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What Is Yom Kippur?

What Is Yom Kippur?

The holiest day of the year. Fasting and atonement, solemnity and joy . . .

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Yom Kippur In Brief

What: Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, when we are closest to G‑d and to the essence of our souls. Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” as the verse states, “For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before G‑d.”1

When: The 10th day of Tishrei (in 2017, from several minutes before sunset on Sept 29 until after nightfall on September 30), coming on the heels of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year, which is on the first and second days of Tishrei).

How: For nearly 26 hours we “afflict our souls”: we abstain from food and drink, do not wash or apply lotions or creams, do not wear leather footwear, and abstain from marital relations. Instead, we spend the day in synagogue, praying for forgiveness.

History of Yom Kippur

Just months after the people of Israel left Egypt in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), they sinned by worshipping a golden calf. Moses ascended Mount Sinai and prayed to G‑d to forgive them. After two 40-day stints on the mountain, full Divine favor was obtained. The day Moses came down the mountain (the 10th of Tishrei) was to be known forevermore as the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur.

That year, the people built the Tabernacle, a portable home for G‑d. The Tabernacle was a center for prayers and sacrificial offerings. The service in the Tabernacle climaxed on Yom Kippur, when the High Priest would perform a specially prescribed service. Highlights of this service included offering incense in the Holy of Holies (where the ark was housed) and the lottery with two goats—one of which was brought as a sacrifice, the other being sent out to the wilderness (Azazel).

While the High Priest generally wore ornate golden clothing, on Yom Kippur, he would immerse in a mikvah and don plain white garments to perform this service.

This practice continued for hundreds of years, throughout the time of the first Temple in Jerusalem, which was built by Solomon, and the second Temple, which was built by Ezra. Jews from all over would gather in the Temple to experience the sacred sight of the High Priest performing his service, obtaining forgiveness for all of Israel.

When the second Temple was destroyed in the year 3830 from creation (70 CE), the Yom Kippur service continued. Instead of a High Priest bringing the sacrifices in Jerusalem, every single Jew performs the Yom Kippur service in the temple of his or her heart.

What to Do Before Yom Kippur

Photo: Chaya Mishulovin, Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie
Photo: Chaya Mishulovin, Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie

Forty days before Yom Kippur, on the first of Elul, we begin blowing the shofar every morning and reciting Psalm 27 after the morning and afternoon prayers. In Sepharadic communities, it is customary to begin saying Selichot early every morning (Ashkenazim begin just a few days before Rosh Hashanah)—building an atmosphere of reverence, repentance and awe leading up to Yom Kippur.

For the week before Yom Kippur (known as the 10 Days of Repentance), special additions are made to prayers, and people are particularly careful with their mitzvah observance.

Just as Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, the day before Yom Kippur is set aside for eating and preparing for this holy day. Here are some of the activities that we do on the day before Yom Kippur:

  • Kaparot is often performed in the wee hours of this morning
  • There is a beautiful custom to request and receive a piece of honey cake, so that if, G‑d forbid, it was decreed that we need be recipients, it be fulfilled by requesting honey cake and being blessed with a sweet year
  • We eat two festive meals, one in early afternoon and another right before the commencement of the fast.
  • Many have the custom to immerse in a mikvah on this day.
  • Extra charity is given. In fact, special charity trays are set up at the synagogue before the afternoon service, which contains the Yom Kippur Al Cheit prayer.
  • Just before the fast begins (after the second meal has been concluded), it is customary to bless the children with the Priestly Blessing.
  • Holiday candles are lit before the onset of the holy day. Read more about the various candles traditionally lit before Yom Kippur.

How Yom Kippur Is Observed

Photo: Mushka Lightstone
Photo: Mushka Lightstone

Like Shabbat, no work is to be done on Yom Kippur, from the time the sun sets on the ninth of Tishrei until the stars come out in the evening of the next day.

On Yom Kippur, we afflict ourselves by avoiding the following five actions:

  • Eating or drinking (in case of need, see here and consult a medical professional and a rabbi)
  • Wearing leather shoes
  • Applying lotions or creams
  • Washing or bathing
  • Engaging in conjugal relations

The day is spent in the synagogue, where we hold five prayer services:

  • Maariv, with its solemn Kol Nidrei service, on the eve of Yom Kippur;
  • Shacharit, the morning prayer, which includes a reading from Leviticus followed by the Yizkor memorial service;
  • Musaf, which includes a detailed account of the Yom Kippur Temple service;
  • Minchah, which includes the reading of the Book of Jonah;
  • Neilah, the “closing of the gates” service at sunset, followed by the shofar blast marking the end of the fast.

