Yom Kippur as Seen (With Respect) by a Pagan By Barbara Ardinger

No matter which or how many gods we believe in, thinking about what we’ve done wrong and how we can set it straight is useful. The Day of Atonement, the Talmud says, “absolves from sins against God, but not from sins against a fellow man unless the pardon of the offended person is secured.”

 Back in the Stone Age, otherwise known as the early 1980s, I had jobs as a technical writer and editor in five different industries, including aerospace and computer development. Hey, I was trained as a Shakespearean scholar, but in those days—pretty much like today—there were almost no jobs in the academy for newly-hatched Ph.D’s. So I tried technical writing. At one of the aerospace jobs, I sat in the “bullpen”—me and nineteen middle-aged white guys—whereas all the other women slaved—on typewriters in that pre-computer age—in the typing pool. There was a major class distinction in that aerospace firm, and I was glad to be with the guys. (Yes, shame on me.) Those were the days of 9 to 5. As far as I’m concerned, that movie is nonfiction.

One of my tech-writing buddies at the aerospace company was a former Jehovah’s Witness who had been disfellowshipped because his beard was the wrong shape and he’d refused to correct it. Another was an older man who had studied with Earnest Holmes himself and had also known Manly P. Hall in earlier days. A third friend, the project librarian, was a Conservative Jew. All three of these guys soon noticed the books I was bringing to read at lunch. These included the works of Dion Fortune and Gerald B. Gardner, and numerous metaphysical authors, plus every book I could find on alchemy, the tarot, New Thought, reincarnation, trance channeling…well, you get the idea. I was exploring occult worlds and ideas. When we weren’t talking about how to help the engineers write gooder English and I wasn’t trying to figure out how a FLIR (Forward-Looking InfraRed) helmet works, my three buds and I had some majorly interesting conversations on comparative religion and the occult (the word means “secret, hidden”) aspects of religions in general.

One day the Jewish librarian brought me a book to add to my library. This was the 1973 edition of The Jewish Catalog. What a wonderful book! I still have it. It’s sitting next to my keyboard as I type this.

Back in those innocent days, I still believed the pagan myth of the nine million witches burned by the inquisition during the Middle Ages. Yes, it’s a myth—there were never that many witches on the face of the earth at the same time; such a holocaust would have nearly depopulated medieval Europe. I have since learned that it is shameful to compare a mythological holocaust with the real Holocaust of World War II. I read The Jewish Catalog from cover to cover and learned a great deal.

Now flash forward to 2002 when the owner of RedWheel/Weiser phoned to ask me to write a book for them. I immediately said yes. The book, which they titled Pagan Every Day, is not, however, a pagan tome. It’s a daybook, a year and a day of short essays on topics that include goddesses, gods, and old pagan festivals and philosophy, and also saints and holy days from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, plus less well known religions, plus interesting historical events…and then I also named Miss Piggy as The Goddess Of Everything. I get fan emails from people saying they reread the book, a day at a time, every year and still enjoy every page.

For September 24, I wrote about Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, which was the most amazing exhibition I’d ever seen. The next day that year was Yom Kippur. I turned to my copy of The Jewish Catalog, where I learned about an obscure custom called kapparot. Here is what I wrote. Yes, I believe that we can borrow—but not pirate!—other people’s customs, acknowledge and express our gratitude to those other people and their religions, and then adapt what we borrow to a pagan perspective. After all, we’re all kin.

September 25: Yom Kippur

 The Jewish Catalog describes custom called kapparot, which “entails swinging a chicken around one’s head as a…symbol of expiating sins. The chicken is then slaughtered and given to the poor….” Most people these days tie money in a handkerchief and swing that around their head, saying, This is my change, this is my compensation, this is my redemption.

Yom Kippur, the last of the ten days of Yamim Noraim, occurs at nightfall on the ninth day of Tishri. The rites for Yom Kippur are set forth in Leviticus 16.

No matter which or how many gods we believe in, thinking about what we’ve done wrong and how we can set it straight is useful. The Day of Atonement, the Talmud says, “absolves from sins against God, but not from sins against a fellow man unless the pardon of the offended person is secured.” People seeking recovery in Twelve-Step programs likewise turn their lives over to the care of “God as they understand him” (Step 3), make a list of people they have harmed and become “willing to make amends” (Step 8), and then actually make amends (Step 9).

Pagans can make amends before Samhain. We want to have a clean emotional field in which to rest over the winter and plant fresh seeds in when spring comes. Let’s revive that old Jewish custom. But not swinging the chicken! That’s cruelty to swinger and swingee. Tie crystals or red corn or other symbolic items in a clean white handkerchief and swing it around your head, reciting the blessing quoted above. Then go around and see the people you need to see. Speak heart to heart with them. Give them something blessed from your handkerchief. Get on with your lives, as friends or no longer as friends, but not as enemies.

Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic.  Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations.  When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.

Categories: General, holiday, Judaism, Paganism

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2 replies

  1. Oh, that old time religion!


  2. Barbara, I enjoyed reading this post, and respect your scholarship. Have you studied the history of what is commonly referred to as “The Inquisition?” There was no body count taken, but the Inquisitional process began in the early thirteenth century and continued into the eighteenth century, spreading throughout Western and Eastern Europe. I have no doubt that millions of innocents were burned. I was forced to study the history of the Inquisition as part of my research into the life and death of Jeanne d’Arc (her trial was typical of those held during the Inquisition.) That holocaust is not mythology, although Catholic apologists continue to claim exactly that. The number of people who were condemned and burned at the stake (or boiled in oil) as heretics and witches will never be known. But you can be certain, historians confirm that the numbers of people condemned to die as witches/heretics were even greater than those who died in the Holocaust created by Hitler’s regime.


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