Jews around the world are directed by the Torah to: “Mark the tenth day of this seventh month as the day of atonement” (Lev/ 23:26) for sins. Following this direction Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) on the 10th of Tishrei is marked as a day of repentance, the most holy day on the Jewish calendar.
Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, prayer, reflection, and giving to charity. It is the culmination of a period in the month of Elul when Jews are required to take stock of their lives, to ask forgiveness from friends and family, and to take steps toward self-improvement for the year to come. Tradition teaches that on Rosh HaShanah the Book of Life is written, and on Yom Kippur the decree for the New Year is sealed. Jews are taught to do t’shuvah (repentance), t’filah (prayer), and tzedakah (justice, not really charity) at this time.
Five things are forbidden on Yom Kippur: eating, drinking, bathing, wearing shoes, anointing with oil, and having sexual intercourse. Customarily, all people from age 13 fast for a full 24-25 hour period, beginning after the eve of Yom Kippur meal and extending to the following evening. At a time when no eating or drinking is permitted, there are lots of food traditions – associated with the preparations for the fast and the breaking of the fast those many hours afterward.
It is customary at this time to remember our loved ones. Many Jews visit the cemetery the day before Yom Kippur and kindle 24-hour yahrzeit candles in their memory. In some communities, honey cakes and wine are distributed at the entrance of the cemetery.
In Ioannina in northwestern Greece, children gathered wild flowers and festooned the oil burning lamps, kandilia, hanging in the synagogue on the day of Erev Kippur. Elsewhere, on Erev Kippur, known as Kol Nidre (H. all vows), parents blessed their children before going to synagogue so they will be granted a year of good life, health, prosperity, and peace.
A home practice on Kol Nidre was kapparot. In this custom a chicken is whirled three times over the heads of all family members in order to remove their sins. A chicken or cash of the same value as the chicken was given to the poor as tsedakah. Kapparot was a major source of income of the shohets, ritual butchers.
Yom Kippur is defined by two meals – one before the fast, the other after the fast. Among some Jews it is considered a mitzvah to eat two full festive meals on Erev Yom Kippur because it is important “to eat well before Yom Kippur … is equal to the mitzvah of fasting on” the holiday.
The pre-fast meal is known as se’udah ha-mafseket (H. “meal of separation” or “concluding meal”) is eaten before sunset on Erev Kippur. This family meal usually consists of bland foods without spices, herbs, or salt to minimize thirst on the next day. It is also food which is easily digested. Some traditional choices for the meal include: rice, kreplach (stuffed dumplings), challah (dipped in honey, like on Rosh Hashanah), and chicken. In North Africa, the choice was often chicken couscous with chickpeas. It’s a peaceful meal which prepares the family for the most solemn day of the year.
Kreplach, a specialty in Ashkenazi homes, are eaten “so that kindness will cover any strict judgment of misdeeds.” The symbolism associated with kreplach refers to meat covered with dough being like the hope that on Yom Kippur, God’s justice will be covered with compassion and mercy. In ultra-Orthodox homes kreplach may be the meat from the kapparah. They are served in chicken soup before fasting of Yom Kippur, on Purim and for Hoshanah Rabbah. All three holidays have similar actions – on Kippur you beat your breast, on Hoshana Raba you beat the ground with willow branches, and on Purim you beat the floor with your feet at the mention of Haman.
Fish is usually not eaten at this meal, but it is enjoyed earlier in the day. Other foods avoided are those which do not generate bodily heat such garlic, eggs, etc. and very salty foods such as pickles which make the eater thirsty.
Breaking the fast is sometimes started with a cool drink. In the Sephardic and Mizrachi world it was made from almonds or Persian, cantaloupe or honeydew melon seeds called pepitada pr subiya. The seeds are dried, toasted, cracked open and ground before being tied up in cheesecloth. The cheesecloth is put in cold water for 24 hours, with the liquid squeezed from the seeds in the cloth occasionally. The cloudy white “milk” is sweetened with sugar and a drop or two of rose water before being chilled and served.
Other break-fast dishes vary from country to country. Dutch Jews broke the fast with coffee spiced with cinnamon, followed by a light dairy meal. German Jews enjoyed cookies called zimsterne (to the stars) or erste-steren (first stars), referring to the first stars which must be seen before breaking the fast. Central European Jews ate buns with cinnamon, nuts and/or raisins. In Algeria, children gave their fathers a sweet roll baked in the shape of his initial. The Jews of Rhodes broke the fast with reshicas or pretzel-shaped cookies.
The meal was often a dairy meal that could be prepared ahead of time. Some dishes enjoyed are brunch-style items like sweet kugel (noodle pudding), bagels and lox, quiches, soufflés, eggs, and cheese. Foods such as borekas filled with eggplant, spinach, and feta or potato and a good strong cheese such as kashkaval are favorites of Jews from Greece, Turkey, the Balkans, and Israel. Cheese fritters with various vegetables are eaten at break-fasts from Italy to Israel. Quajado, a dish which originated in Spain and was evidence against Jews in Inquisition times, is a Sephardic tradition. Egg is mixed with mashed or grated vegetables such as leeks, eggplants or zucchini, then baked, much like an Ashkenazic kugel. I guess the leek kugel I served last week at Rosh Hashanah is quajado (see Sept. 30 post).
Other break-fast meals include a variety of meats associated with the Jewish table. Some Ashkenazi families enjoy heavier traditional meals with soup and brisket. Many Sephardim prefer fish or poultry cooked into comforting soups, stews, or tagines. Chicken soup included avgolemono, egg-lemon soup thickened with rice that is popular in Greek cuisine. In Salonica, this soup started a fish meal.
Warm and cold salads accompanied the meats along wtih simple cooked vegetables such as eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, onions, carrots, fennel, leeks and rice using and lots of spices and herbs as part of non-Ashkenazi break-fasts. Jews from Egypt, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries eat ful medammas, warm fava beans dressed with lemon, olive, parsley, hard-boiled eggs.
No sour nor bitter foods are served at the break-fast because of the blessing of Ezra and Nehemiah, “To the good things and sweet wine.” The meal is closed with seasonal fruits and a variety of sweets such as baklava, kadaifi, tishpishti or a date-filled cookie. Find a recipe for tishpishti here (https://toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/tishpishti/); it was a favorite of my mom’s. A non-Ashkenazic rice pudding called sutlatch—sütlaҫ or mahallebi in Turkish was made with rice flour and flavored with orange or rose water (https://sephardicfood.com/test/sutlatch-turkish-rice-flour-pudding/).
Yom Kippur ends with a single, long blast of the shofar which indicates that the day has come to an end. After the fast is broken, families begin building the Sukkah for Sukkot. This year Sukkot (the Feast of Booths) starts on Sunday evening, October13.
Our joke: Did you hear about the house painter who deeply regretted stealing from his clients by diluting the paint, but charging full price? He poured out his heart on Yom Kippur hoping for Divine direction. A booming voice comes down from Heaven and decrees — “Repaint, repaint … and thin no more!”