Click here for a detailed overview of the day’s prayers.

Beyond specific actions, Yom Kippur is dedicated to introspection, prayer and asking G‑d for forgiveness. Even during the breaks between services, it is appropriate to recite Psalms at every available moment.

What We Do After Yom Kippur

Lulavim and etrogim for sale in Israel prior to Sukkot (file photo).
Lulavim and etrogim for sale in Israel prior to Sukkot (file photo).

After night has fallen, the closing Neilah service ends with the resounding cries of the Shema prayer: “Hear O Israel: G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is one.” Then the congregants erupt in joyous song and dance (a Chabad custom is to sing the lively “Napoleon’s March”), after which a single blast is blown on the shofar, followed by the proclamation, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

We then partake of a festive after-fast meal, making the evening after Yom Kippur a yom tov (festival) in its own right.

Indeed, although Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of the year, it is suffused with an undercurrent of joy; it is the joy of being immersed in the spirituality of the day and expresses confidence that G‑d will accept our repentance, forgive our sins, and seal our verdict for a year of life, health and happiness.

There is a custom that after Yom Kippur, we immediately begin (planning) construction of the sukkah, which we will use for the joyous holiday of Sukkot, which follows in just five days.

Footnotes
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Phyllis Levin via chabadjacksonville.org October 1, 2017

I am a 71 year old Jewish woman, and for the first time, I am now understanding the history of Yom Kippur.
Thank you for making this information available to all who are interested in seeking it. Reply

Yosi Thornhill ON Canada September 30, 2017

Napoleon on Yom Kipur Neilah What is Napoleon March sang at Neilah? Why? Can we hear it? Reply

Mark Johnson Lexington September 30, 2017

What do I wish my friends on this Holy Day? Thank you. Reply

Leslie Brown September 29, 2017

Baruch Hashem. Reply

Mateo September 29, 2017

How do we know that Moses came down the mountain on 10 Tishri? Is there a reference in the Torah? Reply

Simcha Bart for Chabad.org October 1, 2017
in response to Mateo:

Moses was on Mt. Sinai 3 times for 40 days each. Rashi, based on Midrash Tanchuma, explains that on 7 Sivan, Moses went up onto the mountain, on 17 Tammuz, the tablets were broken. On the 18th, he burned the Golden Calf and judged the transgressors. On the 19th, he went up for 40 days and pleaded for mercy as it is said: “It came to pass on the next day that Moses said to the people, etc.” (Exod. 32:30). He spent 40 days there and begged for mercy, as it is said: “And I cast myself down before the Lord, forty days...” (Deut. 9:18). On 1 Elul it was said to him, “And in the morning you shall ascend Mount Sinai” (Exod. 34:2) to receive the second tablets, and he spent 40 days there, as it is said concerning them, “And I remained upon the mountain just as the first days” (Deut. 10:10). On the tenth of Tishri G-d was appeased wholeheartedly, and He said to Moses, “I have forgiven, as you have spoken.” G-d gave Moses the second tablets. Reply

Mateo October 2, 2017
in response to Simcha Bart for Chabad.org :

Sababa Reply

Andrea Brodsky Fort Lauderdale, FL via jewishlauderdale.com September 29, 2017

Thank you for this excellent and very enlightening explanation of Yom Kippur's beginnings. I'm curious as to whether Yom Kippur, falling on Shabbat this year, enhances the importance and solemnity of the day. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org September 29, 2017
in response to Andrea Brodsky:

It is indeed considered an extra special Yom Kippur when it falls out on a shabbat. Here is an article that explains when special aspect of this WWhen Yom Kippur is on Shabbat Reply

IRENE KELLOGG corpus christi September 29, 2017

I love all the wonderful information.. My grand children love to watch the videos while Grandma tells a story to what the meaning of each is. Thank you. Shalom. Reply

Gary September 29, 2017

I was always under the impression that Shabbat is the holiest day of the Jewish year. In terms of the halachic consequences of violating the two days, Shabbat is more severe. There are more aliyot on Shabbat, extra aliyot can be added, unlike on Yom Kippur and Yom Tov. Most religions have days or periods of time in which the general theme, one of serious, intense introspection, is similar to Yom Kippur, but Shabbat is a gift to the Jewish people and marks them out as distinct, separate, which is what is generally meant by holy according to Jewish understanding. So, I would say Yom Kippur is the most serious day of the year, Shabbat the holiest. Gmar chatima tovah. Reply

