Yom Kippur, means “Day of Atonement,” is the most solemn and holy day in the Jewish calendar.
According to the sources, Yom Kippur is a day of “self-denial” (Leviticus. 23-27) and day to be cleansed of one’s sins. It is observed eight days after Rosh Hashanah. Traditionally, it is believed that on Rosh Hashana God inscribes names in the “books” and on Yom Kippur, the judgment entered in these books is sealed. A traditional greeting is “may you be inscribed in the book of life”.
The days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are called the “Days of Awe’. The prayers and fasting on Yom kippur are supposed to insure that through repentance, God seals the repenter in the book of life.
Restrictions on Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur is a fast day for adults. Males from the age of 13 and Females from the age of 12 are obligated to fast. It is the strictest of the Jewish year. The fast lasts for over 25 hours. Traditionally, the focus on Yom kippur is for spiritual elevation. One way to do this is to abstain from the physical and superficial pleasures. Consequently, these five physical activities are forbidden on Yom Kippur:
- Eating and drinking.
- Washing one’s body.
- Anointing oneself. One cannot wear jewelry, perfume or makeup.
- Wearing leather shoes.
- Marital relations.
It is customary to wear white on Yom Kippur. This symbolizes purity and calls to mind the promise that sins shall be made as white as snow (Is. 1:18). Some people wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried.
In Israel, the country comes to a standstill on Yom Kippur. Places of entertainment and stores are closed, there are no state-run television or radio broadcasts (not even the news), and public transport does not run. Solemnity on Yom Kippur in Israel is reinforced by memories of the 1973 war, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel.
Customs the day before Yom Kippur
Traditionally, every Jew is required to immerse in a mikvah (ritual bath) on the day before Yom kippur.
It is an ancient custom to perform Kaparot before Yom Kippur. Kaparot can be performed any time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur but the preferred time is just after dawn on the day before Yom Kippur. The Kaparot ritual involves taking a chicken in your right hand and revolving it over your head while reciting a prayer. Money is then donated to charity.
Eating before Yom kippur
The festive meal before the fast is called Seudah Mafseket (“final meal”). Traditionally, meat is not eaten during this meal, but poultry can be eaten. It is traditional to eat soup, but important to put as little salt and seasoning in the soup as possible. Before the meal a blessing
is made for bread but not for wine.
To endure the fast many people give up caffeine for a period before Yom kippur.. For many people this helps to prevent headaches from fasting. Also it is important to drink plenty of water at regular intervals for the day before. It is important to leave time for the pre fast meal. It must be eaten quite early (times change according to location and date)..
Bringing in the festival
After the meal it is customary to light memorial candles before candle lighting. When the Festival candles are lit, 18 minutes before sunset,. these two blessings are recited:
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ha-olam Asher
Be-mitzvo-tav Ve-tzvi-vanu Le-hadlik Ner Shel Shabbat veShel Yom
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe,
who has granted us life,
sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.
Ba-ruch A-tah Ado-nai E-lo-hei-nu Me-lech Ha-olam
She-heche-ya-nu Ve-ki-yi-ma-nu Ve-higi-a-nu Liz-man Ha-zeh
Additionally, before entering the synagogue, it is customary for fathers to bless their children. Although there is no required formula for this blessing, it is customary for fathers to say:
May God make you like Efrayim and Menashe [for a son];
or, May God make you like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah [for a
Traditionally, the day of Yom Kippur is devoted entirely to prayer. Repentance (teshuva) is the theme of Yom Kippur. It is believed that usually sins alienate one from God, but on yom kippur, repentance reconciles one with God.
The first Yom Kippur occurred when Moses descended Mount Sinai with the second set of Tablets of the Ten Commandments, a symbol of the renegotiated covenant between God and the Jewish People. It is believed that the Israelites alienated God by worshipping the golden calf. Moses ascended Mount Sinai to ask God for forgiveness. The Israelites repented by fasting during the day while Moses was on the mountain. On the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei (Yom Kippur), Moses descended Mount Sinai with the second Tablets.
God decreed the tenth day of the month of Tishrei as a day of atonement:
“Let it be a statute for you forever: in the seventh
month, on the tenth of the month, you shall starve your vital energies
and do no manner of work…. For on this day it shall bring atonement
upon you, to purify you, before God shall you become pure of all your
aberrations.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 16: 29-30)
Prayers on Yom Kippur
Prayer services on Yom Kippur are lengthy and solemn. Traditionally, most of the holiday is spent in prayer in the synagogue. These are the services:
The Evening of Yom Kippur:
- Kol Nidrei and Maariv
On Yom Kippur day:
- The Torah Reding, including the book of Jona
Breaking The Fast
When Yom Kippur finishes, it is traditional to break the fast with a celebratory meal. Afterwards, it is customary to start to build the Sukkah for the next holiday of Sukkot. By doing this it is possible to go straight from atonement for sins into doing a mitzvah a good deed, making a fresh start for the new year.