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Sin, Confession and Fasting: Teaching about Yom Kippur

As the High Holy Days approach, many parents in interfaith families begin thinking about how to teach their children about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which revolves around the important concepts of sin and confession. How can you teach children about such an adult holiday in a way that feels comfortable within the framework of more than one religion? It can feel difficult for parents raised in different religious backgrounds to discuss sin and confession with their children, since their beliefs might vary considerably.

Rabbi G. Rayzel Raphael, rabbinic director of InterFaithways: The Interfaith Family Support Network of Greater Philadelphia, an interfaith outreach program, says most people can accept Judaism's view or sin. "In Judaism it's really all about becoming a better person. Sin simply means missing the mark for the target of our lives."

children shooting with bows
One way of thinking about sin in both Judaism and Christianity is as a missing of the target.

Jewish and Christian ideas about sin have some similarities and some differences. Suzette A. Cohen, director of programs for Pathways: The Interfaith Family Network of Greater Atlanta, Ga., explains, "[Jews] are not believers in original sin. The soul that God breathed into us is pure ... Judaism is a loving and forgiving religion that gives us opportunities each year to hit the mark. We are not perfect, just always trying to do better each year. Also we are responsible for making peace with our own families and friends."

Also, Cohen points out, "In Judaism, confession is between us and God and our family and friends. There is no intermediary who can absolve us of our sins. We go straight to the CEO of the universe--God."

The Jewish tradition that mandates that individuals ask one another for forgiveness offers a wonderful way to teach children about sin and about how to apologize. "Judaism teaches us to tell the person we've wronged that we are sorry. We can't just ask God for forgiveness if we've hurt another person," says Debbie Antonoff, director of Pathways: The Interfaith Family Network of Greater Atlanta.

Start your discussion about sin with your children this way, says Raphael: "Say to them, 'Think of the times in the past year that were hard times or when someone was mad at you or you got in trouble and how you would do something different this year. Remember when you hit your brother?' I usually focus on sibling stuff if they have siblings," she says, "because this is easy for them to relate to. Then ask them to say they are sorry to their siblings." Also, ask them to apologize to the person they angered or with whom they misbehaved.

You can also tell your children that Yom Kippur offers them a chance to "turn around" their bad behaviors. This is the concept of teshuvah, which literally means "turning around," as in repentance, Antonoff explains.

Ground these discussions in an activity by creating a home-based ritual for the whole family. "Take some time with your own family to sit and review the year and ask each other for forgiveness for a variety of things, for whatever each person wants to be forgiven for and to forgive each other. Make it an interpersonal process," Raphael says.

During the day of Yom Kippur, Jews also confess communally as part of synagogue services. "We are not singled out," Raphael explains. "It's not a private affair. We assume that people are guilty of things they know about and things they don't even know about. So, all of us confess all of it instead of one person carrying the burden of all of it on their own soul. We use the power of the collective for transformation."

Confessing sins along with everyone else may make the confession seem easier. It's simpler in some ways for individuals to confess jointly than to think of all their personal wrongdoings and to admit to them alone. Some feel overwhelmed with the standard High Holiday prayer book's vast list of ways they might have missed the mark, but it's comforting to realize that other people make these mistakes as well. For children, it can be good to see that adults are also trying to change and improve their behavior and to know that this is something we do together.

The concept of fasting may also be a new one for interfaith families, and parents may need to reconcile their feelings about this practice before teaching their children about it. "How you feel about fasting comes down to how you frame it," claims Raphael. She offers two ways to look at this practice. "Fasting gives the body a chance to rest, so the spirit can do its own reflection. That's number one: Fasting is good for the body and the soul. Number two: Yom Kippur is a ritual near-death experience. We don't eat. We wear white, which is like a burial shroud. We sing like the angels. We reflect on our lives, like 'my life passes before me.' So, it is a ritual reenactment of the death experience. Once we understand that, we have the context for the fast. It is a tool for us to reflect and appreciate that we are still alive. That's fasting on a spiritual level."

On physical level, you have to prepare for your fast so it becomes a bit easier. Raphael says, "Wean yourself off coffee and caffeine two weeks before Yom Kippur. And drink lots of water, so you don't feel the effects of the fast in a headache. How you feel about your fast is all about the approach you take to it. And both practical and spiritual approaches can make it easier."

Cohen frames her fast in a different context, one that can help you teach your children about gratitude as well. "On fast days, I connect with those who are poor and have no food. This forces me to come from a place of humility, because were it not for the gifts of God and others, I could be hungry everyday … Unless one knows hunger, one cannot appreciate abundance and experience gratitude."

Once you have found a frame of reference for fasting and figured out how you need to prepare physically, if at all, you can teach your children about this ritual practice. Although children under the age of 13 are excluded from the commandment to fast on Yom Kippur, they can get a taste of this experience as well by incorporate fasting a step at a time. Antonoff explains: "My girls were so proud when they could skip breakfast on Yom Kippur when they were young. This opens the opportunity for a discussion of 'How does it feel to be hungry? Can you imagine what it is like to go hungry every day? How can we help the hungry in our own community?' Kids relate to things close to home like this, and it's a good opener for discussion of our responsibility to help others. Over time, children may try to take on the challenge of fasting longer during the day."

Once your children are 13, in the eyes of the Jewish community they are adults. When Yom Kippur arrives and it's time to fast, she says, "Simply tell them that they are adults, and this is part of being an adult. Kids like to know that at 13. Tell them they can do it, that they have not only the will but also the responsibility."

Each year, you can revisit these subjects and practices. Each year, your experience and your children's experience of Yom Kippur will become richer, deeper and more meaningful and spiritual.

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "return," the way of repenting for sins in Judaism. The term is most associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Nina Amir Lacey

Nina Amir Lacey is a freelance journalist, nonfiction editor and the author of several booklets about practical spirituality, human potential and personal growth from Jewish perspective. She sees herself as an "everywoman" and her work as crossing religious and spiritual lines. She also serves as the spirituality and holiday expert on Conversations with Ms. Claus, a weekly podcast downloaded by 85,000 listeners each month in 90 different countries and offered on www.yaktivate.com. You can learn more about Nina at Pure Spirit Creations.

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