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    Alphabet of Rosh HaShanah & Yom Kippur

    This alphabet is my personal idiosyncratic choice. I hope it helps you. Add to it, even subtract from it, vary, query and share it as you wish.

    Raymond Apple

    ACROSTICS -­ Many High Holyday prayers and poems are alphabetical acrostics, with the lines or verses beginning with the sequence of the alef-bet.

    Some use name acrostics which enshrine the identity of the author. Both devices were an aid to memory in days before worshippers had printed prayer books.

    AKEDAH (“Binding”) – The story of the Binding of Isaac (Gen. 22), read on 2nd day Rosh HaShanah.

    God commanded Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice on a mountain top, but once Abraham and Isaac had shown their willingness to comply with whatever was required of them, they were told not to go ahead with the sacrifice and a ram was offered instead.

    The story symbolises the constant readiness of the pious to put their faith to the test and the need to make serious decisions even at great cost to ourselves

    Additional insights on the Akedah appear here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

    ALENU (“It is our duty”) -­ The introductory hymn of Malchiyot on Rosh HaShanah, now utilised as the concluding prayer at every Jewish service.

    Alenu celebrates God as King over Israel and then (in the second paragraph, Al Ken N’kavveh Lecha) as King over the whole universe.

    Written, according to tradition, by Joshua, it was inserted into the Rosh HaShanah service by Rav in 3rd century Babylonia.

    The original version, still used by the Sephardim and in some Ashkenazi synagogues, contains the words, “For they worship vanity and emptiness and worship a god that cannot save” (Is. 45:20), referring to the idolatrous nations. These words were misconstrued as an attack on Christianity and the prayer was targeted for persecution.

    APPLE & HONEY -­ eaten on Rosh HaShanah to symbolise the hope of a good and sweet year.

    Other foods are common in many communities, eg. carrots, representing many more years (in Yiddish carrots are mehren, taken as a play on the word mehr ­- “many”) and fish, representing energy and alertness.

    Jewish mystic tradition sees the apple as a symbol of the Divine Presence; honey is the epitome of sweetness. Eating apple and honey is not only a token of a sweet year but a year marked by the sweetness of a satisfying spiritual life.

    It is customary not to eat nuts on Rosh HaShanah, perhaps because they can get caught in one’s throat and prevent fluent prayer.

    ATONEMENT ­- Combining the words “at” and “one”, atonement is the reuniting of man and God.

    The Hebrew kippur means “covering up”; atonement involves our prayer to God to overlook and cover up our sins and allow us a fresh start.

    A daring interpretation notes that the word the Torah uses is kippurim, in the plural, as if to say that not only man but God too needs to be forgiven.

    Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev heard a tailor say, “God, I confess I have sinned. But You, God, examine your own sins! You have taken children from their mothers and mothers from their children. You have reduced many to poverty and want. Let’s strike a bargain: You forgive me and I’ll forgive You!”.

    Levi Yitzchak told the tailor, “You have let God off too lightly. You were in a position to compel Him to redeem His people!”

    AVINU MALKENU (“Our Father, our King”) -­ originally Rabbi Akiva’s supplication in time of drought.

    Extra verses added over the centuries express yearning for Divine blessing whenever the future seemed in doubt.

    “Among the verses are some which point to periods of persecution, martyrdom and political danger; others refer to more normal tribulations and human necessities; others again are specifically adapted to the penitential season when prayers for forgiveness are particularly appropriate” (Israel Abrahams).

    The phrase, “Our Father, our King” seems paradoxical. A father is warm, close by, concerned and forbearing; a king is high and mighty, impartial and aloof. But if God were only Father we might exploit His kindly nature; and if He were only King, we might be too fearful and awestruck to approach Him.

    Avinu Malkenu is not said on Shabbat because personal supplications are considered out of place on the day of rest. It is however said during Ne’ilah even on Saturday.

    AVODAH (“Service”) – the graphic account, read during Musaf on Yom Kippur, of the Temple atonement procedure.

    In a series of largely poetical passages, it describes the preparation of the high priest and the confessions he uttered in the Holy of Holies for his own, his colleagues’ and the people’s sins.

    He used the Hebrew four-lettered Divine Name spelled with the consonants Y-H-V-H, the pronunciation of which is no longer known. The name probably comes from hayah ­- “to be” ­- indicating that God exists uniquely and causes all else to exist.

