Prayer Services for Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement contains more services than any other observance in Judaism

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The final service of Yom Kippur is the Neilah service. Neilah literally means "closing" and refers to the symbolic closing of the gates of heaven and, hence, God’s willingness to hear the prayers of the Jewish people. There is, therefore, a spiritual urgency motivating prayer at this service, as the sun is beginning to set and most people are light-headed and exhausted from the long day of fasting and praying. The highlight of this service is that, for a lengthy portion of it, the doors of the Ark are opened, revealing the Torahs inside.

Whenever the doors of the Ark are opened, it is customary to stand out of honor and deference to the holiness of the divine words contained in them. Since the doors of the Ark are then left open throughout the lengthy last part of the service, the entire congregation is traditionally expected to remain standing for quite a while during this final, spiritually urgent prayer service. Although, it should be noted, that if this period of prolonged standing proves to be too uncomfortable or even dangerous to the health of some in the congregation, it is appropriate to sit down.

The Ne'ilah service builds in intensity until it concludes with a final Tekiah Gedolah or great blast of the Shofar, the ram's horn. This blast, usually blown as soon as the stars come out, signals the conclusion of the Day of Atonement. Once they have heard the shofar, most people rush off to attend the festive and much needed “break the fast” meal immediately following services, ready to enter the new year with their spiritual batteries recharged. In many congregations, this rush is delayed by a few minutes for the recitation of ma'ariv, the evening prayer; because days, in Jewish tradition, begin at sundown, this actually is the ma'ariv prayer of the day after Yom Kippur, and is emphasized by many congregations so that the clean slate after Yom Kippur is not immediately sullied by skipping a daily prayer service.

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.