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Thoughts on Yom Kippur Katan

It continues to amaze me as I examine Jewish traditions of prayer, that even after four years of weekly columns, close to 200 essays, there is still more to discover about the liturgy of Judaism.  Recently in a Facebook post, my friend in Jerusalem, Cantor Marlena Fuerstman, posted about a tradition I had long heard of but had never taken the time to examine.  It was a custom dating back some 500 years or so of fasting on the eve of the new moon, the day before Rosh Chodesh, and an accompanying liturgy for the occasion.  Since she is a cantor, it does not surprise me that much of her interest in this practice included the unique melodies for cantor and choir that exist for this rather obscure observance. Her post included a link to a Youtube video of a Cantor and choir in Boro Park chanting theseprayers in an elaborate manner. (The link is below at the end of this piece.)  My interest is twofold, first in the detailed liturgy created for this practice and secondly the very fact that this innovation in ritual and prayer gets invented and introduced into Jewish practice, at least for the very pious among us, appearing in traditional prayerbooks under the heading of “Yom Kippur Katan.”  It may serve as a reminder to us that innovation in prayer, albeit drawing on traditional sources and materials, is not forbidden, but can over time become entrenched in Jewish tradition.


In the Midrash there is an explanation of why, during the creation story in Genesis, we are told first of how God creates the “two great lights” on the fourth day, the sun and the moon, and then right after, they become “the great light” and “the lesser light.”  According to the Midrash, at first the sun and the moon were equal in all ways, in size and appearance and light.  However, when the moon overstepped its bounds, so to speak, and appeared not only at night but in the daytime, God “punished” it by diminishing its light.  Even so, we’re told, God regretted His action and thus when we read of the sacrifices to be brought to the Temple on Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, we do not read, as for other holidays, to bring “one goat as a sin-offering” referring to the sins of Israel, but rather “seir echad chataat ladonay” “one goat as a sin-offering for the Lord.”  The midrash takes this additional word “ladonay” which in context means a sin-offering to the Lord for the sins of Israel and reads it as an offering on behalf of the Lord for His own sin, as it were, of diminishing the moon.  Citing the midrash, “The Holy One says, ‘Bring an atonement for Me for diminishing the moon.’”  After all, the midrash explains, it was God who created it in the first place such that it entered into the domain of the sun.


It seems, at first, that those who were fasting on the eve of the new moon, did so to atone for the sin of the diminishing of the moon’s light or, as others explain, for the possible miscalculation of the people of Israel of the proper time to observe the new moon.  In the Rosh Chodesh prayers we refer to this time as z’man kaparah, a time of atonement.  While some commentators say this refers to the atonement previously referred to, others suggest that the real atonement here is for our sins we may have committed in the month just past.  In that sense, when one fasts and recites prayers of forgiveness on the eve of Rosh Chodesh, it truly becomes a minor Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur Katan.


This practice shows up in the late Middle Ages, almost incidentally, when some halachic authorities refer to “those who fast on the eve of Rosh Chodesh,” as an already existing phenomenon, and proceed to discuss when the fast should be observed when Rosh Chodesh or the eve of Rosh Chodesh falls on Shabbat.  In those cases, most authorities suggest observing the day on the Thursday before.  This practice became more well-known in the 16th century, when the prominent Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Cordevero, adopted it and gave it the name “Yom Kippur Katan,” the minor Yom Kippur.  Even among those who observe this practice, not everyone chooses to fast all day, some fast part of a day, and others merely recite the penitential prayers prescribed for it. Because of the laws and traditions about not fasting on certain days, it turns out that there are only eight (or in a leap year, nine) months when Yom Kippur Katan is observed.


