Significance: Day of Atonement
Observances: Fasting, Prayer and Repentance
Length: 25 Hours
Greeting: Have an easy fast
Liturgy additions: Annulment of vows; lengthy confession of sins
...In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you
shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work ... For on that day he
shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the
L-RD. -Leviticus 16:29-30
Yom Kippur is probably the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Many Jews
who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast and/or
attend synagogue services on this day. Yom
Kippur occurs on the 10th day of Tishri. The
holiday is instituted at Leviticus 23:26 et seq.
The name "Yom Kippur" means "Day of Atonement," and that pretty much explains
what the holiday is. It is a day set aside to "afflict the soul," to atone for
the sins of the past year. In Days of Awe, I
mentioned the "books" in which G-d inscribes all of
our names. On Yom Kippur, the judgment entered in these books is sealed. This
day is, essentially, your last appeal, your last chance to change the judgment,
to demonstrate your repentance and make amends.
As I noted in Days of Awe, Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and G-d,
not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person,
you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you
committed against them if possible. That must all be done before Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath; no work can be performed on that day. It is
well-known that you are supposed to refrain from eating and drinking (even
water) on Yom Kippur. It is a complete, 25-hour fast beginning before sunset on
the evening before Yom Kippur and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom
Kippur. The Talmud also specifies additional
restrictions that are less well-known: washing and bathing, anointing one's
body (with cosmetics, deodorants, etc.), wearing leather shoes
(Orthodox Jews routinely wear canvas sneakers
under their dress clothes on Yom Kippur), and engaging in sexual relations are
all prohibited on Yom Kippur.
As always, any of these restrictions can be lifted where a threat to life or
health is involved. In fact, children under the age of nine and women in
childbirth (from the time labor begins until three days after birth) are not
permitted to fast, even if they want to. Older children and women from the
third to the seventh day after childbirth are permitted to fast, but are
permitted to break the fast if they feel the need to do so. People with other
illnesses should consult a physician and a rabbi
Most of the holiday is spent in the synagogue,
in prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, services
begin early in the morning (8 or 9 AM) and continue until about 3 PM. People
then usually go home for an afternoon nap and return around 5 or 6 PM for the
afternoon and evening services, which continue until nightfall. The services
end at nightfall, with the blowing of the tekiah gedolah, a long blast on the
shofar. See Rosh Hashanah for more about the shofar
and its characteristic blasts.
It is customary to wear white on the holiday, which symbolizes purity and calls
to mind the promise that our sins shall be made as white as snow (Is. 1:18).
Some people wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are
Yom Kippur Liturgy
See also Jewish Liturgy
The liturgy for Yom Kippur is much more extensive than for any other day of the
year. Liturgical changes are so far-reaching that a separate, special prayer
book for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. This prayer
book is called the machzor.
The evening service that begins Yom Kippur is commonly known as Kol Nidre,
named for the prayer that begins the service. "Kol nidre" means "all vows," and
in this prayer, we ask G-d to annul all personal vows we may make in the next
year. It refers only to vows between the person making them and G-d, such as
"If I pass this test, I'll pray every day for the next 6 months!" Click the
musical notes to hear a portion of the traditional tune for this prayer.
This prayer has often been held up by anti-Semites as proof that Jews are
untrustworthy (we do not keep our vows), and for this reason the
Reform movement removed it from the liturgy for a
while. In fact, the reverse is true: we make this prayer because we take vows
so seriously that we consider ourselves bound even if we make the vows under
duress or in times of stress when we are not thinking straight. This prayer
gave comfort to those who were converted to Christianity by torture in various
inquisitions, yet felt unable to break their vow to follow Christianity. In
recognition of this history, the Reform movement restored this prayer to its
There are many additions to the regular liturgy (there would have to be, to get
such a long service <grin>). Perhaps the most important addition is the
confession of the sins of the community, which is inserted into the Shemoneh
Esrei (Amidah) prayer. Note that all sins are confessed in the plural (we have
done this, we have done that), emphasizing communal responsibility for sins.
There are two basic parts of this confession: Ashamnu, a shorter, more general
list (we have been treasonable, we have been aggressive, we have been
slanderous...), and Al Cheit, a longer and more specific list (for the sin we
sinned before you forcibly or willingly, and for the sin we sinned before you
by acting callously...) Frequent petitions for forgiveness are interspersed in
these prayers. There's also a catch-all confession: "Forgive us the breach of
positive commands and negative commands, whether or not they involve an act,
whether or not they are known to us."
It is interesting to note that these confessions do not specifically address
the kinds of ritual sins that some people think are the be-all-and-end-all of
Judaism. There is no "for the sin we have sinned before you by eating pork, and
for the sin we have sinned against you by driving on Shabbat" (though obviously
these are implicitly included in the catch-all). The vast majority of the sins
enumerated involve mistreatment of other people, most of them by
speech (offensive speech, scoffing, slander,
talebearing, and swearing falsely, to name a few). These all come into the
category of sin known as "lashon ha-ra" (lit: the
evil tongue), which is considered a very serious sin in Judaism.
The concluding service of Yom Kippur, known as Ne'ilah, is one unique to the
day. It usually runs about 1 hour long. The ark (a cabinet where the scrolls of
the Torah are kept) is kept open throughout this service, thus you must stand
throughout the service. There is a tone of desperation in the prayers of this
service. The service is sometimes referred to as the closing of the gates;
think of it as the "last chance" to get in a good word before the holiday ends.
The service ends with a very long blast of the shofar. See
Rosh Hashanah for more about the shofar and its
After Yom Kippur, one should begin preparing for the next holiday,
Sukkot, which begins five days later.
List of Dates
Yom Kippur will occur on the following days of the secular calendar:
- Jewish Year 5776: sunset September 22, 2015 - nightfall September 23, 2015
- Jewish Year 5777: sunset October 11, 2016 - nightfall October 12, 2016
- Jewish Year 5778: sunset September 29, 2017 - nightfall September 30, 2017
- Jewish Year 5779: sunset September 18, 2018 - nightfall September 19, 2018
- Jewish Year 5780: sunset October 8, 2019 - nightfall October 9, 2019
For additional holiday dates, see Links to Jewish
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