Yom Kippur Questions

Why fast? What's with the shoes? Why confess sins?

Rabbi Aron Moss

Judaism לבן ריק
לבן ריק
Arutz 7
Rabbi Aron Moss
Why do you wear tennis shoes or Crocs on Yom Kippur? I know you are not supposed to wear leather shoes, but many non-leather shoes are just as comfortable, so what is gained by wearing them?

A leather shoe is what our life is all about. Except on Yom Kippur.

A leather shoe is an animal hide that has been processed and refined. A coarse piece of rawhide is stretched and boiled, treated and purified, to make a final product that is smooth to touch and comfortable to wear.

This is our soul's mission on earth - to take the crudeness of our inborn personality and refine it, to take the rawness of the world and tame it, to harness our natural animalistic instincts and transform them into refined character traits.

So, leather shoes are a symbol. They represent the work we humans are supposed to achieve in this world. We do this work every day of the year, except one.

One day a year we withdraw from the physical world and retreat into a world of pure soul. That day is Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur we resemble angels. We do not eat or drink, and we do no physical work. We escape for a day to a spiritual haven. And we don't wear leather shoes. We are not taming any animals today.

By the end of Yom Kippur, your body may be tired, but your soul will be refreshed. You will be ready to put your leather shoes back on and begin again your task of taming the animal. Because no one else can fill your shoes.
Rabbi Raymond Apple

Why confess to God when He already knows what sins we have committed?

It is not that God needs to be told but that we need to admit what we have done. The sages say that the kernel of the confession is the words, "Aval anachnu chatanu" - "Indeed, we have sinned." Unless we own up, there is nothing that we (or God) can do about it. Maimonides begins his Hil'chot T'shuvah ("Laws of Penitence") by stressing that the first step in spiritual rehabilitation is viddu'i - confession.

Why fast?

I knew a lady in London who told me that the minister of her Liberal congregation used to say that without his morning cup of tea he couldn't get through his Yom Kippur sermon. I don't know what the full facts were; I do know that he was regarded as a very fine preacher. Maybe he gave himself a dispensation to have a cup of tea, maybe he didn't - but unless you are really ill, the Halachah cannot allow you to break the fast by eating and drinking.

Spiritually, it does you more good to fast than to eat and drink. You need to feel physically deprived and psychologically on edge for the day to work on you. You also need a reminder that although you can resume normal eating and drinking after the fast, many people are hungry and homeless all the time, and you and I need to decide to do more for them to ensure that every day is no longer a Yom Kippur for them.

The High Holyday poem "V'chol Ma'aminim" - "And All Believe" - is intellectually problematical. It lists things that most people don't or can't believe. So why sing it?

I am not sure whether anyone has carried out enough research to justify your statement that most people don't or can't believe the contents of V'chol Ma'aminim. But there are at least two good reasons to join in the prayer with conviction:

1. "V'chol" does not have to mean "everybody"; it can mean "all things," and the poet (Yochanan HaKohen, 9th century) may be saying that everything in creation attests to the power and compassion of God.

2. It may be taken as a prayer, not an assertion; i.e., "God, help me to find Your Presence, as well as the reasons to believe in You."

Is it right that the chazzanim and choirs in some shules sing numbers on the High Holydays that no-one can join in?

An American Jewish writer tells the story of a person who tried to join in with the chazzan but got shooshed by his shule neighbour who said, "Can't you keep quiet? I paid good money to hear this fellow sing!"

I suppose we have to allow a chazzan and a choir once in a while (just occasionally) to render a party-piece, but generally there must be a full opportunity for everybody to feel it is their service and that the officiants are not singing at, to or for them, but leading them and giving more structure to congregational singing.

If your chazzan and choir think they're on the concert platform, then you might need to find a different shule - or the shule might need to work on the job specifications for the synagogue musicians.

I notice that the Yom Kippur poem about the Ten Martyrs mentions Rabbi Ishmael. When did Ishmael cease being a rabbinic name?

One of the greatest sages of the Mishnaic period was certainly Rabbi Ishmael the son of Elisha (2nd century). Among other achievements, he re-worked earlier material to produce the 13 rules of rabbinic exegesis, which are reprinted at the beginning of the siddur.

There were few rabbis with the name of Ishmael from the time that Islam emerged, presumably because of the significance in Muslim teaching of Ishmael, the son of Abraham. Yet, there were still some Rabbi Ishmaels, such as Ishmael ben Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen of Modena, Italy (d. 1811), who was one of the Jewish leaders to whom Napoleon addressed questions about Jews and Judaism.