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LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Yom Kippur, the holiest and most somber day on the  Jewish calendar, begins at sundown today, with the observant fasting and  seeking forgiveness for their sins.

``What Yom Kippur really is about is a ritual encounter with your own  death,'' said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

``It's a kind of close call. People who have had a near-death experience  -- it forces them to kind of rethink the meaning of their life. That's what  Yom Kippur is -- a ritualized near-death experience.''

In addition to not eating or drinking, other prohibitions on Yom Kippur  include wearing leather shoes, bathing, using perfumes or lotions and having  sex.

``It is a day when we focus on our souls, not our bodies,'' Geller told  City News Service. ``That's why we're fasting.''

According to Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur is the day on which Moses came  down from Mount Sinai with the second set of commandment tablets and  announced God's pardon to the people.

Observant Jews believe that God inscribes the names of the righteous in  the Book of Life during the period of the High Holy Days, the 10-day span  between Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur.

For that reason, the traditional greeting among Jews on Yom Kippur is  Khatima Tova, which is shorthand for ``May your name be written in the good  book.''

The evening service begins with the congregation standing in the  presence of the Torah scrolls and the congregation is given permission to pray  with other sinners, ``so we acknowledge we're not perfect, we screwed up, and  that's OK,'' Geller said.

The Kol Nidre, an ancient prayer whose title translates to ``all of our  vows,'' is then sung, Geller said.

``It says all of our vows are not vows,'' she said. ``For the moment,  you untie all the ties that you've made and you look at those ties over the  next 24 hours and decide which ones you want to tie again.''

Following the singing of the Kol Nidre Geller said, ``we hear the words  that God said after Moses convinces God in the biblical narrative to forgive  the people'' for worshipping a golden calf: ``I have forgiven you as I have  promised.''

``We start the night knowing we have been forgiven,'' Geller said.  ``Then we can spend the rest of the day doing the work to forgive ourselves and  really look at who we are, why we made the choices we made and how we want to  make them differently in the future.''

In Judaism ``sin is about a mistake, an error, or not quite getting it  right,'' Geller said. ``It's not that I am a sinner; it's that I have done a  sin and need to attend to it.''

Geller said she plans to begin her sermon tonight with a quote from the  comedian Billy Crystal about Yom Kippur, ``We don't eat, we don't drink and if  you are very, very traditional Jew, you don't turn on the lights, so what you  have is a lot of hungry, thirsty people sitting around in the dark.''

``What Yom Kippur for me is about turning that darkness into light and  really looking deeply at ourselves and the aspiration of becoming the people we  want to be,'' Geller said.