The Meaning of Yom Kippur

(The Day of Atonement)

Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), held annually on the 10th of Tishrei (September-October), is one of the most seriously regarded Jewish holidays. 

It is customary to pray, weep, ask for forgiveness, attend the synagogue, repent, fast, and refrain from bathing, wearing perfume and leather, and performing sexual intercourse.

Moreover, in Israel, a very quiet and respectful atmosphere is established, with closure of stores, mass media and transportation.

Why is this holiday treated with such reverence?

Also, what is the meaning behind its stringent customs, prohibitions and solemn character?

The Spiritual Meaning of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is much more than a tradition. It reflects a deep, internal state in human development. Thus, it requires being viewed in context of the full year’s cycle of holidays.

The Hebrew word for “year” (“Shana”) comes from the word for “change” (“Shinui”). Therefore, a year is considered as a cycle of changes we go through. When we decide that we need to change—that our current self-aimed and individualistic approach to life needs shifting to one guided by connection, love and bestowal—then it is considered as the beginning of the new year: Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of change.

We then start judging ourselves. We are used to judging our actions, but what we really need to judge are our intentions, especially in relation to people. This is done partly by deeply examining the questions, “What do I really intend for other people?” and “Where am I in relation to the qualities of connection, love and bestowal?”

This action of examining our attitude towards others requires unique means and a method, which is what the wisdom of Kabbalah provides, in order to draw what is called “the light,” i.e. a special illumination of the force of love and bestowal. This light is actually what performs our self-examination. In other words, if a person is left to his own devices, he will most likely fall into the common trap of self-justification, which blocks self-change. However, by drawing the light from a higher level of connection, love and bestowal, this light “shines” and shows the person’s true amount of intention for self benefit and for the benefit of others.

This self-examination is the essence of what takes place on Yom Kippur. The Jewish holidays discuss stages in the corrections of our intentions, which change our inborn, egocentric intentions into divine intentions of love and bestowal. These corrections enable us to enter into more and more positive connection with each other, and by doing so, experience a fuller, happier, more peaceful and harmonious world.

Yom Kippur customs such as fasting, and the prohibitions on bathing, wearing perfume and leather, and performing sexual intercourse, all symbolize the need to stop self-aimed reception for one’s benefit alone. This action is called “restriction.” When this restriction is set, we can start acting with an intention to benefit others, to bestow.

Essentially, Yom Kippur signifies the need to put ourselves aside and act for the sake of others.

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The Spiritual Meaning of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement)


The Meaning of the Jonah Story Read on Yom Kippur

The story of the prophet Jonah that is customarily read on Yom Kippur captures the essence of the holiday, that we need to put ourselves aside and act for the benefit of others.

The Story of Jonah the Prophet – In a Nutshell

The story of the prophet Jonah begins with a mission he receives from God: to warn the people of Nineveh that they need to repent their evil ways, to change their relations from unfounded hatred to love of others.

However, Jonah is displeased with this mission. He escapes it by boarding a ship and sailing overseas. His escape sets off a storm. When the ship’s sailors realize that Jonah is the cause of the storm, they throw him overboard. In the sea, Jonah gets swallowed by a big fish. He spends three days and three nights in the fish’s belly. Afterwards he is ejected to land, and heads to Nineveh.

How the Story of Jonah Relates to the Jewish People

Just like Jonah, the Jewish people have an unavoidable role. It is the same role today as it was in time of ancient Babylon, when Abraham united them as a nation on the basis of “love your friend as yourself”: to establish the unity of the Jewish people such that it would serve as an example for humanity, i.e. to be a “light for the nations.”

“Israel is the first and foremost to receive all the abundance, and from them it is dispensed to all the worlds. For this reason they are called Israel, meaning ‘Li-Rosh’ (‘I am the head’), namely that they are in the discernment of Rosh (head), to receive the blessing first, and after them the rest of the world.”

Be’er Mayim Chaim, Parashat Teruma, Chapter 25.

Historically, the Jewish people have experienced how the interplay between them and the rest of the world operates: when the Jews were united, such as during the time of the First Temple, both they and the world thrived. However, when their relations deteriorated into unfounded hatred, they experienced blows as many forms of anti-Semitism, and the world experienced decline as many forms of crisis.

As the clock ticks on, and the Jewish people continually escape the realization of their role, they gradually reach a state where re-establishing positive connection seems impossible.

Jewish self-hatred runs rampant as divides between factions of secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox, pro-Israel and anti-Israel Jews become markedly distinct. A gray cloud of unfounded hatred descends upon the Jews, and sets the scene for a great big storm.

The sailors in the story change each time. To name just a few of the extreme cases: during the Holocaust, they appeared as Nazis; during the pogroms, they took on the form of Russians and Eastern Europeans; during the Spanish Inquisition, they were the Catholics. 

The Relevance of the Jonah Story for Jews and Humanity Today

In the last few years, there has been a sharp rise in anti-Semitic crimes and threats running parallel to a sharp increase in many other problems: depression, suicide, drug abuse, social division, terrorism, and natural disasters, to name a few. The more humanity experiences crises and problems, the more their fingers point at the Jews as the source of their problems.

The Jonah story describes the roots of anti-Semitism.

Jonah’s escape from the mission he was granted describes the Jewish people’s escape from their role to unite above their divisions and exemplify that unity for humanity.

