The Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur begins at sundown today. Until that time it is the eve of Yom Kippur, known as Kol Nidre. Yom Kippur (יוֹם כִּיפּוּר or יום הכיפורים), which can be translated as the Day of Atonement (or Atonements), is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Observant Jews of all sects traditionally observe this holy day with an approximate 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, sometimes spending most of the day in temple services. Even non-observant Jews usually treat the day with respect, avoiding public or ostensible secular work. Degrees of observation vary widely. In Hebrew Yom Kippur is pronounced with long vowels – Yowm Kippoor – not rhyming with Tom Kipper (pet peeve of mine).
Yom Kippur is the tenth day of the seventh month (Tishrei) in the Hebrew calendar. Rosh Hashanah is the first day of that month https://www.bookofdaystales.com/rosh-hashanah/ . Yom Kippur completes the annual period known in Judaism as the High Holy Days or Yamim Nora’im (“Days of Awe”) that commences with Rosh Hashanah. According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, Jews are commended to amend their behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt.
The Yom Kippur prayer service includes several unique aspects. One is the actual number of prayer services. Unlike a regular day, which has three prayer services (Ma’ariv, the evening prayer; Shacharit, the morning prayer; and Mincha, the afternoon prayer), or a Shabbat or Yom Tov, which have four prayer services (Ma’ariv; Shacharit; Mussaf, the additional prayer; and Mincha), Yom Kippur has five prayer services (Ma’ariv; Shacharit; Musaf; Mincha; and Ne’ilah, the closing prayer). The prayer services also include private and public confessions of sins and a unique prayer dedicated to the special Yom Kippur avodah (service) of the Kohen Gadol (high priest) in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
As one of the most culturally significant Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is observed by many secular Jews who may not observe other holidays. Many secular Jews attend temple on Yom Kippur, much as (primarily) secular Christians attend Easter Sunday services. In both cases attendance soars because observance is as much about cultural identity as religious faith.
Erev Yom Kippur (“eve of the day of atonement”), the day preceding Yom Kippur, corresponding to the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is commemorated with additional morning prayers, asking others for forgiveness, giving charity, performing the kapparot ritual, an extended afternoon prayer service, and two festive meals.
Leviticus 23:26-28 decrees that Yom Kippur is a strict day of rest:
26 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 27 “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. 28 “You shall not do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God”
Five additional prohibitions are traditionally observed, as detailed in the Jewish oral tradition (Mishnah tractate Yoma 8:1). The number five is a set number of special holiness according to tradition.
No eating and drinking
No wearing of leather shoes
No bathing or washing
No anointing oneself with perfumes or lotions
No marital relations
A parallel has been drawn between these activities and the human condition according to the Biblical account of the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Refraining from these symbolically represents a return to a pristine state, which is the theme of the day. By refraining from these activities, the body is uncomfortable but can still survive. The soul is considered to be the life force in a body. Therefore, by making one’s body uncomfortable, one’s soul is uncomfortable. By feeling pain one can feel how others feel when they are in pain.
Total abstention from food and drink as well as keeping the other traditions begins at sundown, and ends after nightfall the following day. One should add a few minutes to the beginning and end of the day, called tosefet Yom Kippur, lit. “addition to Yom Kippur.” This is sometimes known in English as “putting a hedge around the law” – that is, doing all that is required by the law, and then just a little extra to make sure.
Virtually all Jewish holidays involve meals, but since Yom Kippur involves fasting, Jewish law requires one to eat a large and festive meal on the afternoon before Yom Kippur, after the Mincha (afternoon) prayer. Before sunset on Kol Nidre worshipers gather in the temple and the Ark is opened and two people take from it two Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). Then they take their places, one on each side of the Hazzan (cantor), and the three recite (in Hebrew):
In the tribunal of Heaven and the tribunal of earth, we hold it lawful to pray with transgressors.
The cantor then chants the Kol Nidre prayer. This prayer is recited in Aramaic. Its name “Kol Nidre” is taken from the opening words, and translates “All vows”:
All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.
The leader and the congregation then say together three times,
May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault.
The Torah scrolls are then placed back into the Ark, and the Yom Kippur evening service begins.
The Kol Nidre meal before Yom Kippur services is very important and can be the subject of much debate. It should be a nourishing meal because the following 24 hours (or so) are meant to be free from food or drink, and it should be a festive meal. But . . . it cannot be a lengthy meal, and preparations cannot be extensive on the day because people are in a hurry to get to temple before sundown (and typically get there on foot). The obvious solution is to prepare a good meal ahead of time, and this gives me the opportunity to talk about the importance of making soups and stews the day before they are to be served.
I’ve frequently talked about the importance of cooking soups and stews ahead of time, and I suspect that most people know that these dishes generally taste better on the second day. The question is – why? The answer is complex, and I’ll begin by admitting that culinary science does not have all parts of the answer – yet. Here’s what we know. Simply continuously cooking soups and stews for lengthy periods of time is not enough to reap the rewards that resting and refrigerating do. That’s good news for the cook (and a nice metaphor for the idea that rest is as important as work for achieving desired outcomes).
First, there is the issue of “marrying” flavors. I like the metaphor of marriage here. One’s partner can become more attractive to you over time, not because in some “objective” sense they have become more physically attractive, but because you have grown emotionally closer (if you have !!!). Herbs, spices, and other aromas also have an analogous way of blending over time. This process is achieved partly through cooking and partly through resting. The flavors “like” each other more. Second, there are measurable changes in sweetness as complex carbohydrates (such as fructose from vegetables or lactose from dairy) and starches break down into sweeter-tasting simple sugars. This process also causes the mellowing of strong flavors from vegetables such as garlic and onions that tend to stand out on the first day. They are still there on the second day but their new-found sweetness allows them to blend more, as do the fats and collagens from the meats, especially lamb and beef, (pork too, but we’re talking kosher here), which absorb flavors and retain them well for the blending process.
One caveat: soups and stews thickened with egg or starches such as flour or cornflour, will generally not hold their texture overnight. Thickeners should be added on the second day when reheating to ensure proper texture when serving.
All of this means that the best plan is to do the heavy cooking the day before Kol Nidre, and then all you have to do is reheat and finish off the dish the next day before going to Yom Kippur services at sundown. I often work on a three-day plan. Day 1, brown the meats and then simmer them in broth with aromatics. Browning is important because the Maillard reaction generates flavorful sugars. Refrigerate. Day 2, skim the fat that has solidified overnight, reheat and add the vegetables. Adjust seasonings as necessary, simmer until the vegetables are barely cooked (even slightly undercooked), then refrigerate overnight again. Day 3, reheat the dish, thicken as necessary, and serve.