Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the holiest Jewish holiday day on the Hebrew calendar. It is a solemn, penitent day focused on prayers for forgiveness and exploring one’s relationship with God. One of the Jewish High Holy Days, on Yom Kippur Jews seek to abstain as much as possible from worldly things. Beginning at sundown on the 8th of October, Jewish people fast, forgoing both food and drink.
In addition, they abstain from conjugal relations and from washing and using lotions and creams. They also avoid wearing leather footwear, as historically this was a sign of wealth. Instead, they often wear white, the color of purity. They also commonly wear a tallit, or prayer shawl, to services all day, even though normally the tallit isn’t worn in the evening. Some will wear a kittel, a white garment normally used to dress the dead. In addition, Jews do not work on Yom Kippur, and like the shabbat, avoid lighting fires, driving, and turning on lights.
Yom Kippur began, according to Jewish lore, when God forgave them the sin of worshipping the golden calf.
Not long after the Jewsish people left Egypt, Moses climbed Mt. Sinai. While he was gone, they sinned by worshipping a golden calf. When Moses returned from Mt. Sinai with the original tablets of the 10 commandments, he saw this and broke the tablets in anger. They repented their sins and turned back toward God. Moses returned to Mt. Sinai and prayed and after another 40 days God forgave them. He gave Moses the second set of stone tablets bearing the 10 commandments. Ever since then, the 10th of the Jewish month Tishrei has been called The Day of Atonement.
Yom Kippur is the final day of the Days of Awe, which start with Rosh Hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah, God is said to have three books in which he writes everyone’s names downs. The first book is for the wicked, which God slates for death in the upcoming year. The second book is for the righteous. The majority of people, however, are neither wicked nor righteous and their names go in the third book. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, then, the Jewish people seek to convince God of their repentance of past sins and of their devotion to God through a combination of practicing their mitzvah (commandments), good deeds, and prayers. The last day to convince God to view them favorably in the upcoming year, Yom Kippur addresses spiritual sins against God. For sins against other people, the Jewish people need to seek forgiveness from those people before Yom Kippur.
Fasting is a central part of Yom Kippur.
All adults who are able to are expected to fast during this time. Children under the age of 9 and women in childbirth are not allowed to fast. Older children, the elderly, and women who have recently given birth can fast if they are able to but are permitted to eat if necessary. Similarly, exceptions are made for the ill who must eat, as they consider health more important than fasting. You are encouraged to discuss their illness and fasting concerns with both their doctor and their rabbi.
As someone who is Jewish, you would prepare for their fast the day before with feasting, both in the early afternoon and then again shortly before sunset. Once the sun goes down, they abstain from both eating and drinking until sunset the following day. After sunset, the congregation in the synagogue end their service with a prayer, a lively song, a blast from an instrument called a Shofar, or ram’s horn, and the exclamation “Next Year in Jerusalem!” They then return home and break their fast with a celebratory feast.
Yom Kippur is spent in prayers.
Many of these prayers are confessions asking for forgiveness for a wide variety of sins against God. Some of these confessions are general confessions and others are more specific. Sins of speech, such as speaking slanderous or offensively, are particularly prominent. These sins come under the category of lashon ha-ra, or evil tongue, which for the Jewish people is a grievous sin.
An historically important prayer, Kol Nidrei or all vows, starts the evening service. Kol Nidrei absolves them of vows made under duress in the previous year. During the various historical inquisitions, this prayer forgave the Jewish of vows to convert to Christianity that were made under torture. The Reform Movement removed this prayer from the service for awhile because it was used by anti-semantics as proof that Jews couldn’t be trusted to keep their word. For the Jewish people, however, this was important to them because they take their vows very seriously. Without it, they did not feel that they could break this vow even though it was made under torture. Because of its historical importance, the Reform Movement returned this prayer to the service.
What we can all take from this most holy time in Jewish traditions, if the incredible willingness to self-reflect and forgive, not only others, but more importantly themselves. It is a time where you take a look at yourself and acknowledge the wrongs you have participated in. It is a time where you openly acknowledge that you will make mistakes, and that each year you should look at those mistakes and hold them up, learn from them, make amends and then let them go.
For our Jewish readers, we wish you a meaningful fast.
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Explore some of our other posts about Jewish Holidays
- Passover (April 18th – 26th) – Memories of Years Past
- Hanukkah: A Brief History of Hanukkah, The Dreidel: History and How to Play