” We then recite “The Lord is God” (“Hashem Hu Ha-Elokim”) seven times, alluding to the seven levels of heaven through which the Divine Presence withdraws and returns to the loftiest realms, having been so close to us during the Ten Days of Repentance and Yom Kippur, enabling our repentance (SA 623:6; MB 623:11-12).[17]

Immediately after this, at tzeit or slightly before, we blow the shofar in accordance with the instructions in the maḥzor. These blasts signal the end of the day and the ascent of the Shekhina, as we read, “God ascends with a blast; the Lord, with the sound of a shofar” (Tehilim 47:6). They commemorate the blast sounded during the Jubilee; with that blast, slaves went free and the fields returned to their original owners (6:11 above). By extension, our shofar-blowing on Yom Kippur symbolizes the emancipation of the soul, freed of the chains of sin and restored to freedom. It also hints at redemption and freedom from any form of subservience, as we read, “And on that day, a great shofar shall be sounded; and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship the Lord on the holy mount in Jerusalem” (Yeshayahu 27:13).

Following these blasts, the tremendous tension of the Days of Awe dissipates, and all Israel experience a great, spiritual catharsis and freedom. Their hearts are filled with joy (3:5 above). Thanks to the profound immersion in repentance and faith, all of Israel knows that God loves them and accepts their repentance, and that they can continue ascending and improving throughout the coming year. Thus, at this point, many congregations dance and sing, “Le-shana ha-ba’a bi-Yerushalayim ha-benuya” (“Next year in Jerusalem rebuilt”).

Where there is concern that people might eat or drink immediately after the shofar blasts, care should be taken not to blow before tzeit. Where there is no such concern, the blasts may be sounded during twilight (MB 623:12).

[17]. The seven-fold recitation also alludes to a mystical meditation (kavana): We enthrone God in His most illuminated manifestation, as expressed by the Tetragrammaton, over the seven manifestations that are revealed in the world, as expressed by the name “Elokim.”

19. The End of the Fast, Ma’ariv, and Kiddush Levana

As we have seen (above, section 8), the fast technically ends at tzeit, but since there is a mitzva to add to the sacred, we end the fast a few minutes later than that. In Eretz Yisrael, once thirty minutes have elapsed since sunset, it is already several minutes past tzeit, so one may make havdala, eat, and drink. It is not necessary to show concern for Rabbeinu Tam’s view that tzeit is seventy-two minutes after sunset (Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 3:1 n. 1).

Ma’ariv may be started twenty minutes after sunset, but to remove uncertainty, the first paragraph of Shema should be repeated after Ma’ariv (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 25:5).

Many recite Kiddush Levana right after Yom Kippur. The days leading up to Yom Kippur are tension-filled due to the upcoming judgment. Since Kiddush Levana must be recited joyfully, it could not be recited then. With the completion of the Yom Kippur prayers, however, our joy reaches its apex; it is thus an auspicious time to praise and thank God for moonlight. Some prefer to go home and eat and drink first, and then reassemble a minyan to recite Kiddush Levana joyfully. However, if one is afraid that he will forget or have a hard time finding a minyan later, it is better to recite it right after Ma’ariv. (See 5:7 above.)

20. Havdala

Even after Yom Kippur ends, it remains forbidden to do melakha, eat, or drink until after havdala, as we take leave of the holy day through havdala. The recitation of hadvala (“Ata ḥonantanu”) in the berakha of Ata Ḥonen in the Amida of Ma’ariv permits melakha, but eating and drinking remain prohibited until the recitation of havdala over wine. If one did not pray Ma’ariv but recited the phrase “Barukh ha-mavdil bein kodesh le-ḥol” (“Blessed is the One Who distinguishes between the sacred and the mundane”), he may do melakha, but he still may not eat or drink until he hears havdala recited over wine (SA 624:1; Peninei Halakha: Shabbat 8:8).

The havdala after Yom Kippur includes the berakhot over wine and over fire, as well as the berakha of havdala itself. We omit the verses that are customarily recited before havdala after Shabbat (“Hinei Kel…”) as well as the berakha over spices. The berakha over spices is included in havdala after Shabbat to comfort the soul after the departure of the neshama yeteira (lit. “expanded soul”). After Yom Kippur, however, the soul is in a state of joy, not pain, because sins have been forgiven. Even when Yom Kippur is on Shabbat, according to many authorities, the berakha on spices is omitted. One who nevertheless wishes to recite this berakha may do so after he finishes havdala and drinks a bit of wine.[18]

