What Is Yom Kippur?

The Jewish High Holiday of Yom Kippur

Child blowing shofar
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Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is one of two Jewish High Holy Days. The first High Holy Day is Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). Yom Kippur falls ten days after Rosh Hashanah on the 10th of Tishrei--the Hebrew month that correlates with September-October on the secular calendar. The purpose of Yom Kippur is to bring about reconciliation between people and between individuals and God. According to Jewish tradition, it is also the day when God decides the fate of each human being.

Although Yom Kippur is an intense, solemn  holiday, it is nevertheless viewed as a happy day, since if one has properly observed this holiday,  by the end of Yom Kippur they will have made lasting peace with others and with God.

There are three essential components of Yom Kippur:

  1. Teshuvah (Repentance)
  2. Prayer
  3. Fasting

Teshuvah (Repentance)

Yom Kippur is a day of reconciliation, a day when Jews strive to make amends with people and to draw closer to God through prayer and fasting. The ten days leading up to Yom Kippur are known as the Ten Days of Repentance. During this period, Jews are encouraged to seek out anyone they may have offended and to sincerely request forgiveness so that they may begin the New Year with a clean slate. If the first request for forgiveness is rebuffed, one should ask for forgiveness at least two more times, at which point it is expected that your request will be granted.

Tradition holds that it is cruel for anyone to withhold their forgiveness for offenses that had not caused irrevocable damage. 

This process of repentance is called teshuvah and it is a crucial part of Yom Kippur. Although many people think that transgressions from the previous year are forgiven through prayer, fasting and participation in Yom Kippur services, Jewish tradition teaches that only offenses committed against God can be forgiven on Yom Kippur.

Hence, it is important that people make an effort to reconcile with others during the time befroe Yom Kippur begins. 

Prayer

Yom Kippur is the longest synagogue service in the Jewish year. It begins on the evening before Yom Kippur day with a haunting song called Kol Nidre (All Vows). The words of this melody ask God to forgive any vows to Him that people have failed to keep.

The service on the day of Yom Kippur lasts from morning until nightfall. Many prayers are said but only one is repeated at intervals throughout the service. This prayer, called Al Khet, asks for forgiveness for a variety of common sins that may have been committed during the year--such as hurting those we love, lying to ourselves or using foul language. Unlike the Christian focus on original sin, the Jewish concept of sinfulness focuses on the common transgressions of everyday life. You can clearly see examples of these infractions in the Yom Kippur liturgy, such as in this excerpt from Al Khet:

For the sin that we have committed under stress or through choice;
For the sin that we have committed in stubbornness or in error;
For the sin that we have committed in the evil meditations of the heart;
For the sin that we have committed by word of mouth;
For the sin that we have committed through abuse of power;
For the sin that we have committed by exploitation of neighbors;
For all these sins, O God of forgiveness, bear with us, pardon us, forgive us!

When Al Khet is recited, people gently beat their fists against their chests as each sin is mentioned. Sins are mentioned in plural form because even if someone hasn’t committed a particular sin, Jewish tradition teaches that every Jew bears a measure of responsibility for the actions of other Jews.

During the afternoon portion of the Yom Kippur service, the Book of Jonah is read to remind people of God’s willingness to forgive those who are sincerely sorry. The last part of the service is called Ne’ilah (Shutting). The name comes from the imagery of Ne’ilah prayers, which talk about gates being shut against us. People pray intensely during this time, hoping to be admitted to God’s presence before the gates have been shut.

Fasting

Yom Kippur is also marked by 25 hours of fasting. There are other fast days in the Jewish calendar, but this is the only one the Torah specifically commands us to observe.

Leviticus 23:27 describes it as "afflicting your souls," and during this time no food or liquid may be consumed.

The fast starts an hour before Yom Kippur begins and ends after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. In addition to food, Jews are also forbidden from bathing, wearing leather shoes or having sexual relations. The prohibition against wearing leather comes from a reluctance to wear the skin of a slaughtered animal while asking God for mercy.

Who Fasts on Yom Kippur

Children under the age of nine are not allowed to fast, while children older than nine are encouraged to eat less. Girls who are 12 years or older and boys who are 13 years or older are required to participate in the full 25-hour fast along with adults. However, pregnant women, women who have recently given birth and anyone suffering from a life-threatening illness are excused from the fast. These people need food and drink to keep up their strength and Judaism always values life above the observance of Jewish law.

Many people end the fast with a feeling of deep serenity, which comes from the sense that you have made peace with others and with God.