Tradition is a funny and a complex creature.
My father, who was not religious at all, insisted on going to services every year on the eve of Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). I didn’t understand why, but that was the beginning of my special feeling about the importance of the holiday.
Moreover, both my parents fasted, despite being irreligious. That was another unusual phenomenon considering the fact that both loved to eat.
There weren’t many explanations – here and there a story about the Marranos (the Jews in Spain that were forced to convert to Christianity), but mostly it was just done this way, and because everyone repeated these rituals every year, they became sacred.
And in Israel, during Yom Kippur, the country came to a complete standstill, even more than here on Christmas. When I was a child, people didn’t drive on Yom Kippur. So, in the eyes of a young child, it was as if the world had gone out on strike… People wore white, rushed to synagogues, and we – the children raised in non-orthodox homes, went with our parents to the synagogue and played outside. From time to time an adult would come out to shush us; and we would stop, look at him with amazement, and go back to our games. I had no idea what was going on there, but it must have been important for my dad to spend the entire day praying, and not eating.
Many years later when I studied rabbinic literature, I realized that the first prayer, recited on the eve of Yom Kippur, called Kol Nidrei [All Vows], actually went through many transformations. I realized this unique prayer was originally not recited on Yom Kippur to begin with!
Learning about it made me feel like the child who realizes that there’s no Santa Claus.
I could not believe that there was a time when one Rabbi, as learned as one could be, decided to change the wordings of the prayer. I could not believe that some Rabbis, as devout as they could be, would dare change the day in which this prayer would be recited.
I was taught that this is the most important prayer of all Jewish rituals. This is evidenced by the fact it is recited three times, which can get quite boring if you get to synagogue on time, since the latecomers were given a chance to recite it as well.
I was taught that the reason it’s in Aramaic, and not in Hebrew, is because Aramaic was the common language at that time, and it was important that everyone could understand it, and recite it.
Additional drama and strong emotional importance and significance were imbued through tragic and painful stories about Jews saying this prayer when forced to convert to Christianity.
So despite my realization that the most sacred night and prayer in the Jewish liturgy – which is not exactly a prayer but a legal recitation- went through its own change, maturation process and development, I could not shake up the feeling of it being holy. As much as I wanted to use logic and dismiss this event, I couldn’t.
And whether I go to synagogue or not, whether I fast or not, I’m incapable of going to work on that day, and I experience the internal feeling of quietness, where daily life comes to a complete stop for me, despite all the hustle and bustle outside. And I do manage to think of forgiveness and wrongdoings. I feel compelled to pause and reflect on my behavior in the previous year, realizing that I gossiped about someone and that I was not always kind and other transgressions.
I like the pause. I like the silence. I like the memory of my father going to pray taking his tallit – his prayer shawl with him. Even though I know that the prayers are our invention, or our form of poetry to the divine (depending on your level of religiosity), I cannot deny the glue of tradition which adhered so profoundly to my bones.
And it is an eve that binds us together, the orthodox and the non-believer, the Jew from Ethiopia to the one in Argentina, the soldier and the merchant, the one who thrives and the one who’s on death’s door, and then we know in unison that one’s level of devoutness notwithstanding, we have this overwhelming tie to our unique history and shared destiny, just like Daniel Pearl’s words before his murderers: “I am a Jew”!