By Tasha Friedman
Yom Kippur: Entering the Book of Life
G’mar chatimah tovah: May you be inscribed for good in the Book of Life!
Today is Yom Kippur, the most important Jewish holiday, and one that invites profound contemplation.
The Jewish religion holds that on Yom Kippur, all of our fates for the year are set in Heaven’s books, a time for purifying old patterns and making a fresh start.
In Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), it is also considered one of the days when the veil between the material world and subtle realms is the thinnest and most permeable, allowing a human being with pure intention to go directly to the source of all manifestation.
Prayers and Fasting: The Tradition of Yom Kippur
Observant Jews (and many who are not so observant) begin a dry fast a little before sunset the previous night, lasting until a little after sunset on the day of Yom Kippur. On this day, food is replaced by nearly constant prayer, also beginning the night before. The intention is to become like beings of pure light, nourished only by words of devotion.
At sunset, the last prayer service ends with a recitation of the Shema (the most sacred prayer in Judaism, affirming the Oneness of God) and blowing the shofar. The blasting sound of this ritual horn is a wake-up call for the soul, putting a stamp of completion on the day’s process.
Yom Kippur (literally the “day of atonement”) is primarily a day of penance, a moment to reflect on one’s life and mistakes over the past year. It’s not a fun and easy holiday—purifications are never easy—but rather an opportunity for transformation. Looking directly at your shortcomings with honesty, courage, and compassion is a sure recipe to learn from them and grow through them.
The beauty of this holiest of holidays is that this challenging process does not take place alone. Yom Kippur is known as the one day of the year when even non-observant Jews dust off their kippahs and head to the synagogue. Coming together with a single intention, all of the community’s pain and regret is held within a sacred space, and over the course of the day, it is elevated and transmuted.
It’s a space to recognize our shared humanity, with all our struggles and failings, and our shared divinity, transcending all of them.
Entering the Holy of Holies
Modern observances of Yom Kippur are still closely linked to rituals that took place in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, the second iteration of which was destroyed in 63 A.D.
On this day, the kohen gadol (high priest) would enter the Temple’s inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, and there would utter the most sacred name of God: the tetragrammaton, four Hebrew letters of unknown pronunciation.
Judaism recognizes a mystical power in names, even ordinary ones, but treats a divine name with special reverence. Such a name is like a bija mantra that has no conceptual meaning but opens to a deeper reality.
Like heat to fire, like Shakti to Shiva, the form is inseparable from formlessness itself.
This name is considered so sacred that its spoken utterance is forbidden. When it appears in a spoken prayer or text, the reader substitutes “Adonai” (“my Lord”) or “ha Shem” (“the Name”). Once written, the letters cannot be erased or defaced, so the object must be buried in a Jewish cemetery when no longer in use.
The Temple of Jerusalem is long gone; all that remains of it is the Wailing Wall. Although the hereditary lineages of priests have endured, their role in most modern Jewish communities is minimal. No one knows how to pronounce the four-letter name of God. But sometimes, losing an external form is an invitation to seek its deeper significance.
The true Temple was never made of stone. That Holy of Holies is your own heart, and the name of God can never be said because there is nothing there to say. That unpronounceable cluster of letters stands as kind of a silent koan, pointing beyond all name and form.