This Jewish high holiday is good for your mental health: Yom Kippur and the value of atonement

The holiest holiday in Judaism focuses on atonement, a practice which can promote emotional wellbeing

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published September 24, 2023 10:00AM (EDT)

Blowing the shofar (Getty Images/John Theodor)
Blowing the shofar (Getty Images/John Theodor)

According to the Torah — for gentiles, the first five books of the so-called Hebrew Bible — Jews celebrate the holiday Yom Kippur to honor the anniversary of when God forgave them. The story begins after the great exodus from Egypt, one which Biblical legend says occurred after the Jews had been enslaved there for generations. When their leader Moses ascended Mount Sinai to obtain ten holy commandments from God, the impatient Jews crafted a golden calf as an idol and began worshipping it. Upon discovering this betrayal, Moses became so angry that he smashed the original tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Later, however, he re-ascended Mount Sinai and eventually came back with a new set.

"There is good science to show that accountability and amends do yield meaningful mental health benefits."

In short, God is said to have forgiven the Jews for betraying him, and in return Jews honor that day of forgiveness with their own day of atonement. As the Torah explains, "For on this day shall atonement be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins shall ye be clean before the Lord." On Yom Kippur, Jews all over the world will fast, pray, avoid work or play and otherwise repent both for their sins and those of humanity as a whole. They do this for religious reasons... but what if, in addition to being spiritually cleansing, Yom Kippur is also flat-out good for one's mental health?

While psychological experts can not comment on the religious merits of Yom Kippur, it is quite another matter to discuss the benefits of atonement. On that, the consensus is clear: Whatever might be said of one's soul, atonement is definitely good for the mind.

"One of the big things involves a shift from what is called an external locus of control to an internal locus of control," explained Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas and author of Smart Change, in an email to Salon. "In an external locus of control, you feel as though you are being carried along by forces that you cannot influence. When you truly atone and start implementing your own plan for the future, you shift to an internal locus of control in which you feel like the author of your own destiny."

In addition to feeling good, this process also allows people to shed the psychological toll of being in unhealthy relationships.

"There is a lot of relief that comes from apologizing to someone else and getting out in the open something you have been feeling guilty about or are ashamed of," Markman added.

"There is a lot of relief that comes from apologizing to someone else and getting out in the open something you have been feeling guilty about or are ashamed of."

Yet it is not enough, from a mental health standpoint, to simply utter words of remorse. While this part of the atonement process is certainly important and respectable, it is insufficient if it occurs alone. According to Charlotte Witvliet, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Hope College, it is also important that acts of atonement are paired with genuine humility.

Indeed, when Witvliet helped lead a 2017 study about heart health and forgiveness among Christians, it yielded intriguing conclusions. In the study, 80 healthy patients (40 men, 40 women) had their emotional patterns and heart rhythms studied while being asked to recall an unresolved offense in which they wronged another person. After that, they were asked to imagine four possible scenarios: "ruminating about the offense, being humbly repentant and engaging in self-forgiveness, seeking forgiveness from the victim and receiving forgiveness, and seeking forgiveness from the victim and being begrudged."

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"Forgiveness-seeking included humble owning of responsibility for wrongdoing against another person and repentant relational repair through confession, apology, restitution and evidence of change."

"An insight from this study was that forgiveness-seeking included humble owning of responsibility for wrongdoing against another person and repentant relational repair through confession, apology, restitution and evidence of change," Witvliet wrote to Salon. These things helped a person's health regardless of the imagery they were given about the possible responses by the person they had harmed. By contrast, when people ruminated on what they had done wrong, it led to "escalated heart rate and dysregulated the parasympathetic indicator."

Psychologist Samantha Stein elaborated on the science of forgiveness.

"There is good science to show that accountability and amends do yield meaningful mental health benefits," Stein told Salon by email. "For example, in one study, apology and restitution each independently increased empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, and positive emotions, while reducing unforgiveness, negative emotion, and muscle activity above the brow." Regardless of whether restitution was offered, if a person apologized sincerely and thoroughly, it led to "calmed heart rate, reduced rate pressure products indicative of cardiac stress, and decreased muscle activity under the eye," Stein said.

"We tend to carry guilt and even shame for having wronged another person," Stein added. "Even if we aren't thinking about it regularly or consciously, we carry it with us psychologically and it affects our choices, ways of thinking and behaviors . When we are accountable and make amends, it helps to free us from the shame. When we face the suffering we have caused others, we feel more at ease in the world. We are able to forgive ourselves and, equally as importantly, we are able to learn from what we have done."

Markman broke down the different phases that truly meaningful atonement must contain.

"Atoning for sins has a few components to it," Markman explained. "First, if the misdeed involved another person, it is crucial to connect with that person and apologize. Second, regardless of whether the sin involved someone else, it is important to acknowledge what led to the transgression and then work on a plan to ensure better behavior in the future."

Drawing from the lessons of his book "Smart Change," Markman argued that "it is important to find ways to minimize the likelihood you will face these temptations in the future and have a specific plan for how you will deal with those temptations when they do appear." When a person does this, it allows them to potentially repair relationships and move past their misdeeds so they can start a fresher future — assuming, of course, that they protect themselves from the encroaching darkness of their past.

"It is valuable to have a good plan for dealing with temptations, because it helps you to engage in healthier behaviors in the future," Markman pointed out. "It also minimizes the number of situations in which you are likely to experience guilt, because you did something you know you were not supposed to do."

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In fact, this long-view approach is embedded in the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. As Markman observed, Jews do not assume that the process of forgiveness is one-and-done in the single day of Yom Kippur. That would go against the spirit of the holiday.

"Meaningful atonement has to involve a specific plan to do things differently in the future," Markman said. "You cannot expect to do all of those things in one day. Indeed, Jewish tradition asks people to spend the entire month before the High Holidays (the month of Elul) preparing to atone and preparing to live differently in the following year. If you haven't spent this month preparing already, then use a key holiday (like Yom Kippur) to commit to making changes, but then spend time assessing how to act differently in the future and making sustainable plans for changing behavior."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Anxiety Atonement Deep Dive Depression Forgiveness Mental Health Psychology Yom Kippur