What is Yom Kippur and When Do We Observe It?
‘Yom Kippur’ literally means the ‘Day of Atonement’. It is a day of fasting which commences at sunset on the evening of the 10th of Tishrei and finishes at nightfall on the 11th Tishrei; thus it lasts for approximately 25 hours in total.
Yom Kippur is also referred to as ‘The Sabbath of Sabbaths’. It is the most sacred date in the Jewish calendar, the day on which every Jewish person’s fate for the coming year is “sealed” in “The Book of Life”.
Asking forgiveness and atoning (making amends) for our sins
According to Maimonides (the Rambam), we all have the choice of what kind of person we want to be. Just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, each person can choose to be evil or good. Judaism teaches us that we have the power to determine which path we take.
Every person makes mistakes, and may even commit sins from time to time. Yom Kippur gives us the opportunity to ask forgiveness or atone for our sins. On the days leading up to Yom Kippur we can ask forgiveness from people for anything we have done that has caused them grief or harm. On Yom Kippur itself we can atone by confessing our sins to God and praying for His forgiveness.
Yom Kippur gives each Jewish person the opportunity for spiritual rebirth.
How Do We Observe Yom Kippur?
On the Day Before Yom Kippur
During the morning before Yom Kippur, some people enact the custom of kapparot, which is reminiscent of sacrifices made in the Temple in ancient times. Kapparot is a symbolic practice whereby a person takes a chicken and ‘transfers’ his/her sins into it. This is done by waving the chicken around your head three times and reciting a prayer. The chicken is then donated to charity. These days, instead of using a chicken, many people donate money to charity.
Eating Before the Fast Begins
It is considered a mitzvah (commandment) to eat plentifully on the afternoon before Yom Kippur. The purpose of fasting is not to make us suffer, but rather to help us focus on spiritual rather than physical pursuits. The final meal is a festive one and at the conclusion of the meal, the children are blessed by their father.
As for any Jewish yom tov (Torah-prescribed holyday), we light candles before the day commences at sunset. In addition, for Yom Kippur, we light a Yizkor candle (Memorial candle) which will burn for the full 25 hours of Yom Kippur. This candle will remind us of all those who have departed from this world. In addition, the Yizkor candle is used to light the Havdalah candle after Yom Kippur finishes.
It is customary to wear white on Yom Kippur because white symbolises purity and our desire to be close to God. A white robe also reminds us of the white robes worn by angels. Women wear white clothes and men may wear a kittel (long white robe) over their regular clothes.
(The curtain across the ark and the Torah covers are the white ones used since Rosh Hashanah. They show that “our mistakes will be whitened like snow.”)
We do not wear leather shoes and women do not wear makeup on Yom Kippur as these are respectively signs of physical comfort and of vanity. On Yom Kippur we are supposed to be concerned with spiritual matters, not physical matters.
At every level we should express humility on this day in order to remember its purpose: spiritual cleansing and renewal.
There are five activities which are forbidden on Yom Kippur:
1. eating and drinking
2. washing oneself
3. anointing oneself with oil/perfume/makeup
4. wearing leather shoes and
5. sexual relations
‘Fasting’ means not eating or drinking at all. All adult Jews – those over the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah – are required to fast for the full 25 hours of Yom Kippur. However, as Judaism places great value on a person’s health, a person who is genuinely sick is not required to fast (they should, however, not go to the opposite extreme and indulge in rich or extravagant foods. Rather, they should confine themselves to eating only what is necessary.) This includes, for example, a diabetic who controls their diabetes through diet – they may eat so as to avoid a diabetic attack which would endanger their health. Pregnant and nursing women are allowed to sip water during Yom Kippur so as to avoid dehydration. In all cases where there is uncertainty as to whether or not a person should fast during Yom Kippur, a rabbi should be consulted before the fast begins.
In addition to the regular Shacharit (Morning), Mincha (Afternoon) and Ma’ariv (Evening) prayers, there are a number of special prayers and additional prayer services said on Yom Kippur (adults spend the great majority of their day in synagogue). For a full explanation, see our page Synagogue Services on Yom Kippur.