The sailors’ realization of Jonah as the cause of the storm, and the throwing of Jonah overboard today describes the rise of the Jews being blamed for all kinds of problems people experience.

The time will come when the Jews will have to be thrown overboard, and enter into the big fish, i.e. undergo a serious examination of what it means to be Jewish: Why do so many people hate the Jews? Also, how can the Jewish people improve the situation both for themselves and the world?

The question is only in how much suffering the Jewish people will need to experience until they reach that self-examination: Is the current amount of anti-Semitism enough to spur on this self-scrutiny? Or, will the Jewish people continue escaping their mission, and will that suffering need to take on proportions of world wars and holocausts?

Only when the Jewish people agree to accept their role—to “love your friend as yourself” and to be “a light for the nations”—will they and the world experience a new tendency toward peace, harmony and happiness, i.e. the fish that brings them to the safe shore, to Nineveh.

“Since we were ruined by unfounded hatred, and the world was ruined with us, we will be rebuilt by unfounded love, and the world will be rebuilt with us.”

– Rav Avraham Itzhak HaCohen Kook, Orot Kodesh (Sacred Lights), Vol. 3

The Meaning of Yom Kippur in Relation to the Jonah Story

Yom Kippur is a significant point of deep introspection: “How have we been thinking and acting until today in relation to our role—to ‘love your friend as yourself’ and to be ‘a light for the nations’?” “Are we doing what we need to do in order to unite above our differences, and become an example of unity to the world?”

Yom Kippur is an opportunity to realize the role of the Jewish people, to pioneer humanity’s unity. This is the way to calm down the increasing global turbulence and explosions setting off more and more around the world, and cover them with a canopy (a Sukkah) of peace, harmony and happiness.

“The people of Israel must be the first nation to assume the international altruism, and be a role model of the good and beauty contained in this form of governance.”

– Rav Yehuda Ashlag (Baal HaSulam), “The Writings of the Last Generation,” Part One.

Despite the growing divisions among the Jewish people, they have great potential to unite: They’ve always been attracted to equality; they’re a people who have never held slaves; they’re drawn to knowledge and wisdom more than to dividing ideologies, and even religious Jews conduct their prayers not alone, but in tens (the Minyan). Also, the word for Jewish prayer and study houses—”synagogue” (“Beit Knesset“)—means “house of assembly” or “connection.”

Unity is embedded into the foundation of the Jewish people. Let us use the time for self-examination on Yom Kippur to scrutinize how we can extract our unity from its potential and put it into practice.

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The Story of Jonah in 3 Parts (Playlist)


The Meaning of Yom Kippur Customs and Concepts According to Kabbalah

The Meaning of White Clothes

The white color signifies the light of Hochma (wisdom), the light of wholeness that shines upon a person from the highest possible spiritual degree, as the white color contains all colors within itself, since at this spiritual degree, everyone feels connected “as one man with one heart.”

The Meaning of “We Allow Prayer With Criminals”

“Criminal” is a high spiritual degree. It is a state where a person discovers self-love within himself, i.e. discovers that he is a criminal. Love of others is an exalted spiritual value, and its opposite, self-love, is a transgression.

The Meaning of the Prohibition on Wearing Leather (Skin)

“Skin” is one of the names of the Sefira Malchut. This Sefira represents the desire of the person’s self, which demands correction. In the first stage of correction, using this desire is prohibited. This is where the prohibition of wearing leather, or skin, comes from.

The Meaning of Prayer

The word for “prayer” in Hebrew (“Tefila“) shares the same root as the word for “incriminate” (“Maflil“). One who prays is one who incriminates oneself. In other words, out of one’s efforts to reach the love of others, the person discovers that all his actions are directed as his own personal benefit.

The Meaning of the Story of Jonah the Prophet

On Yom Kippur, it is customary to read the story of Jonah the Prophet at the synagogue. This story is an allegory about the role of the Jewish people, which is to supply an example of unity and brotherly love to the world. As it was with Jonah, the Jewish people also cannot escape from their role.

The Meaning of Shofar (Ram’s Horn)

Shofar” comes from the Aramaic word, “Shufra,” which means “importance.” It refers to the need to raise importance of the power of love, bestowal and connection above the egoistic power of self-aimed reception.

The Meaning of Repentance

In The Book of Zohar, in the portion Nissa, it is written, “Return Hey (ה) to Vav (ו).” The four letters of the name of the Creator are Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey (י-ה-ו-ה). The final letter of Hey (ה) symbolizes the quality of reception characteristic of the creation. The letter Vav (ו) symbolizes the quality of bestowal (giving abundance) and giving characteristic of the Creator. The correction that we need to perform (repentance), is to elevate the creation to the level of the Creator.

The Meaning of the Ten Days of Repentance

According to the wisdom of Kabbalah, human nature is the desire to receive pleasure. The desire to receive is composed of ten parts, which are called “ten Sefirot.” The ten days of repentance reveal to the person his self-aimed use of his desire, one Sefira after another.

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Yom Kippur Explained – Like a Bundle of Reeds with Dr. Michael Laitman


Further Reading on Yom Kippur

Articles by Dr. Michael Laitman in Various Publications

Posts in Dr. Michael Laitman’s Personal Blog

Material on Yom Kippur by the Bnei Baruch Kabbalah Education & Research Institute

The Meaning of the Jewish Holidays Series

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