Yom Kippur is considered one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, which is why it is called a High Holiday. It is a day of atonement, a day of judgement; it is a time to check in with yourself and your actions, to reconnect and reset.
Before Yom Kippur it is an appropriate time to review your actions of the past year, and make things right with friends and loved ones who you may have harmed. And it is a time to make peace with ourselves and with mistakes we have made in our past, mistakes we cannot change but we can forgive.
Ultimately, it is a time to check in with God and make things right with Him. As we hit ‘reset’ on the past year and pray to God that we be sealed in the Book of Life for the coming year, we close the chapter of the last year, and start afresh with a clean slate. It is a beautiful ritual and one with many spiritual layers. But besides praying in synagogue for most of the day, there are some other things to know about Yom Kippur.
The Big 5’s of Yom Kippur
On Yom Kippur we refrain from eating. In fact, we fast for 25 hours, from the eve of Yom Kipper until nightfall on the following day. For example, if Yom Kippur begins on a Monday night, the fast will start on Monday around 6pm and last until 7pm the following evening (the times will vary depending on Daylight Savings Time).
If you think it’s hard to go that long without food- it is. The reason why we fast is twofold: one, so we have no distractions and can focus wholeheartedly on prayer, and two because on this day we are like angels, and angels do not eat food.
The prayers are long and it would be nice to break up the day with snacks, but all who are well and healthy should try and fast the whole day. The prohibition is on drinks in addition to food. You cannot even brush your teeth, and certainly not swish water.
Everybody fasts, even pregnant and nursing women. Children over the age of Bat Mitzvah (12) for a girl, and Bar Mitzvah (13) for a boy should fast as well, and young children from the age of 9 are encouraged to fast for a few hours in the morning.
For people who find it difficult to fast, or those who are sick or have a medical condition which prevents them from fasting, consult with your local rabbi.
2. No leather shoes
The source for Yom Kippur comes from the Torah in Leviticus, 16:30-31: “For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins.” And the verse that follows, states, “It is a Sabbath of rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves. It is an eternal statute.” The term afflicting refers to fasting, when we cause ourselves discomfort as a way to clear a path to repentance. But affliction can also mean to refrain from physical comforts.
In days of old, leather shoes were all people wore on their feet, before the advent of synthetic materials. Till today leather is considered a luxury. Therefore, on Yom Kippur you’ll see many people, including the rabbi, wearing sneakers or other fashionable synthetic shoes such as crocks.
Another reason why we refrain from wearing leather shoes is because we don’t want to remind God of the original sin, that of Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit. Before the sin, they were naked but did not know to be ashamed of their nakedness. That was merely the order of the world at the time. After their sin, God gave them cloths of skin to cover themselves. On Yom Kippur we don’t want to take any chances, which is also why it is customary to refrain from wearing gold jewelry, so as not to remind God of the sin with the Golden Calf.
The prohibition against leather refers only to leather footwear, and does not apply to such things as leather belts.
3. No bathing or washing
Yom Kippur follows the same laws as Shabbos, only it is considered more holy. It is called, שבת שבתון– the Shabbat of all Shabbatot. Just as on Shabbos we are prohibited from bathing, which is why we shower before Shabbos comes in, so too on Yom Kippur we cannot bathe.
But it is more than that- on Yom Kippur we are depriving ourselves of pleasure purposely. We are removing any distractions and refraining from anything that makes us feel good. Again, this is both so we can focus more fully on prayer, and because we are like angels.
However, there are instances when washing is allowed:
- After using the bathroom or if one's hands are soiled, you can wash only until the knuckles.
- You can wash any part of the body which has become soiled.
- Before the priestly blessing, the Kohanim’s (Jewish priests) hands are washed as usual.
- When one wakes up in the morning, they wash the ritual hand washing to remove impurities on their hands, only until the knuckles.
- Someone who is preparing food can wash their hands.
- If someone needs to wash or bathe for health reasons, they should consult a rabbi.
4. No anointing oneself with lotions, creams, or perfumes
We don’t want to be bothered with taking care of our physical bodies on such a holy day. We also don’t want to derive pleasure from any kind of anointing. In order to focus fully on prayer and atonement, we refrain from all forms of indulgence.
5. No sexual relations
Yom Kippur is all about the spiritual, delving deeper into oneself and finding way to become closer to God. While in Judaism sexual relations is normally encouraged between husband and wife, on Yom Kippur it is a time to remove ourselves from physical pleasure and exist on a spiritual plane alone. At only 25 hours, it shouldn’t be that hard to do.
Besides for the things we refrain from on Yom Kippur, there are some things that are particularly encouraged.
A Day of Prayer
We spend almost the entire day of Yom Kippur in the synagogue, praying from morning until night. The major prayers on Yom Kippur include:
- Kol Nidrei
One of the first prayers we open Yom Kippur with is Kol Nidrei. It is the prayer before all prayers, so to speak. In practical terms, it is a legal ceremony in which we annul our vows that we have not yet made. We say that any vows which we will make in the coming year which we do not keep, should be annulled. It is a way of clearing the air before God, like hey before we pray- I may say stuff that I don’t follow through on, so let’s clear that up first. I’m sorry. Moving on.
