Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement

The holiest day in Judaism.

A JEWISH FAMILY walks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Yom Kippur. (photo credit: SHANNON STAPLETON / REUTERS)
A JEWISH FAMILY walks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Yom Kippur.
The meaning of Yom in Hebrew is “day” and Kippur means “to atone.” Yom Kippur is also called the day of atonement. 
It is one of the most serious Jewish holidays and is viewed as the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Traditionally, Yom Kippur is also viewed as the day when Moses received the second set of commandments.
During this holiday, Jews do not eat, drink, wear leather footwear, take a bath nor engage in marital affairs. Instead, they spend the day in their synagogues reading the Torah, praying, and asking for forgiveness.
In the modern state of Israel, Yom Kippur is a legal holiday. There is no form of media communication, all shops and businesses are closed, and no operation of public transportation.
In this article:
  • Yom Kippur is on the tenth day of the seventh month and is regarded as “the sabbaths of the sabbaths.”  It was implemented when the Israelites sinned by worshipping the golden calf. The story is told that Moses went to Mount Sinai to pray to God for the forgiveness of the Israelites’ sins and after forty-days of praying their sins were forgiven. The day that Moses returned from Mount Sinai was labeled as “the day of atonement” or “Yom Kippur.” 
  • In the said year after Moses return, a tabernacle was built for sacrificial offerings and prayers. A special service was performed each year by the high priest and this service continued up to the time when Ezra built the second temple. Jews worldwide would journey to the temple to seek forgiveness for Israel. 
  • After the second temple was destroyed, Jews kept the tradition by keeping the service within their own territory.
Forty days before Yom Kippur is observed, the blowing of the ram’s horn (shofar) and reciting of Psalms 27 is done before and after the morning prayers. This is done to bring about an atmosphere of reverence before the actual day of atonement begins.
  • Day Before Yom Kippur
The day before Yum Kippur is called ” Erev Yom Kippur” and it corresponds to the ninth day of the Hebrew Month. On this day additional morning prayers, requesting forgiveness, giving charity, performing the Kapparot ritual, extended afternoon prayer service, and two festive meals take place. 
On the day of Yom Kippur, which runs from sundown to nightfall of the next day, there is a total obstination from work. Leviticus 23:27, declares Yom Kippur as a complete day of rest. Therefore, these five prohibitions are observed:
1. No eating and drinking
2. No wearing of leather shoes
3. No bathing or washing
4. No anointing oneself with perfumes or lotions
5. No marital relations
Refraining from these means that the body will return to its original state. All healthy men over the years of 13 or women over the age of 12 can participate in this celebration. However, persons with medical conditions are excluded. Also, it is customary to wear white clothing on this day as it symbolizes purity. 
The Yom Kippur day is spent in the synagogue praying. There are five prayers for the celebration, namely:
  • Kol Nidrel – this is the first prayer and it is recited in a dramatic way;
  • Arvit – the evening prayer;
  • Musaf – prayer for the temple service;
  • Mincha – this is the afternoon prayer and it includes the reading (Haftarah) of the entire book of Jonah;
  • Neilah – the closing prayer at sunset that marks the end of the celebration.
These prayers are necessary because only through praying, repenting, and giving to charity one can get atonement from God.
The day of atonement, Yom Kippur, is only for those who repent. The repentance is done through a process known as Teshuva, which simply means that one regret committing sinful acts.
The confessional (Vidui) is a unique aspect of Yom Kippur. With keeping with the requirements of repentance the full Vidui is repeated nine times as follows:
  • One time on the eve of Yom Kippur 
  • Two times on the day of Yom Kippur during Ma’ariv
  • Two times at Shacharit
  • Two times at Musaf
  • Two times at Mincha
The confessional consists of a short confession and a long confession.
Songs of Joy and blowing of the horn takes place after the last prayer (Neilah) to mark the end of the Yom Kippur observation. Jews celebrate the end of Yom Kippur with a large festive meal. 
For the entire season of Yom Kippur, the traditional Yom Kippur greeting is “G’mar Hatimah Tovah” which means in English “May you be sealed for a good year of life.” 
  • “Tzom Kal” is also used to wish friends an easy fast since Yom Kippur is also a fast day.
  • “Chag Samayach” which is also used, means happy holidays.