Yom Kippur

Definition: Yom Kippur
The most important and solemn holiday in the Jewish liturgical calendar, observed on 10 Tishri (September or October). Jews must abstain from food, drink, and sex and all work must cease..

In Judaism, Yom Kippur, celebrated on the 10th day of Tishri, is the most important and solemn of Jewish holidays. Yom Kippur is the occasion on which otherwise non-observant Jews are most likely to attend synagogue, refrain from work, or fast. {1}

Yom Kippur is instituted in Leviticus 23:

And HaShem spoke unto Moses, saying: "Howbeit on the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; there shall be a holy convocation unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto HaShem. And ye shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before HaShem your G-d." {2} The name of Yom Kippur means "Day of Atonement." It is believed to be the last chance to change God's judgment of one's deeds in the previous year and his decisions one's fate in the coming year. The "books" in which God began recording his judgments on Rosh Hashanah are sealed at the end of Yom Kippur. It is thus a day of intensive reflection, repentance, fasting, worship and self-denial (see Observances of Yom Kippur, below).

Yom Kippur

In the Bible, Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shabbaton, "Sabbath of Sabbaths," for it is on Yom Kippur that the abstention from work and solemnity that characterize the Sabbath are most complete.

In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, the high priest conducted an elaborate sacrificial ceremony on Yom Kippur. Clothed in white linen, he successively confessed his own sins, the sins of priest, and the sins of the people, then entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple - the only day this was allowed - to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice and offer incense.

The priest then sent a goat (the "scapegoat") into the wilderness, where it was driven to its death, to symbolically carry away the sins of Israel. {3}

Observances of Yom Kippur

On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Kol Nidre is recited. This prayer is well known for its beautiful melody, but its meaning has sometimes been misunderstood. The Kol Nidre ("all vows") annuls all vows made throughout the year, and Anti-Semites have used the prayer as evidence that Jews are untrustworthy. But the Kol Nidre actually refers only to vows made between oneself and God, and especially frivolous vows made to God when pleading for help or religious vows made under duress (such as professed conversion to Christianity during the Inquisition). {4}

The recitation of the Kol Nidre does not change the fact that obligations towards other people must be upheld. In fact, the eve of Yom Kippur is considered one of the best times to seek and grant forgiveness. God will forgive sins committed against himself, but if one has wronged another person, he must seek forgiveness from that person and try to make it right. The Mishna teaches, "Yom Kippur does not atone until one appeases his neighbors." {5}

On Yom Kippur, Jews must abstain from all work, food, drink (including water) and sex. Orthodox Jews also follow the Talmudic regulations of not wearing leather shoes, not washing, and not "anointing oneself" (i.e., wearing deodorant, lotions, perfumes, etc.).

The majority of Yom Kippur is spent in the synagogue, where special services are conducted from morning to evening. Especially in Orthodox synagogues, it is customary to wear white on Yom Kippur to symbolize purity before God and the forgiveness of sins. Some wear the kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried.

One special feature of the Yom Kippur synagogue service is the insertion of the confession of sins of the community into the regular Amida blessing. All are recited in the first person plural (e.g., "we have been aggressive, we have been slanderous") to emphasize communal responsibility for sins. {6}

The concluding service is unique to Yom Kippur. Called Ne'ilah, it usually lasts an hour and the ark (where Torah scrolls are kept) remains open throughout the service. Everyone therefore must stand the entire time. The service is the last chance to get in a "good word" before God's judgments are sealed. At nightfall, the Yom Kippur service concludes with one last long blast on the shofar. {7}

Happiest Time of the Year?

In view of its fasting, penitence, and "affliction of the soul," it would be natural to think of Yom Kippur as a day of sadness. But the Talmud says of it:

There were no days as happy for the Jewish people as the 15th of Av [when marriages were arranged] and Yom Kippur. {8} This holiday is happy because it brings about reconciliation with God and other people. Thus, if they have observed it properly, many people feel a deep sense of serenity by the end of the fast. {9}

Upcoming Dates for Yom Kippur

All Jewish holidays begin and end at sunset.

  • Sept. 13-14, 2013
  • Oct. 3-4, 2014
  • Set. 22-23, 2015
  • Oct. 11-12, 2016

Notes 1. "Yom Kippur." Judaism 101.

  1. "Vayikra – Leviticus." Jewish Virtual Library.

  2. "Yom Kippur." ædia Britannica Premium Service, 2004.

  3. "Yom Kippur." Judaism 101.

  4. Mishna Yoma 8:9; quoted in Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy (2001), 626

  5. "Yom Kippur." Judaism 101.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Mishna Ta'anit 4:8; quoted in Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy (2001), 626.

  8. Telushkin, Jewish Literacy (2001), 629.

  9. "Yom Kippur." Judaism 101.