Erev Yom Kippur

Numerous preparatory customs and practices are associated with the day preceding Yom Kippur.

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Fine white clothing is worn for two primary reasons. The first is that on Yom Kippur we are to consign ourselves symbolically to the status of the ministering angels. Wearing fresh, white attire raises our physical and, in turn, our spiritual character to a purer state, free of sin. Also by wearing white, especially the kitel, we are reminded of those who have died and, in turn, of our own mortality, motivating us to greater efforts in our repentance.

Candle Lighting

Finally, in order to sanctify the day, we light candles prior to Yom Kippur. They are lit in the same manner as on Friday nights, but with the Yom Kippur blessing followed by the she'heheyanu, a blessing said in this case for the new season. Another reason for lighting these candles, according to tradition, relates to Moses' coming down from Mount Sinai on Yom Kippur with the second set of tablets bearing the Ten Commandments (he had destroyed the first set when he found the Israelites worshiping an idol). Because the Torah, which evolved from the tablets, is a light unto the Jewish people, we are lighting candles on this day in honor of the Torah.

We light a third candle as well, known as the ner neshamah, or soul candle. This memorial or Yizkor candle commemorates the souls of our loved ones, traditionally our parents. Lighting candles is often connected with remembering loved ones who have died, as it says in the Bible, "The lifebreath of man (neshamah) is the lamp (ner) of the Lord (Proverbs 20:27)."

Furthermore, in Rabbinic literature, Yom Kippur is primarily referred to in the plural--by the biblical Yom Ha-Kippurim. It has been taught that Yom Kippur appears in the plural because we not only ask forgiveness for ourselves, but also for those who have already passed on.

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Rabbi Paul Steinberg

Paul Steinberg is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California and is the Head of the Etz Chaim Hebrew School. He previously served as the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at Levine Academy: A Solomon Schechter School in Dallas, Texas.