Scenes from Yom Kippur: Sudden Decompression

In a traditional Yom Kippur service, there are a few basic sections:

  • Shakarit, or the morning service, which runs non-stop from around 8:30am until around 2:00pm (or longer. I heard about services that went until 3:30).
  • Mincha, or the afternoon service, which starts at about 4:30pm or 5:00 and goes until 6:30-ish.
  • Neilah, literally “closing the gate”, or the official end of Yom Kippur, which goes until about 7:00 or so
  • Ma’ariv, or the evening service, which runs until the end of the fast

(if you want more details, this is a great place to start)

Neilah is the culmination of the day, the emotional and liturgical apex. The blessings are louder, longer, and stronger. As the people in the room sense the gates of heaven are closing, their declarations – the same ones they muttered or whispered at 9am – are now fervent shouts, as if volume will increase the velocity of their prayer and speed it through the gap before the doors completely shut.

The final kaddish arrives with the force of a tsunami, an unstoppable wave that overwhelms everyone in the room, washing over them even as they cry out “Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach l’alam u-l’almei almaya!!!” (“May His great name be praised to all eternity”). The energy in the room is frenzied in a way I’ve never seen it before. If I can’t quite bring myself to believe that we are all angels, at least I am convinced that everyone in the room thinks they are angels, if only for this moment in time. And then…

It’s a room full of people. Everyone is taking off their tallit (one of the only days of the year when it’s worn after morning services), switching out High Holiday machzors for regular siddurs, shuffling pages to get to the regular evening service.

The change in the room is, for me, disorienting. And disconcerting. Where is the fervor that was there seconds before? Where is the unabashed emotion? The sense that people were completely open, willing to bare their soul for the world (and heaven) to see?

Later that night, I wrote in my journal:

“In the seconds between Neila and Mincha, along with the rustle of tallitot sliding off shoulders, you could hear the flutter of the wings as The Shechinah departed from our midst.”

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