How to Observe Yom Kippur

From Pre-Fast Prep to the Final Blast of the Shofar

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If on Rosh HaShanah the Book of Life is written, it is on Yom Kippur that God's decree for the Jewish people is sealed. This day is known for fasting and a day of prayer in synagogue, but there is much more to the day than meets the eye. 

Preparations

Prior to sundown and the beginning of Yom Kippur, it's customary to recite Vidui, a special confessional prayer during afternoon services, and to partake of a seudah mafseket, which is a "meal that interrupts." The order of the confessional prayers falling before the pre-fast meal guarantees that if, God forbid, someone dies during the meal, they've made their final confession and their judgment will be favorable, but also because one might not be up to confessing after a large meal.

 

The pre-fast meal is meant to be light, but satisfying and belly filling to help sustain the individual during the fast of Yom Kippur. 

Additionally, men and women alike will partake of the custom of going to mikvah (ritual bath) to prepare even further for Yom Kippur. Also, there are some who say special blessings for their children prior to entering synagogue. 

Fasting

Yom Kippur is known as the most difficult and meaningful day of the year because of the fast that lasts for 25 hours. In Leviticus 23:32, Yom Kippur is described as a Shabbat Shabbaton, or a sabbath of complete rest. 

Everyone of the age of bar or bat mitzvah and older is required to fast without eating or drink. For men this means those older than 13 and for women those older than 12 years. Those too ill to fast are prohibited from fasting and taking medication is allowed. Pregnant women, those who have just given birth, and those who are breastfeeding are also allowed leniencies.

 

Ultimately, Judaism values life above all else and one is prohibited from jeopardizing their life for the sake of a fast according to pikuach ha'nefesh

Greetings

The common greeting on Yom Kippur is G'mar chatimah tovah, which means "May you be sealed for a good year." 

Another greeting or phrase to use is Kal Tzom, which means "an easy fast." Contrary to how it may be read, this greeting isn't a wish for someone to have a cake walk with fasting.

Rather, the greeting is a hope that the individual properly prepared and reflected over the Ten Days of Repentance and has come to a point where standing before God with honesty will be easy. 

Prohibitions

On Yom Kippur, the wearing of leather is forbidden as Jews are required to "afflict" themselves. To the rabbis, this meant to remove certain luxuries, leather shoes included. Many Jews will wear Crocs, sneakers, or sandals on Yom Kippur instead. 

Additionally, eating, drinking, washing, and sexual intercourse are forbidden. 

Clothing

Wearing white is encouraged as a symbol of purity and spiritual cleansing, as well as the belief that our outward appearance can impact our frame of mind. Men typically wear their white kittel on Yom Kippur because, as the garment in which one is married and buried, it is a symbol of our mortality and the need for repentance. 

Prayer

Jews tend to spend the whole of Yom Kippur in synagogue over a series of different services. 

Kol Nidre, meaning "all vows," is a service unique to Yom Kippur that dates to around the 9th century CE. With a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic, the evening service is a legal formula for the cancelation and annulment of vows made to God during the previous year.

 Typically, Kol Nidre is chanted in a haunting melody three times as the congregation stands. This trifold recitation probably derives from the ancient practice of reciting official proclamations three times. 

The services for Yom Kippur day include powerful Torah readings and Yizkor, a special memorial service to remember those who have died. Recited a total of 10 times during Yom Kippur, the Al Chet prayer recounts the many sins of the Jewish people -- intentional and unintentional -- including gossip, arrogance, disrespecting parents and teachers, the exploitation of the week, and other failings of the previous year. 

Yom Kippur services end with Neilah and the blasting of the shofar one final time for the year. The Neilah service marks the "closing of the gates" and the pinnacle of Yom Kippur as God seals and closes the book of life for the year.

 

Scents

It is a custom in some communities to pass around a spice box during the lengthy services. The practice has a two-fold benefit:

  1. Smelling the spices can revitalize and wake a person up during the lengthy and often difficult services. 
  2. Smelling spices provides the opportunity to make a blessing, which increases our merits:  "Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who creates varieties of spices."

​ברוך אתה ה' א‑לוהינו, מלך העולם, בורא מיני בשמים.‏

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha'olam, bo'rei minei b'samim.

Shofar

Throughout the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah the sound of the shofar can be heard in synagogues and Jewish communities. It is only appropriate, then, that Yom Kippur ends with a single, long shofar blast to symbolize the conclusion of the holiday. 

There are several explanations for this single blast, including that it recalls the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, where the shofar also was blown, and that the shofar signals the triumph of Israel over their sins and the hope for the coming of the messiah

Break the Fast

After the sounding of the shofar for the final time, havdalah is performed and a festive break-the-fast meal is served. Many break the Yom Kippur fast with something light, but filling, such as bagels and cream cheese or eggs.