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Otherwise known as the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day in Judaism. The holiday lasts approximately 25 hours and is typically observed with fasting and prayer in alignment with the themes of atonement and repentance. On Yom Kippur, people observing the holiday are asked to abstain from food and drink (as well as bathing and marital relations). In turn, it is encouraged that people spend the day asking God’s forgiveness for their sins and donating to charity.
When is Yom Kippur 2021?
Yom Kippur concludes the 10-day period in the month of Tishrei (typically occurring between September and October), known as the High Holy Days or Days of Awe, which begins with the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah. This year, Yom Kippur will begin on the evening of September 15 and end on the evening of September 16.
History of Yom Kippur
Out of all the holy days in the Jewish faith, Yom Kippur is the second holiest day of the year, second to Rosh Hashanah. Literally meaning ‘the day of atonement,’ Yom Kippur encompasses all the emotions for spiritual ablution — from guilt to mourning to resolve. The holiday takes place on the 10th day of Tishrei — the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar.
According to tradition, Yom Kippur originated from the time of Prophet Moses. After he received the Ten Commandments from God at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses went back to the Israelites. In his absence, they had started worshiping the false idol of a golden calf. In a fit of anger, Moses smashed the commandments, inscribed on stone, and then headed back up the mountain to seek God’s forgiveness and repent for himself and his people. He then returned with a second set of the Ten Commandments and God’s forgiveness.
Yom Kippur marks the end of these 10 Days of Repentance, which begin with the Jewish New Year — Rosh Hashanah. During this time, it is believed that an individual can influence God’s decree for the coming year. The legal code of conduct for life that Jews follow, the Mishnah, portrays God as inscribing names of people in one of three books on the occasion of Rosh Hashanah: one book for recording names of good people, the second book for names of wrongdoers, and the third book for those who are not on either side of the scale.
Jews believe that through extensive acts of prayer, charity, and repentance during the Days of Awe, the book their names are written in can be changed before Yom Kippur. The holiday starts at sunset until sunset the following day. Atonement for sins is achieved through acts of fasting, abstinence from sexual relations, applying lotions, wearing leather shoes, and washing and bathing. Visiting the synagogue is also tradition, although not all Jews observe every aspect of Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur timeline
Moses receives the 10 laws directly from God.
Famous Jewish athlete Sandy Koufax causes a sensation when he refuses to pitch in the first game of the World Series because it coincides with Yom Kippur.
During the Battle of Britain when the Nazis relentlessly bombard London, the city’s synagogues continue with their Yom Kippur services.
In “The Jewish Way,” Rabbi Irving Greenberg explains that the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur focus a person’s mind on themes of mortality and the meaning of life.
Yom Kippur FAQs
What is the main purpose of Yom Kippur?
Yom Kippur purifies individually and collectively through the practice of repentance for one’s own sins and seeking forgiveness for the sins of others from God.
What does Yom Kippur celebrate?
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement in the Jewish religion.
What are the rules of Yom Kippur?
Starting at sundown, Yom Kippur is observed for a 25-hour period. The five prohibitions are: eating and drinking, anointing the body with moisturizer or oil, bathing, sexual relations, and wearing leather shoes.
How to Observe Yom Kippur
As a period dedicated to looking back on and repenting for one's sins from the previous year, attending synagogue provides the ideal environment to engage in deep prayer.
Donate to charity
Giving of one's time or means doesn't just bring joy to those in need; it feels good to give and it helps us become more compassionate.
It's mandated in the book of Leviticus that Yom Kippur is a day of rest. Who doesn't enjoy a day off the clock?
5 Facts About Yom Kippur
The word ‘scapegoat’ is from an ancient Yom Kippur ritual
In Leviticus 16:8 (in the Torah portion Acharei Mot), the High Priest was instructed to lay his hands upon a goat on Yom Kippur and confess the sins of the entire community — the animal was then thrown off a cliff.
Yom Kippur is the most bike-friendly day in Israel
The roads are mostly clear, so bikers of all ages pedal on roads and even major highways.
Eating a big meal before fasting will make it harder
Even though it is a tradition to have a large meal before Yom Kippur, the extra food will not help in extending the fasting period, according to Dr. Tzvi Dwolatzky of Israel’s Rambam Health Care Campus.
A prayer shawl is worn during Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidre services
According to the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the prayer shawl or ‘tallit’ is worn during Kol Nidre as “a token of special reverence for the holy day.”
One of the High Holidays
Yom Kippur is the second of the High Holy Days after Rosh Hashanah.
Why Yom Kippur is Important
Encourages intense self-reflection
It's easy to forget to set aside time to focus on personal growth, but Yom Kippur ensures that you take the day to committing to developing a better you.
Brings family and friends closer
In considering how our actions affect those closest to us, those bonds are made tighter in the promise of better treatment.
Helps us disconnect
Whether it's work, smartphones, or shopping, it's easy to let what surrounds us consume our every day. It's important to take a step back and take a break from our indulgences every now and then.
Yom Kippur dates