Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day of the year, observed and debated

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 26 2012 10:44 a.m. MDT

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, in Jerusalem's Old City, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009. Jews throughout the world today observe Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, which is the faith's most important day of the year, praying for protection during a tense time of unrest in the Middle East.

Dan Balilty, file, Associated Press

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Until sundown Wednesday, Jews throughout the world will be observing Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, which is the faith's most important day of the year.

"Yom Kippur marks the end of the Days of Awe, a 10-day period of teshuvah (literally "return," commonly understood as repentance) that begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year," says the Huffington Post's extensive coverage of Judiasm's High Holidays.

"During the Days of Awe, Jews seeks forgiveness from friends, family and co-workers, a process that begins with Tashlich, the symbolic casting off of sins that is traditionally observed on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah by throwing bread into a body of water. On Yom Kippur, Jews attempt to mend their relationships with God. This is done partly by reciting the Vidui, a public confession of sins."

Israel ground to a halt after sundown Tuesday, the Associated Press reported, as observant Jews refrained from eating and drinking and attended intense prayer services in synagogues Tuesday night and today.

The AP report also said past and impending war is on the minds of Israelis during this year's day of introspection.

"Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar told Israel Radio that Israelis should pray this Yom Kippur that Israel’s enemies be kept at bay," AP said. “May God upturn whatever schemes they are scheming for us,” Amar said.

After sundown, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make his way to New York to address the United Nations with one main message: Iran’s nuclear program is an existential threat to Israel, and it must be stopped.

Many Israelis also reflected on the 1973 Arab-Israel War, which Israelis call the Yom Kippur War because it broke out on that day. Families published notices in the obituary sections of Tuesday's newspapers in memory of their loved ones who died in the war.

But should international politics be mixed with prayer? That's a question Jewish rabbis are struggling with this holiday, according to a report in the Washington Post.

"Yom Kippur presents a test for American rabbis this year, who must guide Jews through perhaps the most personal and soul-searching day of the year in the midst of a brewing nuclear standoff in the Middle East and an American presidential election," writes Michelle Boorstein. "Should they discuss Israel, and how? Should they risk setting off partisan bells with mentions of sanctions vs. war? Is Yom Kippur the day to make American Jews deal honestly with how close they feel — or don’t — to Israel?"

The rabbis received guidance Monday in a statement from the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents hundreds of Orthodox rabbis, and the Orthodox Union that asked people to “pray for an end to the threat of a nuclear armed Iran.”

"Yom Kippur prayers say God decides on this day who will live and who will die in the coming year and 'which nations shall face war and which shall enjoy peace.' These words, the statement said, 'prompt us to contemplate with anxiety the fate of the state of Israel and her people, of Jews throughout the world and, indeed, of civilization as a whole.’ ”

Another interesting story on Yom Kippur in the Post's "On Faith" blog walks readers through the rituals and etiquette of the holiday, during which Jews are proscribed from eating and drinking, showering and cosmetics, wearing leather shoes (they denote wealth and prosperity) and sexual contact.

"The intention is twofold, to clear out a space for contemplation and to imitate death and rebirth. Real reflection requires getting rid of clutter, so for a day we put aside normal human cares (food, sex, washing)," writes Rabbi Scott Perlo.

One ritual that is under particular scrutiny is the slaughter of chickens. An AP story says that for generations, ultra-Orthodox Jews have marked Yom Kippur by swinging live chickens over their heads while saying a blessing, then slaughtering the birds as a symbolic way to rid their souls of sins.

"Now some rabbis are decrying the practice as animal abuse. These rabbis say the ritual, along with the cruel conditions the chickens are kept in, violate Jewish law, which has strict rules on the care and slaughter of animals."

Rabbi Joseph Karo, one of the major codifiers of Jewish law, called it a "foolish custom" reminiscent of pagan practices. Since his 16th-century pronouncement, Jews of Sephardic, or Middle Eastern, origin have tended to perform kaparot without animals, sometimes swinging sacks of coins above their heads before donating the money to charity.

Those following Ashkenazi, or European customs, have continued to use chickens, however.

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