Yom Kippur Social Action Guide

The Yamim Nora-im, the High HolidaysHigh Holidaysיָמִים נוֹרָאִיםRosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur , are a time of personal reflection; we gaze at the past year and envision the year that is yet to be. As we stand again on the threshold of a New Year, we reaffirm our commitment to tikkun olamtikkun olamתִּקּוּן עוֹלָם"Repair of the world;" Jewish concept that it is our responsibility to partner with God to improve the world. A mystical concept of restoration of God's holiest Name to itself and the repair of a shattered world. Often refers to social action and social justice.  through the actions we will take in the year to come.

During the High Holidays, two fast days are observed: Yom Kippur, and the lesser known Fast of Gedalia, commemorating the assassination of the last governor of Judea prior to the destruction of the First Temple. One of the key purposes of these fast days is to free us from our daily needs, giving us time to concentrate only on the tasks at hand: t’shuvahT'shuvahתְּשׁוּבָה"Return;" The concept of repentance and new beginnings, which is a continuous theme throughout the High Holidays. , t’filaht'filahתִּפְלָה"Prayer." , and tzedakahtzedakahצְדָקָהFrom the Hebrew word for “justice,” or “righteousness;” refers to charity or charitable giving. May also be translated as “righteous giving.”  .

At this most holy time of year, as we willingly deny ourselves sustenance, we also recognize some of the brokenness in our world. Rather than focusing on our own hunger during our ritual fast, we can turn our thoughts and our actions to the millions of people around the world who cry out daily in hunger.

You can incorporate social action themes into your Yom Kippur observance in the following ways.

Make your fast meaningful.

On Yom Kippur, we fast to free ourselves from our daily needs. This allows us the time we need to concentrate on the tasks at hand on this holy day: t’shuvahT'shuvahתְּשׁוּבָה"Return;" The concept of repentance and new beginnings, which is a continuous theme throughout the High Holidays. , t’filaht'filahתִּפְלָה"Prayer." , and tzedakahtzedakahצְדָקָהFrom the Hebrew word for “justice,” or “righteousness;” refers to charity or charitable giving. May also be translated as “righteous giving.”  . As we refrain from pleasure and deny our bodies nourishment, we hope to draw ourselves closer to God. During the climax of our worship on Yom Kippur morning, we read the stirring words of the Prophet Isaiah, who challenges us to use this fast day as a reminder that if hunger and want still exist in our world, then our fast and our prayers are incomplete.

“Is this the fast I seek? A day of self-affliction?... Is not THIS the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house?” (Isaiah 58:5-7).

Hunger is something we still face today on a massive scale, both in North America and throughout the world. This Yom Kippur, dedicate your fast to the millions of people worldwide who face hunger and starvation on a daily basis by donating to a hunger awareness/advocacy organization. (Some families donate the amount of the amount of money they would have spent to feed their families on their fast day.) One such organization, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, offers projects that connect hunger-related education and advocacy with the High Holidays.

Feed the hungry.

You might also consider these activities to help feed the hungry in your own community:

  • Volunteer at a local food pantry or homeless shelter as a family.
  • Join a meal delivery program to deliver hot meals to home-bound individuals.
  • Coordinate a High Holiday food drive.
  • Ask friends and family to join you in saving unused manufacturers’ coupons for food and household products. Once you’ve collected a substantial amount (make sure they’re not expired!), donate these coupons to an agency that purchases food for the needy, like a food pantry.

Save a life.

There is much discussion in our High Holiday prayers of life and death. We read: “On Rosh HaShanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who shall live and who shall die.”

  • Sign up for a CPR or first aid class so you will be prepared to try to save a life should the need arise.
  • Donate blood or platelets to help those in need of transfusions.
  • Nearly 18 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant, yet one organ donor can save as many as eight lives. Make sure your driver’s license designates you as an organ donor.
  • Register with the National Bone Marrow Registry to see if you are a match for a patient in need of a bone marrow transplant. The process is quick and virtually risk-free to the donor.

Focus on criminal justice reform.

On Yom Kippur, Jews all over the world fast and spend the day praying. The fast is meant to clear our minds in order to foster a deep connection with God as we try to repent and return to the best versions of ourselves. The Talmud teaches us that the merit in the fast day lies in the charity dispensed. This serves to teach us that our fasting, our self-reflection, and our atonement alone are not complete without acts of loving-kindness and compassion for the world and our fellow human beings.

Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we have the power to change the fate of our judgment. This is why we say in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that “repentance, prayer, and charity temper judgment’s severe decree.” These three acts are necessary to lead us down the path of redemption. During the High Holidays, as we account for our sins over the past year, we also turn our attention to the criminal justice system, and ask if everyone who passes through it is treated equally and justly

  • Write and send Rosh HaShanah and holiday cards to Jewish prisoners.
  • Share your dormant Judaica items with those in need through Jewish Prisoner Services International's t'shuvah outreach efforts, to help prisoners feel connected to their Jewish faith. Check your home or congregation's storerooms, attics, and closets for dormant Judaica, including Jewish books, Torah study materials, Torah commentaries, Hebrew-English dictionaries, pocket-sized siddurim, tefillin, tallitot, kippot, Hebrew-learning workbooks, and books on Jewish customs and traditions.
  • Organize attorneys in your congregation to provide pro-bono or flexible-fee legal aid in your community for clients who cannot afford adequate representation.