Also known as
Day of Atonement
the 10th of Tishri in the Hebrew calendar
Yom Kippur, which comes from the Hebrew word Yom Ha-kippurim and translates to the "Day of Atonement" in English, is considered to be the most important of Jewish holidays, is the most solemn, sacred, and holy. Taking place on the 10th day of the lunar month of Tishri, it concludes the "10 Days of Repentance" or "10 Days of Awe," which begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Both of these holidays are known as "High Holy Days." Yom Kippur is a time to atone for sins and to achieve reconciliation with God. People forgive one another for sins done to each other, and they repent for sins done against God.
In the Bible, the day is referred to as Shabbat Shabbaton, meaning "Sabbath of Solemn Rest" or "Sabbath of Sabbaths." Tradition says that God decides everyone's fate on the day, after judging them for the previous 10 days. Their name is then either written in the "book of life" or they are condemned to death. Accordingly, repentance, known as "teshuvah," must be done by the day. Some people volunteer or make donations during the ten-day period, which are seen as ways to seek forgiveness.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, people gather together for a feast that they must finish before sunset. The Kol Nidre is also recited, and friends ask each other for forgiveness for past offenses. Over the course of the holiday, beginning the evening before, five prayer services take place. On the day, no work is done, and Jews abstain from food, drink, and sex. The fast lasts 25 hours—from sundown to nightfall—and is meant to cleanse the body and spirit. Some also follow restrictions on washing, bathing, and the use of cosmetics and perfumes. These restrictions are designed to keep people from focusing on material possessions and superficial comforts. Orthodox Jews are also not to wear leather shoes or anoint themselves with oil on the day. Orthodox Jews, particularly married men, also often wear long white robes called kittels; Jews dress in white in general, which symbolizes purity.
Special religious services take place on the day. A remembrance service called Yizkor is held, where the names of the dead are read and their lives and legacies are reflected upon. There is often a Havdalah ceremony at the evening services. A shofar—a trumpet made from a ram's horn—is blown at the end of the final prayer service, signaling the end of the fast. A meal is commonly then eaten, which often includes comfort foods associated with breakfast, such as noodle pudding, baked goods, and blintzes.
Tradition says that the first Yom Kippur took place after the Israelites left Egypt and arrived at Mt. Sinai, the place where Moses was given the Ten Commandments. When the Temple of Jerusalem was still standing, a ceremony was performed there on the day by the high priest. They would go into the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, to sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice onto the Ark of the Covenant and to offer incense. This was the only day of the year when the Holy of Holies could be entered. The priest would also confess his sins, the sins of the other priests, and the sins of all of Israel. The ceremony ended with the driving of a goat—a scapegoat—to its death in the wilderness. The goat was viewed to be symbolically carrying Israel's sins. After the Temple fell in 70 CE, rabbis adopted the Temple practices of the day into ceremonies at their synagogues.
How to Observe
Both adherents of the Jewish faith and others may observe the day with fasting and abstaining from other comforts of life. You could ask for forgiveness from others, as well as from God. The day may also be spent volunteering or making donations, in order to atone for past sins. You could attend a religious service at a synagogue, read the Kol Nidre, and wear white, which symbolizes purity. You could also take part in a feast both on the evening before the day and at nightfall of the day. Making and eating blintzes or noodle pudding is an appropriate way to break the fast.