    CALENDAR ­- The month of Tishri, beginning with Rosh HaShanah, is the anniversary of the creation of the world.

    Nisan, the month in which Pesach falls, is the commencement of Jewish national history.

    Judaism is both national and universal in scope. Every Jewish month is proclaimed on the previous Shabbat, except for Tishri for which we begin to prepare well in advance without needing a reminder. Jewish years traditionally date from Creation.

    There are two festival days of Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot in the Diaspora but only one in Israel. Rosh HaShanah has two days, even in Israel; they are called yoma arichta, “one long day”.

    Yom Kippur is limited to one day because fasting for a second day would be too difficult. In medieval Germany some pietists did keep two days.

    CHARITY ­- Kind deeds are the most basic requirement of Jewish ethics. Together with penitence and prayer, they constitute the basic theme of the High Holydays.

    We commit ourselves not only to remorse over the mistakes of the past, but to more socially responsible conduct in the future.

    Charity (tz’dakah) means far more than financial generosity. It includes attitudes and deeds which make for a harmonious society.

    CONFESSIONConfessing sins (viddu’i) has a central role on Yom Kippur.

    The Midrash says: “From the moment a person is willing to see himself as he is, and to make the admission ‘I have sinned’, the powers of evil lose their control over him.” Both the shorter (ashamnu) and the longer confessions (al chet) list sins in alphabetical order as an aid to memory.

    They are not specific sins committed on particular dates, but sinful attitudes such as callousness, dishonesty, envy and contentiousness.

    Most are sins committed with the tongue. They are sins against God and one’s better nature; for sins against other people, “Yom Kippur brings no atonement until one has made peace with his fellow” (Mishnah).

    The confessions are in the plural as a statement of shared responsibility for the misdeeds of society.

    Some worshippers beat their breast with their hand during the confessions; the heart plots the sin and the hand carries it out.

    More insights on the Yom Kippur confession appear here, here, here and here.

    CREATION ­- Though the Rosh HaShanah prayers say hayom harat olam ­- “this day the world was brought into being” ­- not all sages accepted that Creation took place in Tishri; some argued for a date in Nisan.

    Nisan has particularistic Jewish implications whereas Rosh HaShanah in Tishri concerns itself with the world and humanity as a whole.

    Maimonides and other classical thinkers question whether there ever was a moment of creation or whether matter was eternal. For Maimonides, the crucial fact is that whatever happened at the beginning of history, it was God’s will that it should be so.

    There is a rabbinic view that Creation began on 25 Ellul and the sixth day, when man was created, was 1 Tishri, making Rosh HaShanah not so much the birthday of the physical universe but of humanity.

    DUCHANING (from duchan, “a platform”) ­- blessing invoked on the congregation by the kohanim in compliance with the command, “Thus shall they bless the Children of Israel” (Num. 6:23).

    In the Diaspora (in Ashkenazi synagogues), the ceremony usually takes place only on festivals.

    ELLUL -­ The month leading up to Rosh HaShanah.

    The initials of Ellul recall the verse in Shir HaShirim,­ Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi Li – “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”, since this is a month of reconciliation between man and God.

    On Rosh Chodesh Ellul, Moses ascended Mount Sinai again after the people’s sin and came down on 10 Tishri (Yom Kippur) with the message, “I have forgiven”.

    During Ellul the shofar is blown every weekday; Psalm 27 (“The Lord is my light and salvation”) is said morning and evening; High Holyday greetings are exchanged; and at the end of the month, selichot, prayers for forgiveness, are recited.

    Some people keep speech to a minimum during Ellul in order not to sin with their tongue.

    FASTING -­ one of the five innuyyim (means of self-denial) of Yom Kippur, required by the Mishnah in fulfilment of the command, “You shall afflict yourselves” (Lev. 23:27).

    Yom Kippur and Tishah B’Av are 25-hour fasts from evening to evening; other fast days commence at dawn.

    Going without food and drink humbles the human soul and enables concentration on spiritual concerns. It also teaches compassion for those who never have enough food. Even when one has food and eats normally, self-denial is a good rule.

    The common greeting – “Well over the fast” – is inappropriate; Yom Kippur is good for the soul and does little harm to the body.

    GOD’S BOOKS ­- Moses prayed: “Would that You forgive their sin, but if not, blot me out of the book which You have written” (Ex. 32:32-33).

