Do Jews Have Yom Kippur Backward?

PHOTO: Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man swinging chicken over his family
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Who has the bigger claim on guilt, Jews or Catholics? Some say Catholics, because confession can be weekly (or even daily), but Yom Kippur occurs only once a year. Jews get guilt over with and move on, while Catholics, well, tend to languish a bit longer.

Jews celebrate Yom Kippur this weekend, the culmination of 10 days of repentance and reflection as the New Year begins. But if the New Year began 10 days ago with Rosh Hashanah, why are Jews only now getting around to repentance and forgiveness? It seems backward to Gentile sensibilities. Shouldn't Jews repent first and then celebrate New Year's? As with most things in Judaism, there's a reason for the order.

The 10n days between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are called Teshuva, a time of turning and repentance. Equally as important as the New Year theme for Rosh Hashanah is its significance as the Day of Judgment. It is the day when all humanity passes before the creator for judgment, and each is evaluated according to his or her deeds. The names of the righteous are then inscribed in the Book of Life. But all is not lost for those who don't make the first editorial cut. The less than virtuous have these intervening 10 days to repent and to become righteous before the book is "sealed" on Yom Kippur. Thus the Day of Atonement is a final chance to have ones name inscribed in the "right book."

A colloquial leitmotif of these spiritual days is that God is rooting for us and giving us time to get to where we need to be. Righteousness and wholeness are within reach if we simply turn toward them.

Thus it is the lavish goodness and mercy of God that are primarily celebrated during this time, a time that acknowledges rebirth and the endless potential for turning and beginning again.

When the fast is broken at sunset on Yom Kippur, Jews will raise a glass and utter a full-throated "l'chaim!" To life indeed and to one that has the potential to be ever new. All our religious traditions can surely learn something from that.

Father Edward L. Beck is a Religion Contributor for ABC News and is the host of "The Sunday Mass" (www.TheSundayMass.org) on the ABC Family Channel.

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