Yom Kippur: What is the Day of Atonement, the holiest Jewish holiday? - explainer

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in Judaism and is a 25-hour long day of fasting and praying.

 REPENTANCE IS, by far, the greatest miracle. (photo credit: ARIE LEB ABRAMS/FLASH90)
REPENTANCE IS, by far, the greatest miracle.
(photo credit: ARIE LEB ABRAMS/FLASH90)

Yom Kippur is almost here. Also known as the Day of Atonement, the holiday is traditionally considered the most important day in all of Judaism and is marked by a 25-hour fast and numerous restrictions and rules. 

The Jewish holiday has a rich history, with its rules and traditions being among the most extensive in the Jewish tradition. This includes a number of different religious symbols, obligations, customs and traditions, formed and codified over thousands of years. 

It also comes with its own unique prayers that distinctly set it apart from other holidays.

But what happens on Yom Kippur? Why do Jews need to fast for it? 

Here is a rundown on what you need to know:

 Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash)

Yom Kippur history

The fast of Yom Kippur is explained in the Bible, described in the Book of Leviticus as a day of cleansing, where the Jewish people atone for their sins, become pure, and pray that they are inscribed in the Book of Life.

However, its cultural significance goes far beyond its biblical roots.

With the holiday going back to biblical times, it has been very much a part of Jewish lore and history for thousands of years and has become intrinsically rooted in Jewish and Israeli culture.

This is to the extent that many otherwise non-observant Jews will still go out of their way to observe the holiday in at least some capacity - most notably by attending synagogue services.

One famous example of Yom Kippur observance from otherwise secular Jews is baseball Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch on game 1 of the 1965 World Series due to it taking place on Yom Kippur.

For others, especially in Israel, the holiday is known as the day when nearly the entire country shuts down, with all businesses closed and roads quiet. It's become a popular pastime among secular Israelis to go bicke riding on the empty streets throughout the country.

Children ride their bicycles in an empty street in Jerusalem during Yom Kippur (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Children ride their bicycles in an empty street in Jerusalem during Yom Kippur (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

In ancient times, the holiday was quite different, with a very intricate set of rules and practices regarding the use of the Temple and the role of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). This included numerous sacrifices, rituals like throwing a goat off a cliff to symbolically carry away the sins of the Jewish people (the origin of the term "scapegoat") and, most famously, the Kohen Gadol going into the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Hakodashim) and saying a prayer with the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, the true four-letter name of God.

However, as the Temple has been destroyed, these rituals are no longer observed, though they are remembered in the Yom Kippur prayer services.

What happens on Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is marked as one of the two major fasts, alongside Tisha Be'av, and lasts 25 hours. However, its rules are far more extensive and intricate.

Like Shabbat, creative labor and the use of electronics are forbidden. However, it does not stop there. Also forbidden are showering and fully washing one's hands, applying deodorant, wearing leather and jewelry and having marital relations. 

Jews traditionally wear white on the holiday, with Ashkenazi Jews wearing a white coat known as a kittel throughout the lengthy prayers.

Other customs also exist, such as the practice of Kapparot (atonement) where people swing a chicken over their head to transfer their sins to it before it is slaughtered, though many use money instead of chickens.

 Ultra Orthodox Jews perform the Kaparot ceremony on September 12, 2021, in the ultra orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Meah Shearim. The Jewish ritual is supposed to transfer the sins of the past year to the chicken, and is performed before the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, the most important day  (credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90) Ultra Orthodox Jews perform the Kaparot ceremony on September 12, 2021, in the ultra orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Meah Shearim. The Jewish ritual is supposed to transfer the sins of the past year to the chicken, and is performed before the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, the most important day (credit: ARIE LEIB ABRAMS/FLASH 90)

The two most notable rules, though, are about the fast itself and prayer.

Who has to fast on Yom Kippur? Who is exempt from fasting?

Regarding the fast, one must completely refrain from food and water. While other fasts have cases where, if one feels sick, they are not obligated to fast, the rules are much stricter with Yom Kippur. 