In Dr. Daniel Sperber’s multi-volume work on Jewish customs, there is a chapter by Professor Moshe Chalamish on a number of Kabbalistically inspired rituals. After citing these early mentions of the custom, Chalamish cites a statement by the author of L’cha Dodi, Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, “There are Anshei ma’aseh (men of action?) who fast on the eve of Rosh Chodesh in place of the (sacrificial) goat.”  Though this is not mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch, the Pri Megadim commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, does mention the practice, noting that it is known as Yom Kippur Katan by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, “For on it one atones for the sins of the entire month, similarly to the atonement offering of the goat on Rosh Chodesh.”  Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas, a student of Cordovero’s, mentions also that this fast is to atone for miscalculations in the determination of the new moon and indicates that the diminishing of the moon, represents, a diminishing of the light of the Shechinah, the divine presence, as it were.  As the moon/Shechinah is renewed each month, so are those who participate in this observance. The Chida (Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai) says, that when one is able to fast for this observance, it is a very great thing.  Its essence is to search and investigate one’s sins during the past month and to repent of them. Fasting prepares the body for repentance, he notes, but without actual repentance it accomplishes nothing.  Once the fast is dubbed “Yom Kippur Katan” its liturgy was enhanced further to include additionalelements from the Yom Kippur service.


Rabbi Avraham Verdiger gives an outline of the service for this fast day in his work “Tzlota D’Avraham.” While there is some mention of spending the entire morning in prayer as on Yom Kippur, the primary observance takes place during the mincha service in the afternoon, either a mincha gedolah (shortly after noon) or mincha ketanah (closer to sundown). There may be a darshan, a preacher, who arouses the hearts of the worshipers to repentance and then the service begins.  The prayer leader wraps himself in tallit and tefillin (in some places, the entirecongregation as well) and begins with Psalm 102, “A Psalm of the lowly man when he is faint and pours forth his plea before the Lord.”  The opening verses of this Psalm are heart-wrenching, but in the middle, the Psalmist speaks of his hope and faith in God’s mercy.  This Psalm is followed by a prayer written by Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh (Leon) of Modena, a somewhat controversial rabbi in late 16th- early 17th century Venice, whose name forms the acrostic for this poem with its repeating chorus.  This is followed by Psalm 8 and the chatzi kaddish.  If there are ten people observing the fast, a Torah is taken out and the regular reading for fast days from Exodus, which includes the 13 attributes of God’s mercy, is read.  The third person called to the Torah is the maftir and he reads the haftarah from Isaiah as on any other fast day, “Seek the Lord where He may be found.”  After the readings, the Amidah is recited with individuals adding the Anenu prayer to the blessing Shomea Tefillah during the silent prayer and the readerrepeating the Amidah with the addition of the separate Anenu blessing said on public fast days.  After that, comes a whole liturgy of selichot prayers that appears in very traditional prayerbooks.  Each of these selichot poems is followed, as during the high holiday period, with an introduction to the 13 attributes and the chanting of those attributes and verses similar to Yom Kippur.   Following four rounds of selichot and the attributes, we find a litany mentioning various biblical heroes and a congregational response.  All of this leads into an introduction and the chanting of the short vidui (Ashamnu) andthen a final recitation of the 13 attributes.  At the end, we find the affirmation of faith that concludes the Yom Kippur prayers at Neilah: the Sh’ma, Baruch Shem, and Adonay Hu HaElohim.  This section ends with the Aneinu litany usually said after theSelichot and then the concluding elements of the minchah service including the full kaddish, aleinu, and the mourners’ kaddish.  


I must admit that the actual prayers and the full liturgy for this service is very ponderous and overwhelming and I can’t imagine many modern congregations adopting it as it is.  However, the concept of a period of reflection, maybe fasting, seeking atonement on the eve of each month, may be a worthwhile practice.  We might see it as an opportunity to reflect on the days just past, the sins we may be guilty of, and taking the opportunity to repent and redirect our efforts in the days ahead, in the new month.  If we were to reconfigure this service in our day, however, there would need to be another component in which we consider how we might go forward in a positive manner in the month ahead.  While we all have our sins and shortcomings, it might be more effective to reflect on our accomplishments, our good deeds, the mitzvot we have added to our lives and the good we have done for the world.  How might we build upon past accomplishments even as we seek to avoid past sins?  Yom Kippur Katan, like Yom Kippur Gadol, the annual day of atonement, may well be an opportunity for contemporary liturgists to create a ritual emphasizing the positive, the renewal of our faith and hope, and our efforts to redeem this world and make it a better place in the days to come.




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