I was at my Rotary Club meeting yesterday and many friends, most of whom are not Jewish, struggled to find the right words to say to me.
“I think, ‘Happy New Year’ is appropriate” they said. “Do I say, ‘Happy Yom Kippur’ too?”
Well, not exactly.
I often explain to friends who aren’t Jewish that the intensity of these Days of Awe is akin to Christmas, Holy Week and Easter, except within a ten day time period. Then they get it.
When then are the appropriate greetings? It depends on the day.
On Rosh Hashanah we wish each other, “L’shanah Tovah Tikateivu-May you be inscribed for a good year.” We hope that during these Ten Days of Awe, God will write our names into the Book of Life and extend upon us another year of blessing and promise. I won’t go into the theological difficulties that this presents, however, the sentiment is definitely heartfelt and positive.
During the Ten Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we shift our wish to “G’mar Hatimah Tovah“-which literally means “A good final sealing” but is more commonly understood to mean, “may you be sealed (into the Book of Life) for good.
When we begin Yom Kippur we acknowledge that the “sealing process” is not yet complete. Our tradition expects us to make amends for the wrongs we have done and ask forgiveness from those whom we’ve hurt. We embark on a journey that symbolizes a spiritual death and rebirth.
Some ritual practices of Yom Kippur include refraining from wearing leather or wearing white clothing (a symbol of purity). However, the most dominant feature of Yom Kippur is our fast. We refrain from food and water (unless one cannot due to health reasons); the physical affliction of hunger and fatigue that we feel on Yom Kippur afternoon especially helps us experience the spiritual affliction that Yom Kippur generates within each of us. However, the uplifting concluding service of Ne’ilah (at the end of the day) gives us hope and resolve. Even as the day darkens, we see and feel the light of hope and renewal guiding us back.
The traditional words to say when we see people tonight (in addition to Shabbat Shalom of course) is “Tzom Kal-May you have an easy fast.” This greeting speaks to the basic work of this day. Repentance, prayer and charity, our text suggests, enables us to be inscribed for good in the Book of Life. Fasting on Yom Kippur helps to elevate our words of repentance and prayer.
I look forward to spending most of the next 24 hours together. As the day descends towards darkness, I still wish you “G’mar Hatimah Tovah” and later this evening, “Tzom Kal.”
May 5778 be for you and your loved ones a year of healing and wholeness, blessing and promise.
Shabbat Shalom and G’mar Hatimah Tovah,
Rabbi Charles K. Briskin