What is Yom Kippur?
Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement. It falls out on the tenth day of the seventh Jewish month of Tishrei. In the Gregorian Calendar it occurs either in September or October, depending on whether it is a Jewish leap-year. Yom Kippur is the culmination of the Ten Days on Penitence which begin on Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur is undoubtedly the most solemn day of the year. It is marked by fasting for twenty-five hours and praying. Only males over the age of thirteen and females over the age of twelve are required to fast. A large amount of non-religious Jews mark this day proving the cultural significance of Yom Kippur.
What is the source for Yom Kippur?
The book of Leviticus proclaims that the tenth day of the seventh month is a day of atonement for sins. It also describes it as a strict day of rest. Oral tradition details the five prohibitions observed on Yom Kippur:
- No eating or drinking
- No wearing leather footwear
- No bathing
- No anointment with perfumes
- No marital relations
Preparations for Yom Kippur
It is considered of great importance to eat and drink in abundance the day prior to Yom Kippur. It is related in the Orach Chayim (604) that this is because G-d wants the Jewish people to be able to fast and atone for their sins properly on Yom Kippur so that He can forgive them. He therefore commands them to eat and drink the day before so they can fast well.
- There is a custom to request and receive honey cake which symbolizes both the fact that we are all recipients in G-d's world and the hope for a sweet new year.
- We ask for forgiveness for anyone we might have wronged during the year, out of belief that we cannot stand before the King of the world asking for forgiveness before having done so from our fellow men.
- It is customary to give extra charity.
- People often bless their children ceremonially, in the same way that many do on Friday nights.
- Women light holiday candles before sunset.
There are five prayer services on Yom Kippur. They begin on the eve of Yom Kippur before sunset with a prayer called Kol Nidre. Three additional services are held on the day of Yom Kippur. Neilah is the last prayer of the day and means "locking", referring to the locking of the gates of heaven. This is the last chance to beseech G-d regarding the coming year.
Many married men wear a kittel which is a white robe that serves a burial shroud on Yom Kippur. The kittel is meant to instill a sense of fear as one realizes that one literally hangs suspended between life and death on Yom Kippur. Men also wear a Tallit throughout the day because of the great holiness of the day.
There is a special prayer book called Machzor that is used on Yom Kippur due to the uniqueness of the prayers that are not found in weekly or Sabbath liturgies.
At the end of the day, when the prayers are finished, the Shofar is blown. From this point on, the people prepare themselves joyously for the coming happy festival of Succot.