    David prayed: “May they (the wicked) be blotted out of the book of life; let them not be written down with the righteous” (Psalm 69:29).

    Speaking of himself, David said: “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in Your book they were all written,­ the days that were fashioned” (Psalm 139:16).

    David presumably meant that the length of his life was pre-determined; the Midrash says that “all of them” denotes all of man’s generations.

    Though these passages refer to one Divine record book, the sages infer that there must be three: “Three books are opened on Rosh HaShanah -­ one for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous, and one for those in between them. The completely righteous are inscribed and sealed at once for life and the completely wicked for death, but judgement on the intermediate category is suspended from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur. If they prove worthy, they are written down for life, but if not, they are written down for death.”

    Hence the statement in Un’tanneh Tokef: “On Rosh HaShanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will live and who will die…”

    GREETINGS -­ The Rosh HaShanah greeting is L’Shanah Tovah Tikkatev,­ “May you be written down for a good year” (the feminine version of the last word is tikkatevi; the plural is tikkatevu).

    On Yom Kippur the greeting is G’mar Chatimah Tovah (“May your final sealing be for good”).

    During the entire holyday season K’tivah VaChatimah Tovah -­ “A good writing down and sealing” – is appropriate.

    These greetings do not refer to a “happy year” but to a “good year”. Before the Kol Nidrei service it is customary for parents to bless their children.

    HIGH HOLYDAYS -­ The name is an adaptation of “high days and holy days”; the Hebrew title is yamim nora’im ­- “awesome days”.

    Not that the sense of Divine awesomeness is limited to any one season of the year since the prayers said every day speak of the “awesome God”. Reverence for God and the Creation is especially relevant on Rosh HaShanah, the anniversary of Creation.

    Abraham Joshua Heschel says that the problem of modern man is largely the inability to summon up a sense of awe and wonder. Yet even the most secular person has moments of spirituality and concern for the ultimate.

    HIN’NI (“Here I am”) -­ a meditation for the cantor before Musaf.

    The author’s name is not certain. The cantor asks God to help him lead the congregation in genuine prayer and that he should not be unworthy of his task.

    A cantor should not turn Hin’ni into a theatrical performance but say it quietly without fuss or acclaim.

    JONAH – A highlight of Yom Kippur is the Book of Jonah, a major feature of the afternoon service.

    Avudraham (14th cent.) wrote: “Jonah is read from beginning to end to teach us that no man can fly away from God; as David, peace be unto him, said (Psalm 139:7-10): ‘Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I fly from Thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there would Thy hand lead me, and Thy right hand would hold me.'”

    Rabbi Shneur Zalman was asked: “How are we to understand that God, the All-Knowing, said to Adam, ‘Where art thou?’ (Gen. 3:9)”. He answered: “In every era, God calls to every man, ‘Where art thou? Where are you in your world? So many years and days of those allotted to you have passed and how far have you gotten in your world?'”

    There are many misconceptions about the supposed whale which swallowed up Jonah. All that the Bible says is that it was a big fish. Rabbinic fancy has it that, like other miraculous things which appeared at just the right moment, this fish was in readiness from the moment of Creation.

    Insights on the Book of Jonah appear here, here, here, and here.

    KAPPAROT (“Expiation”) -­ ceremony carried out by some on Erev Yom Kippur.

    Whilst reciting prayers, they wave a chicken or money three times around the head to symbolise abandoning their sins.

    Some cultures have similar practices at the time of death, when a dying person holds a loaf of bread which is thought to absorb their sins.

    Those who reject kapparot prefer to indicate their remorse by means of penitence, prayer and charity.

    KNEELING -­ Various postures are customary during Jewish worship.

    Kneeling is now the least common and is practised only during Musaf on the High Holydays, once on Rosh HaShanah and several times on Yom Kippur, especially during the Avodah, which reconstructs the atonement ritual in the Temple.

    When Temple worshippers heard the authentic Hebrew name of God uttered by the high priest, they knelt and prostrated themselves and said: “Blessed be His glorious, sovereign Name for ever and ever.”

    KOL NIDREI -­ Not so much a prayer as a proclamation expressing our yearning that the Court on high not hold against us the promises we make to the Almighty but fail to fulfill, Kol Nidrei has a unique fascination; it has taken such hold of the Jewish heart that the evening which ushers in Yom Kippur is known as Kol Nidrei night.

