Taking responsibility for one’s own behavior: Yom Kippur

[Note from Kathie Malley-Morrison: Today we welcome another guest post from Dr. Hilda Perlitsh, a social psychologist with expertise in the areas of organizational psychology, career development, and cross-cultural issues.]

Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur by Maurycy Gottlieb

Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur by Maurycy Gottlieb (Image in public domain)

Yom Kippur,” Hebrew for “Day of Atonement,” instituted in Biblical times, mandated in Leviticus, is considered to be the most significant holy day of the year among the Jewish people.

This ancient, enduring observance completes a 10 day period, the High Holy Days or “Days of Awe,” which begins at the New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

During this period behaviors towards others and to G-d are examined and one engages in reflection and repentance. G-d inscribes each person’s fate in the “Book of Life” for the coming year and these decisions are “sealed” at the end of Yom Kippur.

The day itself is characterized as a “complete Sabbath” prescribing “prayer, repentance and charity,” requiring a 25 hour fast, and abstinence from labor and pleasures. The Yom Kippur service includes the recitation of comprehensive lists of sins and petitions of forgiveness.

The Jewish tradition is very clear about differentiating types of sins; petitions to relieve sins that are addressed to G-d only pertain to the individual’s relationship to G-d such as any vows made against G-d (as during forced conversions during the Inquisition). Transgressions committed against persons must be settled with those persons; G-d does not forgive sins committed against other people.

The lists of sins in the traditional prayer service address mistreatment of others especially in the use of language (e.g. falsehoods, slander, humiliations). Even if one has personally not committed any sins, redress for others in the community is prayed for.

Yom Kippur begins at sundown with the chanting of the “Kol Nidre” prayer which seeks annulment of vows against G-d, and closes with the “Ni’elah” service which signifies the “closing of the gates” for the inscriptions for the year ahead, followed by a long blast of the Shofar, a ram’s horn.

The theme of “T’Shuvah” translated as repentance, more precisely “return”, is central and interpreted as the recognition of free will and the imperative to struggle with and take personal responsibility for one’s behavior.[1] Redemption includes the tasks of: addressing the world’s oppressed, teaching compassion, giving charity for less fortunate others, being just and loving mercy.

This holy period prescribes processes that enjoin each person to chart a corrective course at the beginning of every Jewish New Year and thus provides the basic scaffold for the moral framework of Jewish civilization.

The challenges embodied in the “Days of Awe” are built on various strands of human strivings, codified into Jewish law and traditions, transmitted into and joining the civilizing thrusts of other beliefs and traditions…..towards the continuous repair of the world: “Tikun Olam”.


[1] Meditation, page 106….”.surely our deeds do not pass away unrecorded. Every word, every act inscribes itself in the Book of Life. Freely we choose and what we have chosen to become stands in judgment over what we may yet hope to be. In our choices we are not always free. But if only we make the effort to turn, every force of goodness, within and without, will help us, while we live, to escape that death of the heart which leads to sin.” Gates of Repentance: the New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe”. Central Conference of American Rabbis: New York, 1978, revised 1996.

Hilda D. Perlitsh, Ph.D., Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology, Boston University

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2 Responses to Taking responsibility for one’s own behavior: Yom Kippur

  1. Regina Amorello says:

    Thank you for this post. In all honesty, I am completely ignorant when it comes to Jewish traditions and holidays. I was raised a Catholic, and other religious are very much foreign to me. However, I enjoy learning about new religions and their practices, especially one like Yom Kippur. I admire its emphasis on mercy and reconciliation, because these acts are direly needed in the world today.

  2. Brian says:

    This is a great post; certainly emphasis on forgiveness has been severely suppressed by our current cultural practices. Addressing that issue from a spiritual standpoint is, I think, very valuable.

    But it is clear that the issue should reach even deeper than established spiritual practices are able to go. We are in a time of crisis due to allowing ourselves to drift apart from each other on both an individual level and an international level. It seems that the best way to repair this situation is most clearly articulated by Dr. Eileen Borris when she said “To survive requires that we emerge from the darkness of our own individual minds and find the courage to embrace our common true nature.” Much of spirituality has long been trying to bring this viewpoint to light, allowing people to find their similarities rather than their differences, and work toward collaboration rather than one-upsmanship. Getting caught up in things like justice, power, grudges, and control has seriously obstructed our view of the rest of the picture, and the recognition that we have a hell of a lot in common – for one, we’re all the same species, living on the same planet. Obviously that is quite a large-scale way of looking at our similarities, but I think it needs to be done by everyone so that we can step back and take a very serious look at what we’ve been doing here and the perspectives from which we’ve been approaching our daily lives.

    What is needed is a restructuring of the way we think; the way we think about ourselves, our friends, and those we perceive as our enemies. If we can raise our sensitivity to the commonality of the human condition, then we can begin to create a reality for ourselves that is agreeable for everyone. Still, an internal shift is the only way at this issue. You can look at it in terms of psychology or spirituality, but the same problems are being addressed; it is an inner shift that has to take place, and the responsibility is on the individual to make that happen.

    Yom Kippur sets an excellent example because although it is only a single day, it sets the standard from which the rest of the coming year will be approached. If we address our restraint surrounding forgiveness and acceptance from a place deep within ourselves, I think that powerful feelings of community and wholeness will result, allowing a fundamental restructuring of our selves and our relationships.

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