Jerry Dodson September 30, 2017
in response to Gary:

Where does the bible say the Sabbath was for the Jews? It says the Sabbath is the Lords day. To keep from doing our pleasure on His holy day. Reply

Gary October 3, 2017
in response to Jerry:

In response to Jerry :

I copied and pasted the text from the passages below, highlighting the places in which it clearly states that Shabbat was given to the Jews as an everlasting covenant. Unfortunately, it didn't make it on the website. Maybe I did something wrong. Anyway, I am trying again.

BTW, "to keep from doing our pleasure" is unfortunately a potentially misleading translation of Isaiah 58:13, which I assume is what you are referring to. The idea is to refrain from pursuing our normal weekday pursuits etc. This includes a range of activities that are implicit in the Torah text and elaborated upon in the Talmud, and which finally make their way into the various Judaic legal codes. Anyway, here are the passages :

Exodus 31 : 12-17
Ezekiel 20 : 11-12 Reply

ovadyah ben abraham Philippines September 29, 2017

dear chabad people of Hashem,
I am personally thankful for your website as it has been a source of blessing and shiur for me and my congregation here. I pray that Hashem will blessyou more and more with His wisdom, knowledge, understanding and financial blessings. shalom..Happy and a blessed yom kippur to you all.. Reply

Kathie Lou Eldridge Jackson, Wyoming USA via jewishwyoming.com September 28, 2017

Add a comment...I love reading articles on your website. I am not Jewish but the Chabad community here in Jackson has brought an openness to all of us to understand and appreciate Judism . I have an appreciation for Judism because of your willingness to share it with us, Reply

Lloyd Bergman Swarthmore September 28, 2017

FYI: Yom Kippur is not the holiest day of the year. There is a holier day. Reply

Anonymous November 3, 2017
in response to Lloyd Bergman:

then what is it? Reply

Lloyd Bergman Swarthmore November 6, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Shabbat Reply

Gary November 6, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

Can't speak for Mr. Bergman, but I assume he's thinking of Shabbat. See my post dated Sept. 29 above. Reply

Graham Lancashire, U.K. September 28, 2017

Although, not Jewish myself, this article was very helpful in educating me on this most important of High Holidays. Reply

Frederic September 28, 2017

Brilliant! Reply

David Miami, Fla September 28, 2017

I enjoyed the comments and found them useful , doing the right thing at the right time for the right reason. When Hashem offers an opportunity to help the poor or the widow - do so. Fasting , prayer , and tithing is smiled upon by the L**D. Reply

Diane September 28, 2017

Yes, thank you for reminding me of what this and all my days mean helping me through my mast days.
Blessed be Reply

Anonymous Houston September 28, 2017

I found and find your explanations extremely useful. I work for company out of Israel and it give me a good resource to better understand the Jewish Holidays. Reply

Ewa September 28, 2017

Yes, I find it very useful. Thank you. Reply

Patricia Themaras North Miami September 28, 2017

Please, make it clear to me. How do we greet other Jews on Yom Kippur? What are the right words to say? Reply

Chabad.org Staff September 28, 2017
in response to Patricia Themaras:

There are several greetings you can give: Gut Yom Tov/Chag Sameach, Gmar Chatima Tova and Shabbat Shalom since this year it coincides with Shabbat. Reply

Paul September 28, 2017

it is forbidden to wash or clean. Why was the High Priest using the Mikva on Yom Kip morning. I understand for spiritual reasons but perhaps other Isrealites / Jews may assume it reasonable to do this too? Reply

Simcha Bart for Chabad.org October 2, 2017
in response to Paul:

Often there are Temple related Mitzvot which take precedence over other prohibitions. For example, the Torah forbids kindling fire on Shabbat, yet that very Torah commands the Priests to kindle the Menorah and offer sacrifices on the Altar in the Temple on Shabbat. Same here - the very Torah which tells us to afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur by abstaining from washing, commanded the High Priest to immerse in a Mikvah for ritual purity on Yom Kippur.

Reply

Joyce Logan Raymond, Ab. September 28, 2017

Thank you. This short explanation really helped me understand the meaning of Yom Kippur. Reply

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