Allah's Apostle said, "Whoever observes fasts during the month of Ramadan out of sincere faith, hoping to attain Allah's rewards, then all his past sins will be forgiven." (Narrated by Abu Huraira in Sahih Al-Bukhari Vol. 1). And Prophet Isaiah said: “The kind of fasting I (God) want is this: remove the chains of oppression and the yoke of injustice, and let the oppressed go free. Share your food with the hungry and open your homes to the homeless poor" (Isaiah 58:5-7)
Of great benefit to Muslims in Ramadan and Jews on Yom Kippur is sincere repentance – turning to Allah, beseeching Him for forgiveness, and looking deep into ourselves to evaluate how we conduct our lives. Allah advises us: "O My slaves who have transgressed against themselves (by evil deeds and sins)! Despair not of the Mercy of Allah, verily, Allah forgives all sins. Truly He is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful." (39:53)
The door of repentance is always open for those who seek forgiveness. Ramadan and Yom Kippur are a time for repentance and forgiveness. Ramadan is the month of tolerance and mercy. Surely our sins are many; and yet God’s compassion is even more. Our misdeeds are great but His Mercy is greater. Glory be to the One who continues to forgive us when we go astray, as long as we turn to Him and repent; and ask Him to guide us to what is best.
God tells us: “And those who, when they have committed fahishah (grave sins ) or wronged themselves with evil, remember Allah and ask forgiveness for their sins; – and none can forgive sins but Allah – and do not persist in what (wrong) they have done, while they know.” (3:135)
Note that they do not ever persist in the wrong doing, for this would mean that the repentance was not sincere. If we make mistakes and acknowledge them, and pledge to change our ways, then Allah promises to forgive us. If we do not change our ways, we may not earn His forgiveness. Ramadan and Yom Kippur are opportunities to gain Allah’s forgiveness; and to change our ways and become better.
Since both Islam and Judaism reject the Christian doctrine of original sin; we are in full agreement that these principles of human responsibility to repent and turn to God apply to all humanity.
Those who are sincere will find that all their previous sins throughout the year will be forgiven in Ramadan, if they avoid major sins. The shortcomings and faults of the entire year are therefore rectified. As human beings, we do err and commit sins, Allah knows this and gives us the opportunity to make amends. Those of us who do not repent and seek Allah’s forgiveness; but persist in doing wrong, forsake Allah’s guidance on His Straight Path and fall astray.
This month of fasting is therefore an opportunity for us to sincerely repent to Allah, all praises and glory be to Him. Will we not take up this excellent opportunity? Take initiative with sincere repentance before your soul is taken away. Do not delay, for we do not know what tomorrow will bring.
Some of the people who fasted with us last year, have returned to their Lord. If we fail to repent on Yom Kippur or in Ramadan, when will we do so? As Rabbi Hillel taught: “If not now, when?”
Do not be like those who rectify themselves, only to go back to their ways after the fasting is over. Their lives are spent pledging and then betraying. Allah warns: “And be not like her who undoes the thread which she has spun, after it has become strong, by taking your oaths as a means of deception…” (16:92)
Indeed, the importance on not taking oaths as a means of deception is why the Yom Kippur evening service begins with the Kol Nidre prayer. "Kol nidre" means "all vows," and in this prayer, Jews ask God to annul the irresponsible personal vows we made last year such as "If my team wins, I'll pray every day for the next 6 months!”
This prayer has often been held up by anti-Semites as proof that Jews are untrustworthy, and for this reason the Reform movement removed it from the liturgy for almost a century. In fact, the reverse is true: Jews make this prayer because we take vows so seriously that we consider ourselves bound even if we make the vows under duress, in times of stress, or when we are not thinking straight.
This prayer gave comfort to those who were forced to convert to Christianity, yet felt unable to break their vow to follow Christianity. In recognition of this history, the Reform movement restored this prayer to its liturgy.
The fast of Yom Kippur is one of the most important holidays of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe some other Jewish ceremonies will fast and/or attend synagogue services on Yom Kippur; which occurs on the 10th day (Ashura) of the seventh month in the Jewish calendar. The name "Yom Kippur" means "Day of Atonement," because the holiday is a day set aside to "afflict the soul," by fasting and atoning for our sins of the past year.
Of course we all can repent every day; but to join together in a congregation is your best chance to change the future by demonstrating your repentance and making amends.
Yom Kippur atones only for sins between humans and G-d, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against other people, you must first seek reconciliation with each person, righting the wrongs you committed against each one. That must all be done in the ten days before Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath when Jews are supposed to refrain from eating and drinking (even water). It is a complete, 24-hour fast beginning just before sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur and ending after sunset on the day of Yom Kippur.
The liturgy for Yom Kippur is much more extensive than for any other day of the year. Liturgical additions are so far-reaching that even for Reform Jews there is a separate, special prayer book for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah (the New Year Festival) called the Machzor. The evening prayers for all Jewish denominations (Reform, Conservative, Renewal and Orthodox) last almost two hours. Much of Yom Kippur day is spent in the synagogue, in prayer.
In Orthodox and Conservative synagogues, services begin early the next morning (c. 9 AM) and continue until about 2-3 PM. Reform Temples services usually last from 10AM to 1PM. People then go home for an afternoon rest and return for the late afternoon and early evening services, which continue until nightfall when the 24 hour fast ends.
There is also a special extra service that originated during the Medieval massacres by the Crusaders, that memorializes all those individuals who are no longer among the living.
During the Middle Ages there are many additions to the regular Yom Kippur prayers. Perhaps the most important additions were the expanded confession of sins by the community. All sins are confessed in the plural, emphasizing communal responsibility for sins.
There are two basic parts of this confession: Ashamnu, a shorter, more general list (we have been stubborn, we have been offensive, we have been vengeful, we have been slanderous...), and Al Chet, a longer and more specific list that begins: For the sin which we have committed before You under duress, willingly or inadvertently. And for the sin which we have committed before You openly or secretly.
These words are very similar to this Hadith: "O Allah, forgive all my sins, small and big, those by error and those by intention, those in public and those in secret" (Muslim 1:350).
The Al Chet then lists 2-3 dozen specific sins, for example: by acting callously, by scheming against another person, by over eating or drinking, by refusing compromise, by envy, by taking or giving a bribe, by unfaithfulness, by disrespect for parents and teachers; and by the sin responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem- -unrestricted hatred).
Note that these confessions do not specifically address the kinds of ritual sins that some people think are the be-all-and-end-all of Judaism. There is no "for the sin we sinned before you by eating pork, or for the sin of working on Shabbat".
The vast majority of the sins enumerated involve the things many people do: mistreatment of other people, many of them by speech (insulting, scoffing, slander, talebearing, and swearing falsely), to name a few. As Ali bin Abu Talib said: “The tongue pierces deeper than the spear.”
The central lesson of Yom Kippur is well stated by Prophet Muhammad’s saying: “Whoever does not give up forged speech and evil actions, Allah is not in need of his leaving his food and drink (i.e. Allah will not accept his fasting.” Bukhari, Volume 3, Book 31, Number 127).
Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com