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Yom Kippur: History & Overview



Yom Kippur is one of the most important holidays of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast and/or attend synagogue services on this day. Yom Kippur occurs on the 10th day of Tishri

The name “Yom Kippur” means “Day of Atonement,” and it is a day set aside to “afflict the soul,” to atone for the sins of the past year. During the Days of Awe, God inscribes all of our names in either the book of life or death. On Yom Kippur, the judgment entered in these books is sealed. 

Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and G-d, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them if possible. 

On the eve of Yom Kippur, some religious Jews practice a ritual known as Kapparah (כפרה‎).

Yom Kippur is a Sabbath day; no work can be performed on the day of Yom Kippur. During the holiday Jews fast for approximately 24 hours, from sundown to sundown. In addition to dietary restrictions, he Talmud also specifies additional restrictions that are less well-known: washing and bathing, anointing one's body (with cosmetics, deodorants, etc.), wearing leather shoes (Orthodox Jews routinely wear canvas sneakers under their dress clothes on Yom Kippur), and engaging in sexual relations are all prohibited on Yom Kippur.

As always, any of these restrictions can be lifted where a threat to life or health is involved. In fact, children under the age of nine and women in childbirth (from the time labor begins until three days after birth) are not permitted to fast, even if they want to. Older children and women from the third to the seventh day after childbirth are permitted to fast, but are permitted to break the fast if they feel the need to do so. People with other illnesses should consult a physician and/or a rabbi for advice.

Most of the holiday is spent in the synagogue, in prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, services begin early in the morning (8 or 9 AM) and continue until about 3 PM. More religious people then usually go home for an afternoon nap and return around 5 or 6 PM for the afternoon and evening services, which continue until nightfall. The services end at nightfall, with the blowing of the tekiah gedolah, a long blast on the shofar

It is customary to wear white on the holiday, which symbolizes purity and calls to mind the promise that our 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.


The origins of Yom Kippur are unclear. It is not mentioned in the list of holidays to be observed when the Temple destroyed by the Babylonians was rebuilt. Zecharia omits Yom Kippur from the fast days Jews are to follow after their return from captivity, and Ezra says nothing about it in his instructions on preparing for Sukkot.

Elon Gilad argues that the biblical references to the Day of Atonement (Numbers 29:7-11 and Leviticus 16:1-34; 23:26-32) were “inserted by priests during the Second Temple period to validate new rites added to purify the Temple in advance of” Sukkot. He also posits that Yom Kippur may have been inspired by Akitu, a Babylonian festival marking the beginning of the new year, which has several similarities to the Jewish holiday.

The fifth day of Akitu was the only day the king entered the sanctuary of the Babylonian temple. Similarly, the Day of Atonement was the only time the high priest of the Israelites would enter the Holy of Holies (where the Ark of the Covenant was kept). The Babylonian king would tell his deity that he had not sinned; by contrast, the Jewish priest would confess the sins of the Israelites over the head of a live goat. The animal would then be sent away into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:21). This type of ritual performed by Jews and others gave rise to the term “scapegoat.”

Fasting is the practice most associated with Yom Kippur, but the Bible does not explicitly call for Jews to refrain from eating or drinking. The phrase “ye shall afflict your souls” is used, which is interpreted to mean fasting because that is the meaning elsewhere.

Yom Kippur Liturgy

Yom Kippur has its own candlelighting blessing. If the holiay coincides with Shabbat, the words in parentheses are added:

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha'olam asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik neir shel (shabbat v'shel) you hakippurim.

After the candles are lit, the Shehecheyanu prayer is recited.

The evening service that begins Yom Kippur is commonly known as Kol Nidre, named for the prayer that begins the service. “Kol nidre” means “all vows,” and in this prayer, we ask G-d to annul all personal vows we may make in the next year. It refers only to vows between the person making them and G-d, such as “If I pass this test, I'll pray every day for the next 6 months!”

This prayer has often been held up by anti-Semites as proof that Jews are untrustworthy (we do not keep our vows), and for this reason the Reform movement removed it from the liturgy, but it was eventually reinstated. In fact, the reverse is true: we make this prayer because we take vows so seriously that we consider ourselves bound even if we make the vows under duress or in times of stress. This prayer gave comfort to those who were converted to Christianity by torture in various inquisitions, yet felt unable to break their vow to follow Christianity. In recognition of this history, the Reform movement restored this prayer to its liturgy.

There are many additions to the regular liturgy. Perhaps the most important addition is the confession of the sins of the community, which is inserted into the Shemoneh Esrei (Amidah) prayer. Note that all sins are confessed in the plural (we have done this, we have done that), emphasizing communal responsibility for sins.

There are two basic parts of this confession: Ashamnu, a shorter, more general list (we have been treasonable, we have been aggressive, we have been slanderous...), and Al Chet, a longer and more specific list (for the sin we sinned before you forcibly or willingly, and for the sin we sinned before you by acting callously...) Frequent petitions for forgiveness are interspersed in these prayers. There's also a catch-all confession: “Forgive us the breach of positive commands and negative commands, whether or not they involve an act, whether or not they are known to us.”

It is interesting to note that these confessions do not specifically address the kinds of ritual sins that some people think are the be-all-and-end-all of Judaism. There is no “for the sin we have sinned before you by eating pork, and for the sin we have sinned against you by driving on Shabbat” (though obviously these are implicitly included in the catch-all). The vast majority of the sins enumerated involve mistreatment of other people, most of them by speech (offensive speech, scoffing, slander, talebearing, and swearing falsely, to name a few). These all come into the category of sin known as “lashon ha-ra” (lit: the evil tongue), which is considered a very serious sin in Judaism.

The concluding service of Yom Kippur, known as Ne'ilah, is one unique to the day. It usually runs about 1 hour long. The ark (a cabinet where the scrolls of the Torah are kept) is kept open throughout this service, thus you must stand throughout the service. There is a tone of desperation in the prayers of this service. The service is sometimes referred to as the closing of the gates; think of it as the “last chance” to get in a good word before the holiday ends. The service ends with a very long blast of the shofar. See Rosh Hashanah for more about the shofar and its characteristic blasts.

After Yom Kippur, one should begin preparing for the next holiday, Sukkot, which begins five days later.

Sources: Judaism 101;
Kapparot, Wikipedia;
Elon Gilad, “The Obscure Origins of Yom Kippur,” Haaretz, (September 30, 2014).