    The Kol Nidrei melody breathes pathos; one writer speaks of “the almost weird atmosphere which filled the entire congregation when the lamentful chant of this prayer fell upon the sobbing multitudes of the penitent men and women”.

    Behind it, says another writer, “lurks a thought that is God-inspired, a conception of the sanctity of Truth”.

    For Judaism, our word must be our bond. “Better that you should not promise than that you promise and fail to fulfill,” says Ecclesiastes (5:5).

    Yet people do make rash vows and grandiose promises, perhaps under duress or when overcome with emotion. The waiving of an undertaking made to a human being requires the consent of the other person.

    But with a vow made to God or a private promise to oneself made in the presence of Him who knows all things, Kol Nidrei provides a means of absolution.

    L’DAVID ORI (“The Lord is my Light”) ­- Psalm 27, the penitential psalm, said daily from Rosh Chodesh Ellul until the end of Sukkot.

    It expresses total trust in God and concludes with the call, “Hope in the Lord: be strong and courageous and hope in the Lord”.

    MACHZOR (“Cycle”) -­ The festival prayer book, expanding the regular statutory prayers with liturgical poetry ­- piyyutim ­- and other passages spelling out the themes of the festival.

    On Rosh HaShanah, the Musaf service contains three main themes ­- Malchiyot, Zichronot and Shofarot – celebrating God as the King who remembers and judges His people’s deeds and will blow the trumpet call to announce their redemption.

    On Yom Kippur the theme is our human lapses and our capacity, with Divine help, to make a fresh start.

    (See guides to the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur liturgies.)

    MARTYRDOM ­- After the Avodah on Yom Kippur comes a series of references to martyrdom, especially Eleh Ez’kerah (“These do I remember”) about 10 sages martyred by the Romans.

    These passages are not meant to turn Yom Kippur into a day of mourning but to acknowledge that suffering is sometimes (not always) the outcome of sin. The linkage between suffering and sin must not be taken too far. In particular, the Holocaust must not be blamed on anything that Jews may or may not have done.

    NE’ILAH ­- the concluding service on Yom Kippur. Ne’ilah means “closing”, deriving from the closing of the Temple gates at the end of the day.

    A quiet, subdued congregation, tired from hours in the synagogue, makes a last appeal for forgiveness before the gates of the day are closed.

    Herman Kieval wrote: “While Judaism places no statute of limitation on God’s power to pardon, the dramatic unities governing the pageant of the Ten Days of Penitence require the final curtain of judgement to fall at sundown on Yom Kippur. The spiritual mood of the hour of Ne’ilah is consequently an existential paradox of despair versus hope: the time for prayer and penitence is swiftly running out, but the Divine hand remains ever mercifully extended to receive and forgive the contrite.”

    NON-LEATHER SHOES -­ One of the Yom Kippur prescriptions is that we do not wear leather shoes, a basic physical comfort.

    Samson Raphael Hirsch adds that “taking off one’s shoes expresses giving oneself entirely to the meaning of a place. The priests in the sanctuary had always to function barefooted and nothing was allowed to intervene between their feet and the ground. Everything was to work back on the personality of the ministrant”.

    Every Yom Kippur rule and ritual should work back on our personality and teach us a symbolic lesson, in this case that physical comfort should not stand in the way of spiritual experience and that we should feel the deprivation which others have to live with every day of the year.

    PENITENCE -­ one of the three means, according to tradition, of rising above the less worthy things we do and indeed the evil in the world generally (the other two -­ prayer and charity -­ are dealt with separately in this guide).

    Penitence, like its Hebrew equivalent t’shuvah, is from a root which means “to turn”. It has two aspects -­ turning from evil and turning to goodness.

    Each of us is capable of t’shuvah. We do not need anyone to hold our hand. Our conscience is so natural that our own instinct tells us there is a wrong and a right. The parameters of wrong and right are, however, spelled out in the Torah.

    PRAYER ­- in Hebrew t’fillah, probably from a root which means “to judge”. In prayer we judge ourselves and admit to what we really are -­ a bundle of good and bad all bound up together.

    We put our feelings into words, and ask God to help us to make sound decisions and live up to the standards we are capable of reaching. We do not ask for simplistic handouts but for Divine guidance, strength and support. We pray for each other, not only for ourselves.

    Jewish prayer is mostly in Hebrew. We pray as Jews, using the time-hallowed vocabulary of Jewish worship.

