Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur, translated as the Day of Atonement, concludes more than a month -long period of introspection and reflection that begins on the first of the Hebrew month of Elul. The time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the most intensive phase of this process and is referred to as “the ten days of repentance.”

Yom Kippur is a day marked by solemnity, fasting and prayer. In Vayikra (Leviticus) we read:

On this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins…(Lev. 16:30)

Yom Kippur is devoted to communal confessions and repentance in the synagogue beginning with the Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur eve. The Kol Nidre prayer is unique to Yom Kippur and sets the tone for the holiday with its moving and evocative chant. The synagogue services for Yom Kippur day are lengthier than any other day in the Jewish calendar and it is not uncommon for those in attendance to spend most if not all of the day in the synagogue. Yom Kippur concludes with the stirring Neilah service–a liturgy that emphasizes that as the day comes to an end and our prayers for forgiveness and our hopes to become better people in the coming year are done, the gates of heaven are locking. Our destiny for the upcoming year has been sealed.

Yom Kippur concludes with the sounding of the shofar.

Observances and customs of Yom Kippur

  • It is customary, especially in the time period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to approach our friends and relatives directly to ask for forgiveness for anything we have done that has been disrespectful and hurtful.
  • On Yom Kippur our singular focus is to be on repentance and teshuvah—a commitment to transformational change.
  • Fasting (usually lasting about 25 hours from the Kol Nidre through the Neilah services) is intended to be a sign of our devotion and to remove worldly distractions that could disrupt our center of attention.
  • Yom Kippur is a holiday mentioned in the Torah and work and other restrictions apply.
  • It is traditional to dress in white on Yom Kippur—a symbol of purity and the removal of our sins/mistakes. It is also customary to refrain from wearing leather, presumed to be a sign of luxury in earlier times.
  • The custom of eating round challot and apples and honey often continues into the pre-fast dinner prior to the beginning of Yom Kippur and is often included at the break fast meal at the end of the day as well. Family and friends customarily gather together for this meal.
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