Judaism has dozens of meaningful customs and ceremonies, but most people, even Jews, do not know all of them, their origins and rationale. Rabbi Abraham Chill (1912-2004) gives readers of “The Minhagim,” Hebrew for customs and ceremonies, a very readable discussion of many of these practices. He includes the views of famous Jewish sages such as Shulchan Arukh, Tur, Abudraham, Arukh Ha-Shulhan, Hayye Avraham, Sefer Ha-Manhig, Sefer Ha-Minhagim, and others. He gives a short bio of each of the 27 sources that he quotes.
Although his book discusses 27 holidays and events, I will focus in this review on only Yom Kippur, as an example of the thoroughness of his work. The other 26 are customs and ceremonies of the: synagogue, Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh, Passover, Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Hanukkah, Tu B’Shevat, Purim, marriage, birth, pidyin haben, bar mitzvah, tallit and tzitzit, tefillin, keriat shema, shemoneh esreh, birkhat kohanim, tahanun, Torah reading, ein k’elohenu, meals, mezuzah, and death and mourning.
The following are some, but not all the subjects that Rabbi Chill addresses regarding Yom Kippur. I will show the questions he raises but not the solutions.
Why are the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur called the Ten Days of Penitence when the two holidays are only seven days apart?
Why are marriages prohibited during the Ten Days of Penitence?
How does one achieve repentance?
Why did the rabbis accept the practice of Kapparot, seemingly thinking that we can transfer our improper behavior to a bird, which was rejected by the rationalist Maimonides?
Why do we pound our hearts when we enumerate the confession formula during the service? Is it the heart or head that is at fault?
Why do we start the Yom Kippur service before nightfall, before the day begins? Why do men wear the tallit at the start of Yom Kippur when the tallit is only worn during daylight?
Why does the service of Yom Kippur not pardon the congregation of misdeeds against men and women and only against God, and then only when it is accompanied with true repentance?
Why do we eat a large meal before the fast of Yom Kippur?
Why are memorial candles and candles like on Shabbat lit?
Why do male and female Jews wear white garments during this fast day and abstain from five things? Why five?
Does Kol Nidre release Jews from past vows, future ones, or neither? How can it erase past vows when they were neglected? How can it erase future ones that have not been made? Why is it recited three times in increasing volume? Why are Torahs brought to the bimah (podium) when it is recited?
Why is a sentence in the Shema read silently during the year but out loud on Yom Kippur?
Why is a description of the high priest’s temple service read during the synagogue service? Why read the book of Jonah? Why read the Torah laws of incest? How are they relevant to the holiday?
Why are some prayers read three, seven, or ten times (the latter being three plus seven)?
Why does the day end with the blowing of the shofar?
Rabbi Chill’s discussions on these and similar items is very enlightening and adds meaning to the holiday.