    SACRIFICE -­ Animal sacrifice played a leading role in Temple worship and is vividly described on Yom Kippur in the Avodah.

    The sacrifices were not enough in themselves. They needed to come together with a “broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17).

    The concept of sacrifice in a wider sense is part of the service of every cause ­- if we believe in the cause, we will be willing to make sacrifices for its sake.

    After the Temple was destroyed and the sacrificial ritual suspended, Jewish practice adopted Hosea’s pledge, “We shall offer, instead of bulls, the words of our mouth” (Hosea 14:2) ­- whilst maintaining the faith that the Temple would be rebuilt and its ritual re-instituted.

    SCAPEGOAT ­- On Yom Kippur in the Temple the high priest took two goats. He cast lots so that one goat was designated “for the Lord” (as a sin offering) and one “for Azazel” (Lev. 16:8).

    This goat, symbolically bearing the sins of the people, was taken to an isolated region and released in the wilderness. Since it was “the goat that escaped”, it was the origin of the phrase “scapegoat”. Azazel may be a combination of azaz (“rugged”) and el (“strong”), or of ez (“goat”) and azal (“went”).

    The two goats were similar in appearance, size and value, and purchased at the same time, which Samson Raphael Hirsch takes as indicating that two options present themselves every Yom Kippur -­ the choice of coming closer to the sanctuary or of wandering off to a spiritual desert.

    SELICHOT ­- prayers for forgiveness (the root salach means “to pardon”) said not only on Yom Kippur but in the lead-up to Rosh HaShanah and during the Ten Days of Penitence.

    Many selichot are poetical outpourings, often from medieval poets who never wavered in their faith despite the temptations and tragedies they experienced. Some focus on the binding of Isaac, symbolic of constant faith in God.

    Selichot are often chanted to specially poignant melodies, expressing the anguish of a soul seeking reconciliation with God. They frequently imply that we have brought our own suffering upon ourselves, though this notion has its limitations.

    SHABBAT SHUVAH -­ the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, deriving its name from the haftarah (Hoseae 14) which commences Shuvah Yisra’el -­ “Return, O Israel”.

    SHOFAR -­ the ram’s horn trumpet blown as a call to spiritual wakefulness on Rosh HaShanah and during Ellul.

    The long shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur announces the end of the fast and symbolises the Divine message, “I have forgiven”.

    The word shofar may come from a root which means “bright”, since the shofar produces a sharp, clear note, or from a verb denoting “to hollow out”. Rabbinic commentary links it with shapper, to adorn; in this sense, the shofar calls us to amend and improve our deeds.

    The main shofar sound is t’ruah (several quavering notes) which some interpret as sighs and others as sobs (hence our sh’varim). The t’ruah or sh’varim are introduced and followed by a long t’kiah.

    SINS ­- As against classical Christianity which believes that man sins because he is a sinner, Judaism argues that sin is neither inevitable nor natural.

    Sin is not our nature. Nor do we deliberately decide to be sinners. We sin because we go wrong. We miss the mark. We prefer to do a mitzvah but sometimes make a mistake.

    Some sins are carried out knowingly. Some are even done in order to make a statement. Some arise out of uncontrolled appetite or desire. Most are unwitting and not deliberately defiant.

    The sinner can however rise above sin and re-attach to God and the mitzvot. In some ways, the repentant sinner is regarded as even higher than the person who has not sinned at all. The saint has probably never been tempted and cannot be sure he could resist the temptation if it came. The repentant sinner has shown the courage to face his actions and come back to righteousness.

    STILL SMALL VOICE (Kol d’mamah dakkah) ­- Literally, “a sound of thin silence”, suggesting the awestruck silence of the angels on the day of judgment. On earth too this ought to be the keynote of the High Holyday services.

    At great, impressive, major moments it almost appears that “the great trumpet is sounded”. There are also moments when, amazingly, all is quiet and “the still, small voice is heard”.

    The still, small voice has much to say. There is eloquence in silence when the world does not exist and we quietly, serenely confront ourselves and our own souls.

    In New York, the United Nations Building has a room “devoted to peace and those who are giving their lives for peace. It is a room where only thoughts should speak”.

    Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur give us “a room of quiet where only thoughts should speak”… the thoughts of a husband who has quietly realised how deeply he loves his wife, a wife who recognises how fortunate she is in her husband, children who discover the solid quality of their parents, parents grateful for the good there is in their children, friends who determine to be better friends…

    The thoughts also speak of ourselves and of God. We pretend sometimes that we don’t believe in God, but we know deep down that something exists which is higher than human. In moments of stillness, it beckons us upwards.

    SYNAGOGUE -­ Despite the crowds which flock to the services, the synagogue presents a problem on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur for those who can only fidget through “the arduous service, the pointless sermon, the boring layening, the prima donna solos and the consistent talking of those around us” (Alan Unterman).

    Some writers even talk of “Surviving Your Synagogue“.

    Survival is certainly made easier if people don’t disturb each other and the service is user-friendly. It also requires the ability to shut out the environment, even to close oneself off from the prayers, and to think, resolve and daydream. When an evocative passage or phrase moves you into reverie mode, don’t resist.

    Choose your synagogue seat, not on the basis of who is your neighbour but how you can concentrate on your own spiritual moments without being disturbed.

    TASHLICH (“You will cast”) -­ Based on Micah’s statement (7:19), “You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea”, it is customary to go to a river, stream or the sea on the first afternoon of Rosh HaShanah (the second if the first day is Shabbat) and symbolically empty one’s sins into the water and see them carried away.

    Some authorities opposed this practice but most regarded it as a demonstration of our anxiousness to be cleared of the misdeeds of the past and put our sins behind us.

    THIRTEEN DIVINE ATTRIBUTES -­ Repeated frequently during the services, the 13 Divine Attributes (“The Lord, the Lord, compassionate and merciful God”) derive from Exodus 34:6-7.

    The Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 17b) picturesquely describes God as putting on a tallit like a cantor and telling Moses, “Whenever Israel sin, let them carry out this service and I will forgive them”.

    By acknowledging God’s qualities we place before ourselves the ideals which we should bring into our own lives in order to avoid wrong-doing.

    UN’TANNEH TOKEF (“We will declare the powerful sanctity of this day”) -­ musically, liturgically and emotionally, the highlight of the services.

    Un’tanneh Tokef attracts us by the legendary account of its composition, the richness of its music, its simple language and vivid imagery as well as its reference to Divine scrutiny of every creature, the unpredictability of fate and the assurance that though the length of our life is in God’s hands, its quality is up to us.

    The fatalism of the second part of the prayer is unusual in Judaism which generally believes far more strongly in the power of free will. But the culminating assertion that penitence, prayer and charity avert the evil decree (or, more correctly, “the evil of the decree”) is wholly Jewish.

    It declares that whatever life has in store for us, we have the capacity to handle it wisely and responsibly.

    WHITE VESTMENTS ­- The Ark drapes, the bimah cover and the Torah mantles are white on the High Holydays; the officiants and many worshippers also wear white.

    This is the colour of purity worn by the high priest when he went into the Holy of Holies.

    Isaiah links white with forgiveness: “Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall become white like snow” (1:18).

    White is also the colour of shrouds, reminding us that our lives are at stake.

    YIZKOR (“May He remember”) ­- The memorial service did not become a regular practice until the Middle Ages although prayers for the dead were known earlier.

    Judah Maccabee prayed for the departed and offered an atoning sacrifice. The verse, “Forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed” (Deut. 21:8) is said to denote the dead.

    There is also a belief that the dead pray for the living: Caleb is said to have gone to the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and asked the patriarchs to pray for him.

    At first Yizkor was restricted to Yom Kippur. Only in the 18th century was it extended to Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sh’mini Atzeret.

    The link with Yom Kippur may have been the Torah reading which begins with a reference to acharei mot, “after the death (of the sons of Aaron)” (Lev. 16).

    A homiletical suggestion is that when the Torah calls the day Yom HaKippurim in the plural, one kippur is for the living and one for the dead.

    On other days when Yizkor is read, the Torah readings refer to matnat yad, charitable offerings, recalling the verse tz’dakah tatzil mimavet ­- “Charity saves one from death” (Prov. 10:2). The link with K’riat HaTorah on all four occasions presumably explains why Yizkor is usually recited after the haftarah.

    The misconception that Yizkor is not said in the first year after a death derives from a view that “the memory of the dead breaks the heart and special prayers for the dead during the first year create excessive weeping and grief”.

    Others say that omitting Yizkor is like robbing the dead and it is precisely at this time that the dead require our prayers.

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