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Yom Kippur: The Jewish Day of Atonement Explained

It’s the most important and solemn day in the Jewish faith. Known as the “Day of Atonement,” Yom Kippur is the culmination of the 10 Days of Awe that follow Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. According to tradition, during these 10 days, God will determine people’s fates, assigning them to the book of life or book of death, with Yom Kippur as the day when God’s judgments are sealed. During the holiday, Jews are called upon to “afflict their souls” by abstaining from food and drink, devoting themselves to prayer, and often performing charitable works.

The days leading up to Yom Kippur are a period of repentance for sins made during the previous year. The act of atonement is known as Teshuvah, meaning “a return,” as in a return to the path of righteousness, and can be used to atone for sins against God or other people, by confessing the sin, expressing regret, and vowing to not repeat it.

When Is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur begins at sundown on the 10th day of Tishri, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, this typically falls somewhere between September 14 and October 14 each year. This year the holiday begins at sundown on September 15, and ends at sundown on September 16.

Origins of Yom Kippur

Marble statue of Moses with the Ten Commandments.
Credit: arssecreta/ iStock

Yom Kippur’s importance to the Jewish people is deeply rooted. According to tradition, the first Yom Kippur is connected to the prophet Moses. As told in the Old Testament, following the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, they, along with Moses, traveled through the desert until they reached Mt. Sinai. Moses went to the summit alone, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The Israelites, worried that Moses had not returned after nearly 40 days and that God had abandoned them, they began worshiping a golden calf, an act of idolatry that was a sin against God.

When Moses returned soon after and saw the Israelites celebrating, he smashed the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments in a fury.  When the Israelites agreed to atone for this sin, Moses traveled along to the summit of Mt. Sinai a second time, spending 40 days and 40 nights in prayer, eventually receiving God’s forgiveness for his people and a second set of tablets bearing the Ten Commandments.

Yom Kippur is mentioned several times in the Bible, twice in Leviticus and again in the Book of Numbers. The passages in Leviticus describe it as a day of atonement and self-denial, and as the one day of the year when the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem. The High Priest would also make an offering of a goat consecrated to God as atonement for sins. Following the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 BCE, these rituals were adapted for use by rabbis in synagogues around the world.

Fasting and Prayer: Yom Kippur Traditions and Practices

Shofar and Hebrew prayer book on a Talit (prayer Shawl).
Credit: stellalevi/ iStock

Practicing Jews will attend synagogue and observe the traditions surrounding Yom Kippur, all of which are meant to deny the comforts of the superficial world to instead focus on the religious one.

This includes abstaining from work, bathing (or anointing with makeup, creams, or lotion), and sexual relations. The wearing of leather-soled shoes is also forbidden, and many observant Jews will wear white, signifying purity and the cleansing of sins. Some, especially Orthodox men, will wear long white robes known as kittels, which represent ancient burial shrouds. (Not all practicing Jews follow every single custom, of course; with many simply fasting, taking off work, and attending synagogue.)

Fasting and prayer are key components of the holiday. Families will enjoy a large pre-Yom Kippur meal before the holiday begins at sundown, designed to provide sustenance for the 25-hour fast to come. All but young children, the sick or elderly, and women who have very recently given birth abstain from drinking or eating during Yom Kippur to cleanse both the body and the spirit. The fast ends following the final prayer service around sundown, which often includes a celebratory meal. Food and recipes at this “break fast” are often influenced by the geographical location or origins of the community. Traditional American Jewish meals might include bagels, smoked fish, and other breakfast or brunch items.

On Erev, the evening of Yom Kippur, the first of five services are held, which includes the reading of the Kol Nidre, a prayer of repentance in which Jews proactively atone for unfilled oaths, promises, and vows made to God that cannot be fulfilled in the coming year. Additional services include a mourning service known as the Yizkor, which includes prayers for the dead.

The final, concluding service of Yom Kippur is the Neilah, or “closing the gate.” The most sacred service of the Jewish year, it includes an affirmation of religious faith and is considered to be the last chance for repentance and prayer before the closing of the gates of Heaven and God’s judgment. Because the synagogue’s ark  — the holy cabinet where Torah scrolls are stored — is left open throughout the Neilah service, all those who can physically stand do so throughout the entire service. The holiday concludes with the playing of the shofar, or ram’s horn, indicating God’s forgiveness and the end of the fast.  (The shofar is also blown weeks earlier on Rosh Hashanah.)

Many Jews will also donate to charity during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as an additional way to atone and seek forgiveness.

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