Observing Yom Kippur

Background image by Tanner Mardis via Unsplash

Yom Kippur is the holiest day in Judaism. It follows a time of personal introspection and reflection that begins ten days earlier with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Called the Day of Atonement, the focus of Yom Kippur is on repentance and forgiveness. It is when God weighs one’s previous year’s good deeds against their transgressions.

Yom Kippur is recognized as the day Moses asked God to forgive the Jewish people for the sin of making and worshipping the Golden Calf idol (after God gave Moses the Ten Commandments). This theme appears throughout Yom Kippur; it is the opportunity to ask for God’s forgiveness before God inscribes names into and seals The Book of Life.

White Dove for Yom Kippur by awmleer via Unsplash
White Dove by awmleer via Unsplash

Unlike Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur is more solemn holiday, not celebratory and jovial. Therefore, “Happy Yom Kippur” is not an appropriate greeting to anyone observing Yom Kippur. Instead, “G’mar Hatima Tova” (May you be sealed in the Book of Life), or the shorter version “G’mar Tov” is said. Before the holiday begins, it is customary to say “Have an easy fast.” Those not fasting, but observing, can be greeted with “Have a good holy day” (“Good Yuntif” in Yiddish or “Yom Tov” in Hebrew).

The day before Yom Kippur often entails a hearty meal to prepare one’s physical strength for the upcoming fast. It is also tradition to ask forgiveness from anyone who may have been wronged (as it is believed that God cannot forgive sins done to other people). Charitable donations, cemetery visits, candle lighting, and special prayers/ blessings are some other customary pre-Yom Kippur rituals.

When Yom Kippur begins the following day at sundown, it continues for approximately 25 hours. It is observed by fasting (no food or drink, including water); taking a day of rest from work (including the use of technology); attending synagogue services; repenting for any misdeeds and praying for atonement; and abstaining from bathing, the application of skin lotions, creams or oils, the wearing of leather footwear and engaging in sexual relations. The idea is that one should have no physical needs on Yom Kippur, that the concentration should be on spiritual well-being. Wearing white clothing on the holiday also symbolizes the focus on purity and spirituality.

Star of David by hurk from Pixabay
Star of David by hurk from Pixabay

Once the sun has set the next day, the shofar (the ancient trumpet-like instrument made from a ram’s horn) is blown in synagogues to announce the end of the fast and that it is now time to celebrate that God has forgiven everyone’s sins. Meals that break the fast may include kugel, a pudding made from egg noodles or potato.

Yom Kippur encourages one to spend time on personal growth. It establishes that it is important to ask for forgiveness – and be willing to forgive in return (which then fortifies personal relationships). There is a strength in resolving to never again repeat the same mistakes. And taking a break from indulgences may be hard or inconvenient, but also demonstrates a humble self-denial. Ultimately, we are reminded that life is not about human gratification, but about the Higher Power.

May everyone have an easy fast this Yom Kippur.


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How do you observe Yom Kippur? Does you have any special traditions? Feel free to share your thoughts below.