The tag I will be wearing during Yom Kippur prayers
Silence on Yom Kippur
This Yom Kippur I will have the rare opportunity to be a regular worshipper for the entire holy day from Kol Nidre to Ne’ilah. Since 1978 I have been a regular worshipper on Yom Kippur only a handful of times . As a rabbinic student and a rabbi, my place during the High Holidays was always on the Bimah.
In 1977 I moved to Boston to study in a graduate program. A friend who had grown up in a rabbinic home told me that he was going to be in silence for all of Yom Kippur. I was intrigued by his example. Since I was new to Boston and did not really know anybody yet in the community, I thought I would try remaining silent for that Yom Kippur.
It was the most powerful Yom Kippur of my life.
The experience of prayer was heightened. I was attuned to the flow of the service and experienced the repetition of the prayers as waves washing over me. I remember reflecting about how easy it is to fill space with words and niceties. I became more aware of the everyday mindlessness of much of my speech. I remember feeling clarity and renewal on that day that lasted for weeks after the holy days had ended.
Thirty nine years later I am going to go into silence for Yom Kippur again.
It is a bit scary to decide to remain in silence again. My wife is very supportive and is joining me in silence. We have sat silent retreats together and found them to be very intimate and powerful experiences. There are several reasons I am seeking silence on Yom Kippur and I will share a few of them with you.
First, I would like to meditate on how the years of adulthood have changed me. I want to reflect on the ebb and flow of my life. I lost my beloved father this year, and as I enter the latter stages of my life I seek insight about the challenges before me.
Second, I have found these times we are living in to be very confusing. The technology I use fills so much space and sucks my attention. I am normally somewhat distractible, but the devices I use have made me more distractible. To be silent is to put down my devices, to be immersed in the prayers, and to be unworried about interactions for 25 hours.
Third, my silence this year is in part a protest. This presidential election has exposed the cancer of celebrity culture, the collapse of civility, the screaming rage flowing from social media, and the scary vulnerability of our democracy. I need time to retreat from all this cacophony and to focus on the words of the prayers and the prophets that remind me to turn toward good.
Lastly I am seeking silence to reach out toward God. I began serving as a rabbi in Seattle nearly three decades ago. I have had the fortune of meeting many wonderful people but pressure I feel to be politely social on Yom Kippur can be distracting. To be silent for all of Yom Kippur lets me set aside my sense of social obligation to focus on my relationship with God. After all, our tradition urges us to repair our relations with our fellows during these nine days with the tenth day, Yom Kippur, focused on our relationship with the Holy One.
Psalm 65:2 proclaims, “Silence is praise to You.” לְךָ דֻמִיָּה תְהִלָּה As Maimonides writes in The Guide to the Perplexed, “…..(this) signifies: silence with regard to You is praise.”
I share these reflections with you as encouragement to consider this practice for yourself. You might try it for a portion of the day. If you are inspired to try this, let your loved ones know beforehand. Spend a few minutes after the Break the Fast to jot down any insights you want to record. Most of all, experience the beauty and the power of Yom Kippur in stillness-with the still small voice of the Divine.
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg