Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur?

I read a fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times this morning about local protests against the sacrificial slaughter of chickens being conducted this week in Jewish enclaves throughout Los Angeles — and, indeed, throughout the world. The ritual, as kaparotkapparot or kaparos, is supposed to help "cleanse" people of their sins. It's an orthodox Jewish thing. More progressive Jews are calling the ritual archaic and meaningless, and point to the treatment of the chickens before their deaths as further reason to stop the killings. Faith leaders have joined with animal-rights activists in the protest.

So, here's the deal: The sacrifices all tie into the Jewish High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur. This period is meant to be a period of "atonement" — asking God to forgive your sins. The chicken is supposed to "accept" all the sins of those present and then be killed (knife to the throat) in one, big, bloody symbolic gesture.

Anyhoo.... in anticipation of Yom Kippur, which lasts exactly 25 hours beginning tomorrow evening, here is the latest addition to your friendly neighborhood Holiday Cheat Sheet.

Holiday: Yom Kippur (pronounced Yom Ki-POOR)

AKA: The Day of Atonement

Religion Represented: Judaism

Date: The 10th day of Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar. In 2013, Yom Kippur lasts from from Sept. 13 at sunset to Sept. 14 at nightfall.

Not To Be Confused With: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

On a Scale of 1 to 10: Yom Kippur is a heavy 10.

What It Is: Yom Kippur is the last and most important of Judaism's 10 High Holy Days, which begin on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. As you might recall, the New Year is a time to reflect on one's life and resolve to be a better person in the coming year. On Yom Kippur, God is said to take a look at the deeds of the Jewish people and to seal each person's fate in the "Book of Life." More than anything, Yom Kippur is a day of seeking forgiveness and giving to charity. (And, um, slaughtering chickens.)

Associated Literary Passages: Leviticus 16:29 and 23:27; Numbers 29:7-11 and Mishnah Tract Yomah 8:1

The Sabbath of All Sabbaths: Saturday (“the sabbath”) is to Jews what Sunday is to Christians; it is the "day of rest" when synagogues hold their weekly worship services. Yom Kippur is considered the “Sabbath of all Sabbaths” because, not only is it a day of complete rest (no work, no driving, etc.) but it's a day of fasting and other restrictions: no washing or bathing, no perfumes or deodorants, no wearing leather shoes, and no sex. Services run all day on Yom Kippur — from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. — with a break around 3 p.m. People wear white, and services generally end with a long blow from the shofar.

Coolest Thing about Yom Kippur: During their ever-so-long day of synagogue services (decidedly NOT the coolest thing about Yom Kippur, given the no-deodorant rule), participants take part in a “group confession.” They confess to being aggressive, slanderous, acting callously, and a number of other things — usually involving behaving badly toward others in speech or deed. The cool thing is that the sins are confessed in the plural — “we” have done this, “we” have done that — emphasizing “communal responsibility for sins.” Now, I don’t believe in “sins,” AT ALL, and I know that, in this sense, they are only talking about the Jewish people. But I think if more human beings could adopt even a little of this attitude, “we” could kick up the world’s compassion level a notch or two. Minus the chickens, of course.

Appropriate Greeting: "Have an easy fast." ("Happy Yom Kippur" is not considered appropriate, as Yom Kippur is not a "happy" holiday.)

Quick! What the Hell is Rosh Hashanah?

Rosh Hashanah

This post originally appeared in September 2011.

I’m one of those people who forgets stuff, especially stuff that's the least bit complicated or unusual. I’m just challenged that way. To retain much of anything, I have to write it down — and, even then, there’s a shelf-life to my knowledge. I think that’s why I take such copious notes and then keep those notes for pretty much my entire life.

I still have my diary from when I was 12. And even though nothing remotely complicated or unusual is written there, I can report to you that I really, really, really hearted Billy when I was 12. I also hearted Jason when I was 12. And Joel. And Dustin. And then Billy again. And then Dustin again. I was such a whore.

Anyway, the point is I’m bad about remembering lots of things, and religious holidays are among them. As much as I want to remember what they represent, I never do. I keep having to ask over and over and over again. Are you like that? No? I hate you now. Please go away.

