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What is Yom Kippur

Since in my daily life I come into contact with people from a myriad of different backgrounds, at this time of year I am often asked about the meaning of the Jewish High Holy Days.  I believe that the following article from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz is a very comprehensive explanation of what Jewish people are celebrating during the time we call "The Days of Awe," which is the 10-day period between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur:

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most widely-observed Jewish holiday, and is the culmination of the High Holy Days. It is a day spent in prayer, fasting, and reflection, when Jews ask God to forgive individual and communal wrongs. However, only wrongs between man and God are up for grabs; the Talmud famously states that Yom Kippur is no help for wrongs between man and man. Thus, Jews traditionally spend the last month of the Jewish NewYear repairing relationships, patching up arguments, and settling any outstanding business debts so that we can go into Yom Kippur as clean of wrongdoing as humanly possible.

This process intensifies in the ten days between Rosh Hashannah (the Jewish New Year), and Yom Kippur. In the poetic symbolism of the liturgy, the Book of Records is opened on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur. The intermediate days are known as the Yamim Nora'im (Days of Awe) — or the Ten Days of Repentance — during which we try to mend our behavior, break bad habits, and resolve to do better. This process, known as T’shuvah (literally “return”), includes asking forgiveness of those we’ve wronged. But first, we have to right the wrong as best we can and work on our own behavior to make sure we don’t make the same mistake again.

Once we’ve done what we can to make things right with our neighbors and ourselves, we seek forgiveness for those wrongs that we can’t make right and those between us and God, and that’s where Yom Kippur comes in: Yom Kippur itself is actually quite a relief after all the work that went into preparing for it!

The origins of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is one of the only Jewish holidays not tied to the agricultural year. Leviticus 23:27 tells us that the 10th day of the month of Tishri was to be “a Day of Atonement (Yom Kippurim) on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God.” In ancient Israel, Yom Kippur was the only day of the year when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Temple, in which the Ark of the Torah was kept. After the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud restructured the holiday for a people in exile. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakai, a key figure in rebuilding Jewish society after the destruction is famously quoted as saying, “Do not be distressed, there is another kind of atonement which is like [The Temple rites] — It is the doing of good deeds.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan).

When is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur begins at sunset on the 10th day of the Hebrew month  of Tishri and lasts until the nightfall on the following day. It is observed for 25 hours both in Israel and the Diaspora.

Yom Kippur 2015 – September 22 to September 23

Yom Kippur 2016 – October 11 to October 12

Yom Kippur 2017 – September 29 to September 30

Yom Kippur 2018 – September 18 to September 19

Yom Kippur 2019 – October 8 to October 9

How to observe Yom Kippur: do’s, don’ts and shouldn’ts

Judaism typically takes a dim view of asceticism and self-denial. Yom Kippur is the exception. Jews abstain from any kind of self-indulgence for the full 25 hours of the holiday, including food and water, sexual intercourse, bathing, perfume, and any kind of personal adornment. Traditionally, we wear simple white garments to symbolize purity and humility. As leather shoes have traditionally been a mark of wealth, they are also forbidden on Yom Kippur, which is why you’ll see plenty of crocs and tennis shoes in the synagogue. Of course, not everyone must fast;; the elderly or unwell should check with their doctors to see if they are allowed to fast. Children under the age of nine also should not fast, and even those under the age of bar and bat mitzvah should gradually build up to fasting the whole day.

The Yom Kippur service begins with the Kol Nidre, recited prior to sunset, which formally asks God to release us from any rash vows that we may be unable to keep. But if you’re thinking this is a “get out of jail free” card, think again. The release from vows in the Kol Nidre refers only to those that we take upon ourselves alone, and not those that affect anyone else. So if you rashly vow to give up chocolate next year, Kol Nidre may allow you to feel a bit less guilty if you can’t resist that piece of cake later on.

The Torah (Leviticus 23:32) calls Yom Kippur the “Shabbat of Shabbatot”, aka, the “Mother of all Shabbats.” And like Shabbat, no creative work is to be done. Jews typically spend the entire day in synagogue, since the prayer services are longer — and there are more of them — than on other holidays. In addition to the private and public confessions of past transgressions (Vidui), there is a special service recalling the avodah (service) of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) when the Temple still stood. The book of Yona, whose theme is repentance, is also read on Yom Kippur. The day ends with the triumphal blowing of the Shofar at the end of the Ne’ilah (“Closing”) service.

Although the fast is long and difficult and the focus on repentance intense, Yom Kippur is by no means gloomy. The Mishna (Ta’anit 4:8) relates that “There were no days as joyful for the Jews as Yom Kippur and Tu B’Av” (a holiday of love, similar to Valentine's Day). The fasting, prayer, and confession are meant to invoke in us a real desire for self-transformation, to allow us to let go of past wrongs and bad habits and start anew. Many describe the communal experience of Yom Kippur as intensely uplifting.

What to eat before and after the Yom Kippur fast

Since Yom Kippur is a fast day, the holiday meal customary for Jewish holidays is eaten the day before. The mid-day meal is large and festive and includes challah dipped in honey, and easily digestible foods such as fish or poultry and pastry. A smaller meal is eaten before the fast begins, and usually features lighter foods.

Another common custom on the day prior to Yom Kippur is the practice of setting aside money or a food item to donate to charity. In some Ashkenazi communities, this "Kapparot" (literally, “atonement”) donation takes the form of a chicken, which is swung over the head of a family member as a symbol of sacrifice, then donated to the poor to serve as a meal. The practice of using a live chicken is increasingly frowned upon, however, due to the suffering caused to the animal, and money is substituted instead.

It’s customary to sit down with family for a break-fast meal after the holiday. This meal usually includes sweet foods as a symbol of the sweetening quality of forgiveness.


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