Yom Kippur and the Autumn Equinox: A Comparison

This year, 2007, Yom Kippur falls on Sept. 21 and 22. The equinox falls early on the morning of the 23rd.

This year, the autumn equinox falls just after Yom Kippur (5:51 am EDT, Sept. 23). Usually one thinks of Rosh haShanah, the Jewish new year, as the autumn holiday, or of Sukkot, the harvest festival. However, this year we get an unusual chance to focus on Yom Kippur as an autumn equinox holiday.

Yom Kippur is about balancing light and dark: seeking to illuminate our deeds, and yet acknowledging the mystery of our human fraility. The autumn equinox, which marks when the days grow shorter than the nights, is a time of going into darkness. So too, on Yom Kippur we probe what we have covered over or forgotten, taking a journey into our own dark places (both good and bad memories) to remember who we truly are, and who we want to be.

On Yom Kippur, the high priest used to enter the Holy of Holies, the mysterious empty space at the heart of the Temple. This individual would throw blood seven times on the sacred curtain, representing the cleansing and healing forces of the Divine washing out the sins and crimes of the last year. The seven castings of the blood represent the seven days of creation. Similarly, the autumn equinox calls to mind the harvest, the renewal of life, and the wonders of creation. Many cultures celebrate the equinox as a day to be grateful for the earth's bounty Both Yom Kippur and the equinox are days to acknowledge the creative, healing potential of the earth.

The legends of the autumn equinox also state that on the equinox, Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac on Mount Moriah, but an angel spared him. This story reminds us that although we gather in the life of the earth through the autumn harvest, the Shekhinah does not require us to sacrifice our lives in return. Instead, we are to live lives of balance and gratitude, daily remembering that our nourishment comes from the multiplicity of life around us.

Finally, the ancient book of Jubilees tells that on the night of the autumn equinox, Abraham looked up to the stars to try to see the future. At that moment, the Holy One spoke to him. As the nights grow longer, we spend time telling the stories of our ancestors and remembering our traditions. From this, we learn who we might become. Yom Kippur too is a time when we connect with the ancestors through prayer, remembering loved ones and telling the stories of ancient patriarchs and matriarchs, in order to seek role models for the future.

May Yom Kippur and the equinox bring us balance, humility, gratitude and the wisdom of our ancestors.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the Director of Tel Shemesh, the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and the author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.

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