In the early morning hours of the day preceding Yom Kippur, the Kaparot ("Atonement") ceremony is performed. We take a live chicken (a rooster for a male and a hen for a female) and, circling it three times above our heads, we declare: "This is my replacement, this is my exchange, this is my atonement; this fowl shall go to its death, and I shall go to a long, good and peaceful life." The fowl is then slaughtered in accordance with halachic procedure,
at which time we contemplate that this is a fate we ourselves would deserve, G-d forbid, for our failings and iniquities. The value of the fowl is given to the poor, and its meat eaten in the Yom Kippur meal; some give the fowl itself to the poor. (A alternate custom is to perform the rite only with money, reciting the prescribed verses and giving the money to charity. Kaparot can also be performed in the preceding days, during the "Ten Days of Repentance").
The day before Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov, a festive day; for although we stand prepared to be judged in the supernal courtroom for our deeds of the passed year, we are confident that G-d is a merciful judge, and will decree a year of life, health and prosperity for us. Two festive meals are eaten -- one at midday and the other before the fast, which begins at sunset. The Talmud states that "Whoever eats and drinks on the 9th [of Tishrei], it is regarded as if he had fasted on both the 9th and the 10th."
In many communities it is customary to eat kreplach on the day before Yom Kippur. Kreplach are small squares of rolled pasta dough filled with ground meat and folded into triangles. They can be boiled and served in soup or fried and served as a side dish. The meat symbolizes severity, the dough is an allusion to kindness. In preparation for the Day of Judgment we "cover" the severity with kindness. (Click here for a recipe.)
It is customary to ask for and receive lekach (sweet cake -- signifying a sweet year) from someone (usually one's mentor or parent) on this day. One of the reasons given for this custom is that if it had been decreed, G-d forbid, that during the year we should need to resort to a handout from others, the decree should be satisfied with this asking for food. The Lubavitcher Rebbe adds a deeper insight: "asking for lekach" on the eve of Yom Kippur instills in us the recognition that all the sustenance we receive throughout the year, including that which we supposedly "earn" by our own powers and endeavors, is in truth a gift from Above, granted in response to our daily requests from "He who nourishes the entire world with in His goodness, with grace, with benevolence and with compassion."
Additional eve of Yom Kippur customs include receiving symbolic malkut ("lashings") as atonment for one's transgressions, reciting the "Al Chet" confession of sins after minchah and at sunset, and lighting a 26-hour candle that would burn for the duration of Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur ("Day of Atonement"), the holiest day of the year, begins this evening before sunset. Its most basic observance is the fast that begins this evening and ends tomorrow evening at nightfall (a total of approximately 26 hours), during which we abstain from food and drink in fulfillment of the biblical command (Leviticus 16:29; see also "Festive Meals" above).
The 10-day period beginning on Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur is known as the "Ten Days of Repentance"; this is the period, say the sages, of which the prophet speaks when he proclaims (Isaiah 55:6) "Seek G-d when He is to be found; call on Him when He is near." Psalm 130, Avinu Malkeinu and other special inserts and additions are included in our daily prayers during these days.
The Baal Shem Tov
instituted the custom of reciting three additional chapters of
Psalms each day, from the 1st of Elul until Yom Kippur (on
Yom Kippur the remaining 36 chapters are recited, thereby completing the entire
book of Psalms). Click below for today's three Psalms.