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What Is Yom Kippur?

What Is Yom Kippur?

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


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: It is held on 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.

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. Holiday candles are lit before the onset of the holy 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.

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ruth housman marshfield hills August 7, 2017

The Mitzvot atonement
at one meant
a tone meant

Hashem wrote us all into a cosmic story deeply about One as in the Shema. Forgiveness is key.

Maybe to you she's only a woman but she has been commenting on Chabad for years. We are sparks. This is the gathering of sparks and we are vessels. To share the road should be Kabala 101.

To receive silence, to hear the sighing of the pines, the still small voice within is to know all this that is streaming, takes us all to the water. Hashem wrote us all into the most amazing Story ever told. The Book of Splendour, The Book of Love, The Book of Ruth. truth will out. It is a Cosmic Love Story. Reply

Anonymous Clarksville July 22, 2017

I was born into a Muslim family in the USA
almost eight decades ago (when almost no one I knew outside of my family had knowledge of this faith),
spent my first seven years among Catholic
kids who taught me their faith, later I attended a Congregational church and by the time I was in high school, all my buddies were Jewish. I lost my most beloved friend on Yom Kipper 2016, the Day of Atonement. Reply

Doreen Garcia Oviedo October 12, 2016

Day of Atonement make up date? If you were unable to keep this day, what other day can I do, for the day of atonement? Reply

Godfrey October 11, 2016

Israel is in our hearts at such a time as this. Reply

Jakob Jerusalem israel October 11, 2016

Michael. Ashkenazim wear a Tallis if married. And also a Tallis is worn at night during Kol Nidre. Reply

Anonymous October 10, 2016

I'm Muslim I raised in Belgium I went to Catholic school .I love Jewish religion.I hope I can convert to Jewish religion.I love all Jewish holidays and Jewish people.God bless you all. Reply

Michael Fitzgerald Portage August 31, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

God loves all that come to Him in humbleness and truth. May He bless you now and forever. Shalom. Reply

Kiauna Izliah Bushnell October 10, 2016

I feel blessed that my birthday this year (October 12) is on the holiest day of the year. To spend my day before the Lord in prayer and supplication is truly a blessing! Reply

Michael Freedmman via October 10, 2016

wearing the Talllis It seems that I remember not wearing a Tallis on Yom Kippur? Is this correct? Reply

James M. Czebiniak Cicero, NY October 3, 2016

I was born on Yom Kippur, 10/11/1954. Reply

Shaul Wolf October 1, 2015

Re: Grocery store On Yom Kippur we refrain from any weekday activity. Handling money and making acquisitions are considered to be weekday activity, and are therefore avoided on Yom Kippur. Reply

analgesia cassels licerpool via September 29, 2015

leaving o out of spelling G-D It's not about having faith in the thank you each to his own.our faith is in G-D the world was created by him.we omit the O out of respect .so we are not saying or referring to our father his name's respect.for our father .not the world.he is holy when ever we refer to him we don't use his name . Reply

Paula Rhea Irving, TX September 23, 2015

re: 50th Birthday on Yom Kipper Shalom and felicitations on your 50th birthday! (Trust me - it just gets better.)
May your fast be easy. Reply

Anonymous Baltimore September 23, 2015

Why can't we go to the grocery store Reply

Chiron Venizelos USA September 22, 2015

Thank you. Thank you for this site, it has helped me to understand what Yom Kippur is all about. Reply

Ronnie Giles Hasbrouck Heights September 22, 2015

Question Regarding "What Is Yom Kippur?" I'm not Jewish so maybe I'm missing something here, but why is "God" always referred to as "G-d"? Reply

Anonymous Valley Stream September 22, 2015

Turning 50 I think it's a blessing to be turning 50 on this lovely day of atonement and eventually the promise of a clean slate. Reply

Laurie September 21, 2015

Yom Kippur Yom Kippur- a new day to begin our lives and strive to be kind to everyone! Reply

William Kentucky September 21, 2015

"Peace in Jerusalem." On this High Holy Fast and Feast for Yom Kippur, may we pray from our hearts to G-D for forgiveness and reconciliation with our King. For this Holi-day, may there be peace in Jerusalem. May all the faithful in the Diaspora remember to pray for peace in The Homeland of Israel. Shalom. Reply

Anonymous California September 21, 2015

I'm not Jewish but I respect and admire the Jewish culture And special the solemnitis of their traditions. G D bless the Jewish community all over the world. Reply

analesia cassels britain, liverpool via September 21, 2015

yom kippur I love yom kippur.I know I am closest to our G-d when I say I am sorry for sin.I know he is closest to me when he looks into my heart and sees me at least trying by fasting and doing his will I'm trying to show him how much I love is an honour to perform mitzvah.I wish every one an easy fast and a yom to.analesia Reply

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