Regarding pregnant women, the situation is not as clear-cut. Halachically, pregnant women are still required to fast, as noted by the Shulchan Aruch (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 617:1). However, this has been contradicted by most doctors, and a doctor can advise a woman not to fast. Even so, many Orthodox rabbis, as noted by Chabad, still suggest eating and drinking as little as possible

Although eating and drinking are prohibited, there are some who are allowed to eat as much as 30 grams of food, and drink as much as four centiliters of water at a time. According to the recommendations, those who should eat "less than usual" should separate between eating and drinking these amounts by at least nine minutes.

Today, Israel's Meuhedet health fund is working with rabbinic advisers to accommodate those who can't fast. This includes providing water bags in approved sizes. 

Certain medical conditions also can get exemptions, such as people with diabetes. And if an ill person wants to fast but a doctor says they shouldn't, they must listen to their doctor - something solidified in the Talmud.

However, those who are allowed to eat and drink should still avoid sweets. 

What to say on Yom Kippur

The other hallmark of Yom Kippur is the prayer services, which are extensive. They begin at night on Yom Kippur Eve with the famous Kol Nidrei prayer, which is meant to renounce vows. The prayer is among the most iconic in Judaism and dates back to ancient times.

The following day is characterized by incredibly long prayer services. While most days typically have three services (Shacharit in the morning, Mincha in the afternoon and Ma'ariv at night) and most festivals have four (adding Musaf), Yom Kippur has five, with the fifth being known as Ne'ilah and taking place at the end of the fast and marking the end of it.

Each prayer service is known for being very long, particularly the chazzan's repetition of Shmonah Esrei, (18-part prayer) with the congregation frequently breaking out into very long, emotional and melodious songs as they sing along. 

The prayers themselves also include the likes of vidui and selichot, which ask for repentance for one's sins.

The holiday finishes the cycle beginning with Rosh Hashanah, and as such, one also includes the many additions said during the Ten Days of Repentance.

The full extent of the traditional Yom Kippur prayers is so extensive that a typical siddur (prayer book) will not have most of it, and instead one must instead use a special book called a mahzor.

The Torah is also read several times throughout the Yom Kippur holiday, and during Mincha, the Haftarah portion sees the reading of the entirety of the Book of Jonah, a famous story of God's forgiveness.

The Yom Kippur prayer services end after Ne'ilah, which is concluded with one very long blast of the shofar and, in many cases, singing "Leshana Haba B'Yerushalaim" (Next Year in Jerusalem).

 THE DAYS leading up to Yom Kippur allow us to begin the process of repair. (credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90) THE DAYS leading up to Yom Kippur allow us to begin the process of repair. (credit: CHEN LEOPOLD/FLASH90)

Due to the sheer length of the prayer services, some synagogues actually have worshipers stay for the entirety of the fast day beginning with Shacharit until the very end, but this is not the case everywhere.

Another factor with Yom Kippur are greetings. Rather than simply saying "chag sameach" for a happy holiday, people traditionally say "gmar hatima tova," meaning a good final sealing in the Book of Life, until Yom Kippur ends. Another commonly used greeting is "Tzom kal," meaning you wish that their fast is easy. 

When does the Yom Kippur fast begin and end?

Yom Kippur lasts just one day, like Shabbat and other Jewish holidays. This is true even in the Diaspora, where most Jewish festivals last an extra day. 

This year, Yom Kippur starts on the evening of October 4 and ends in the evening of October 5.

Here are the times for when Yom Kippur 2022 (Hebrew calendar 5783) begins and ends.

Jerusalem

Fast starts: 5:45 p.m.

Fast ends: 6:55 p.m.

Tel Aviv

Fast starts: 6:01 p.m.

Fast ends: 6:57 p.m.

Haifa

Fast starts: 5:53 p.m.

Fast ends: 6:56 p.m.

Beersheba

Fast starts: 6:03 p.m.

Fast ends: 6:57 p.m.

Eilat

Fast starts: 5:52 p.m.

Fast ends: 6:57 p.m.

New York

Fast starts: 6:15 p.m.

Fast ends: 7:12 p.m.

Los Angeles

Fast starts: 6:14 p.m.

Fast ends: 7:09 p.m.