Unlike on Saturday night, when we recite havdala over a flame we light at that moment, after Yom Kippur we make havdala using a flame that has been burning throughout Yom Kippur. On Motza’ei Shabbat, the purpose of the berakha on fire is to thank God for the fire that was discovered by Adam on the first Motza’ei Shabbat, when he took two stones and struck them together, producing fire, for which he praised and thanked God. To commemorate this, we too thank God for fire on Motza’ei Shabbat. However, after Yom Kippur, we recite the berakha over fire because during Yom Kippur we were not allowed to utilize fire, but it is now permitted to us once again. Therefore, the berakha must be recited specifically over a flame that was burning on Yom Kippur but could not be used because of the prohibition of using fire. Therefore, it is customary to light a yahrzeit candle before Yom Kippur, for use during havdala at the end of the day (SA 624:4; MB ad loc. 7).

Although le-khatḥila the berakha should be recited over a flame that was lit before Yom Kippur, bedi’avad, one who forgot to light a candle before the fast or one whose flame was extinguished may make havdala using a flame that was lit from a flame that has been burning since before Yom Kippur. Thus, one may ask permission from a neighbor to light a new flame from a flame they lit before Yom Kippur. One takes this new flame home and recites havdala over it (Ramban; Rema 624:5).

If one has no flame from before Yom Kippur and cannot light from such a flame he should not recite the berakha over fire after Yom Kippur (SA 624:4; BHL s.v. “ve-yesh omrim”). If Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat, bedi’avad one may recite the berakha over a flame lit after Shabbat (MB 624:7; SHT ad loc. 9).[19]

After havdala, we eat and drink joyfully, because it is still a somewhat festive time, and because it expresses our faith that God lovingly accepts those who return to Him. The Sages tell us that after Yom Kippur a heavenly voice proclaims, “Go, eat your bread in gladness, and drink your wine in joy; for your action was already approved by God” (Kohelet 9:7, Kohelet Rabba ad loc.; Rema 624:5).

Pious people and people of action show their alacrity by beginning to build their sukkot after Yom Kippur, thus going directly from one mitzva to the next (Maharil; Rema 624:5; Peninei Halakha: Sukkot 2:12).

[18]. As we said above, the halakha is that we do not recite the berakha over spices at the end of Yom Kippur. Others say that we do recite it to comfort the soul after the departure of the neshama yeteira (Mordekhai quoting Rabbeinu Gershom). When Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat, Rambam maintains that we still do not recite the berakha over spices. Ra’ah explains that the soul is comforted by the food that we may once again eat after Yom Kippur, rendering the spices unnecessary. Rashi (Beitza 16a and Ta’anit 27b, s.v. “neshama yeteira”) explains that the neshama yeteira is expressed through our increased capacity to delight in eating and drinking; therefore, following a fast, there is no need to comfort the soul. This is the ruling of SA 624:3.

Others say that we recite the berakha over spices after Yom Kippur that coincides with Shabbat, because the neshama yeteira is also expressed in an enhanced spirituality, which is now gone (Maharil; Avudraham). Others explain that we smell spices on Motza’ei Shabbat because that is when the wicked return to Gehinom, which causes a bad smell. Many authorities rule in practice that the berakha over spices is recited after Yom Kippur that coincides with Shabbat (Maharshal; Baḥ; Magen Avraham; Taz). However, if the halakha follows the view that there is no need to recite the berakha over spices, its recitation may constitute an unwarranted interruption (hefsek) during havdala (Ginat Veradim; Eliya Rabba; Maḥazik Berakha). Therefore, since the mitzva to make a berakha over spices is rabbinic, in cases of uncertainty it is not required, and therefore one should not interrupt the proper order of havdala for its sake. Thus, one who wishes to observe these halakhot most meticulously should recite the berakha over spices after completing havdala and drinking a bit of wine (Ru’aḥ Ḥayim 624:3).

[19]. If Yom Kippur coincides with Shabbat, lekhathila one should make havdala using a flame that was lit before the holiday. This covers both reasons for the recitation of the berakha over fire – the one relevant to Shabbat and the one relevant to Yom Kippur (Ritva). Bedi’avad, the berakha may be recited even if only the Shabbat reason applies (SHT 624:9). However, if Yom Kippur is on a weekday, one may not recite the berakha over a flame lit after the holiday, nor a flame lit from another flame that was lit after the holiday, nor even on a flame lit by a non-Jew on Yom Kippur, because the berakha must be recited over a flame that was burning on Yom Kippur but forbidden to use. However, a flame that was lit on Yom Kippur on behalf of a dangerously ill person may be used for havdala after Yom Kippur; since it was permitted to light this flame, it has the status of “ner she-shavat” – a flame that was burning on Yom Kippur but not used for any forbidden melakha (SA 624:4-5).

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