For the rest of you, Happy Rosh Hashanah! Because, apparently, it's that time of year. Which brings me to this — the first installment of my Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents, a series that will give parents the quick run-down on major religious holidays so that they might come across as intelligent beings to their kids. Also, and most importantly, religious holidays are a fantastic way to convey an openness about religion in your family while helping your kids become religiously literate.

Holiday: Rosh Hashanah

Religion Represented: Judaism

Date: The 1st and 2nd of the month of Tishrei in the Hebrew calendar. This year, the holiday started last night (Sept. 4) and ends tomorrow evening (Sept. 6).

What It Is: The Jewish New Year

Not To Be Confused With: Yom Kippur, which occurs 10 days later.

How Important Is It?: I asked my friend and former editor Jason Gewirtz. Here’s what he said: “Rosh Hashanah is a big, big deal. It’s the start of the Jewish new year. Yom Kippur the next week is only slightly bigger. [On a scale of 1 to 10], I’d say Rosh Hashanah is a 9.5 and Yom Kippur a 10. There’s nothing bigger than the two of them. They’re tied to each other. The period in between is supposed to be a time of mending any fences, if you will, and reflecting on things that can be improved from the previous year… It’s said that on Rosh Hashanah you’ll either be written in or out of the Book of Life for the coming year. But on Yom Kippur, the book is sealed, meaning you’ve got that time in between to screw up or make your righteousness known.”

The Good Stuff: Foodwise, this holiday is associated with apples and honey (symbolizing a sweet new year), as well as pomegranates and challah (braided bread). Also, in lieu of stupid hats and tasseled squawkers, celebrants sport the traditional yarmulke and blow a cool-looking horn called a shofar.

Conveying Meaning to Kids: At dinner [two years ago] I explained to my daughter that Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time for reflecting on your life and challenging yourself to become a better human being. I served apples and pomegranates and asked Maxine to come up with one way that she might improve. Coincidentally, she had been reprimanded for being silly in her kindergarten class that morning, so her idea of self-improvement was to better follow her teacher's instructions. I said my own resolution would be to spend less time looking at my phone. (Then on Yom Kippur, we checked in with each other about how well we did. The results? Well, a bit meh on both accounts. Luckily, we're not religious...)

So there you go. Rosh Hashanah. Hope you enjoyed it. And don’t worry. I’ll run this blog again next year. By then, I will have long since forgotten everything I just wrote.

Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents

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We here at Relax, It's Just God believe that religious literacy and tolerance doesn't just happen. We parents have to make it happen.

Unfortunately, saying the word “Hanukkah” once a year and pointing out burkas in the airport just doesn't cut it. A true religious education requires context. Tolerance requires action. If you want your children to be interested in and respectful of those around them, you must knit a sense of interest and respect into your childrearing — today and throughout the year.

That's why major religious holidays are such fantastic vehicles for religious literacy. And the best part? Thanks to this here Holiday Cheat Sheet, you don't have to know a damn thing about any of them. We're one-stop shopping for on-the-go parents. Click on one of the links and in just a few minutes, you'll find out why that holiday exists, how it's celebrated and fun ways to convey its meanings to kids.

So stop letting those vaguely familiar-sounding holidays pass you by in a blur of Phineas and Ferb re-runs. Seize these small but wonderful opportunities to introduce your kids to religious concepts and figures — while also showing compassion for the people who hold these concepts and figures so dear.

September

Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Rosh Hashana? (Judaism)

October

Quick! What the Hell is Diwali? (Hinduism)

Quick! What the Hell is Hajj? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid al-Adha? (Islam)

December

Quick! What the Hell is Hanukkah? (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Christmas? (Christianity)

January

Quick! What the Hell is Epiphany? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Mawlid al-Nabi? (Islam)

February

Quick: What the Hell is St. Valentine's Day? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Ash Wednesday? (Christianity)

March

Quick! What the Hell is Purim? (Judaism)

April

Quick! What the Hell is Easter? (Christianity)

Quick! What the Hell is Passover? (Judaism)

May

Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day? (Buddhism)

Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost? (Christianity)

July

Quick! What the Hell is Ramadan? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid ul-Fitr? (Islam)

There's more to come, so please keep checking back!