Yom Kippur – The Holiest Day for the Jews

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year; thus, it is considered the most important holiday in the Jewish faith. It is also known as the “Day of Atonement,” with its central themes being atonement and repentance. It falls on the 10th day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar (or in September or October of the Gregorian calendar).

Yom Kippur marks the culmination of the ten Jewish High Holy Days (or Yamim Nora’im or “Days of Awe”), during which a person’s deeds are thought to be able to influence both God’s judgment and His plans for that person. The rather noisy and joyful Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year and first day of the month of Tishrei. The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur correspond to the 40-day period that Moses was on the mountain, receiving the second set of tablets.

Jewish tradition says that God decides each person’s fate for the coming year and inscribes them into a book, called the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah. He waits until the tenth day – the Yom Kippur – to “seal” the verdict. That’s why during those ten High Holy Days, the Jews are encouraged to repent, ask God forgiveness for the sins that they committed the past year, and make amends. Yom Kippur is a one-day holiday that is observed by abstaining food and drink and a special religious service, among other customs.

History and origins of Yom Kippur

According to tradition, the first incidence of Yom Kippur occurred after the Hebrews fled from Egypt in the year 2448 from the creation of the universe, or 1313 BCE. They arrived at Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. When Moses descended, he caught his people worshipping a golden calf and angrily threw down the tablets, shattering them. Because the Hebrews atoned for their idolatry, God forgave their sins and offered Moses a second set of tablets. Thus, it was the day of atonement, the Yom Kippur.

Observing Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the most sacred holiday among the Jewish people. For 25 hours, people abstain from food and drink, and engaging in marital relations. They are also forbidden from going to work, bathing or washing, wearing leather footwear, and anointing themselves with lotions, creams, and perfumes. These prohibitions should be observed from the sundown on the ninth day of Tishrei to the nightfall on the next day.

There are few exceptions. Fasting is required among healthy and able-bodied Jewish men and women. But the sick, the elderly, and women who have given birth are not permitted to fast.

However, pregnant women are not among those who are exempted from the fasting ritual, but it still depends on her and/or her unborn baby’s health condition. The Torah law does not consider a single-day fast as harmful to a healthy and normal pregnant woman. But should her doctor feel that fasting would harm her and/or her unborn child, then she should not fast. She may eat and drink, but only intermittently and in small quantities as prescribed by her rabbi.

Owing to Yom Kippur’s utter sacredness and solemnity, the Bible refers to it as Shabbat Shabbaton (“Sabbath of Solemn Rest” or “Sabbath of Sabbaths”). Even Jews who do not observe other holidays refrain from work and participate in the religious services on Yom Kippur. This leads to the increasing number of attendances at synagogues. More often than not, turnouts at many synagogues are bigger than expected that some congregations rent out additional space to accommodate the increasing number of worshippers.

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish people get themselves involved in fasting and intensive prayer. That’s why they often spend most of this holiday at synagogues, where they hold five prayer services: Maariv, Shacharit, Musaf, Minchah, and Neilah. The first prayer service, Maariv, is held on the eve of Yom Kippur; the last, Neilah, takes place before sunset on the following day.

One of the most important prayers that is specific to Yom Kippur depicts the atonement ritual performed by the high priests during the olden times. The shofar – a trumpet made of a cleaned-out ram’s horn – is an essential and symbolical part of the Yom Kippur (as well as Rosh Hashanah). The shofar is blown in a single long blast at the end of Neilah, marking the conclusion of the fast.

Customs and traditions before, during and after Yom Kippur

On the eve of Yom Kippur, families and friends gather together for a lavish feast that must be finished before sunset. This is to gather energy and strength before they begin their 25-hour fast on Yom Kippur.

It is customary for observant Jews to wear white, which symbolizes purity, on Yom Kippur. Some married men would wear kittel, a white Jewish robe, to signify repentance.

Giving to charity is one of the three necessary deeds to gain atonement from God (apart from praying and repenting of one’s sins). While some Jews make monetary donations, others do volunteering on Yom Kippur.

Another ancient custom performed during Yom Kippur is kapparot, which involves swinging a live chicken or a bundle of money over a person’s head while reciting a prayer. If a live chicken is used, the animal is slaughtered after the ritual in accordance with the Jewish religious laws. If money is used, it is then given to charity.

Breaking of the fast: After the final Yom Kippur service, most people return home for a festive meal. Traditional post-Yom Kippur menu consists of breakfast or brunch-like comfort foods such as blintzes, soups, noodle puddings and baked goods such as bagels.