It is a really beautiful prayer that is sung in a moving tune. Once you hear Kol Nidrei, you know Yom Kippur is well under way.
- Another big prayer that you’ll hear again and again throughout Yom Kippur is the ‘Al Chet’ prayer. It literally translates to ‘on sin’ and it is a confession of our sins. It is recited 10 times throughout Yom Kippur. An interesting thing to note is that the confessional prayer is said in plural form, “We have sinned”. It is a way of accepting communal responsibility, that if even one person committed a sin- we have all sinned by letting it happen. It is a beautiful way of showing how we are all connected, and we should be more aware of this and help one another.
Besides for the prayers in the Yom Kippur prayer book, which is very long and may be hard to read all of it, one can recite psalms which is another form of prayer. This day, which is dedicated to our relationship with God, is also about us. Prayers in hebrew, Tefillah, means connection. We can ask ourselves, am I listening to the voice of God inside of me? Am I allowing myself the space to reach my full potential? Am I using the tools God gave me, to help change the world?
Yom Kippur is an opportune time to reflect on the past year and make resolutions for growth and change in the coming year.
Remembering the Dead
One of the special prayers on Yom Kippur that many people look forward to, and some people dread, is Yizkor. The prayer for remembering the dead. Yom Kippur is not the only time during the year when Yizkor is recited, but it is one when many people make the effort to come to synagogue and recite.
Before Yom Kippur we light Yahrzeit/Memorial candles for those whose souls have departed this earth. One candle can be lit in memory of many people. There is no special prayer recited when lighting the candle, but you can say the names of your loved ones out loud.
Some have the custom of lighting memorial candles in the synagogue as well.
When the time for Yizkor comes, usually around midday, everyone who still has both parents living will leave the synagogue. Many people welcome this short ‘break’ from the long prayers as a time to go outside and stretch, and take a breather for a few minutes.
While inside the synagogue, the atmosphere is heavy. Quiet. Sad, even. For ones who have only recently lost a parent, or one whose parents have died many years ago, it is with a heavy heart that we recite the prayer for them. We remember their soul and let them know that they are not forgotten. This, on the holiest day of the year, we pledge to give charity on their behalf, and pray for their souls, that they have peace, that they be gathered up with God. And we, the living, let them know how much they are missed, and how thankful we are to have had them in our lives, even for a short period.
Some have the custom to light a memorial candle and say a prayer for the 6 million Jews who were killed in the holocaust.
Once everyone who needs to has recited the Yizkor prayer, all the congregants return to the synagogue, and the prayers continue.
Asking for Forgiveness
Yom Kippur as a whole has a running theme- forgiveness. Not only do we pray and ask God for forgiveness from all our sins, but we make it a point to apologize and ask forgiveness from each other. It is a good time before Yom Kippur to reach out to anyone we may have harmed, or people we hold a grudge against, and clear the air. Apologize, forgive, and let go. Only once we make it right with each other, will God make it right with us. God can only forgive us for sins which we have committed against Him; it is up to us to make amends for sins we committed against our fellow humans.
It is a great time to teach kids about saying “I’m sorry” and learning to forgive each other when someone did something to hurt you.
Concluding Yom Kippur
One of the last prayers we recite on Yom Kippur is the Neilah prayer. Neilah, meaning ‘lock’, is when the gates of heaven are locked, and the 10 days of repentance which began with Rosh Hashanah and lasts through Yom Kippur is now closed.
The prayer is a conclusion of the long day we had, and it is a final prayer to end off with. While the entire Aseret Yemei Teshuva (10 days of repentance) we asked God to inscribe us in the Book of Life, we now ask that we be sealed in the book.
Neilah is a very spiritually intense prayer, and even people who for whatever reason could not make it to synagogue during the day, make an effort to come for this final prayer.
During Neilah, we say together the Shema prayer, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” This we recite in unison, and each person should have in mind when they say it that it is as if they gave up their life to sanctify God’s name.
This is followed by the Baruch Shem prayer, “Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever”. Normally, during the year this prayer is only allowed to be recited silently, since only the angels are allowed to declare God’s glory. But since on Yom Kippur we are likened to angels, we can say it out loud.
Next we declare, “Adonai Hu HaElohim!”, “G‑d – He is the Only G‑d”. We say this 7 times together.
And finally, we sound one long blast from the shofar, the ram’s horn which we have been blowing all throughout the preceding month. It is the call to repentance, as the sound reminds us of a crying baby. It is also the sound we will hear when Moshiach, the final redemption, comes.
Some synagogues, especially in Chabad shuls, have the custom to sing a special tune, called Napoleon’s March, right before the end of Neilah and before the shofar. This song, taken from the French national anthem, is seen as a sign of victory! After this long and emotionally draining day of prayer, we are sure we have been victorious! God has forgiven us for all our sins, and when the gates close at the end of Neilah, at the conclusion of Yom Kippur- we will be inside them, celebrating and rejoicing with God in His palace. And that is where we will remain, until the conclusion of the Sukkot holiday.
So there you have it, how to celebrate Yom Kippur. And while it isn’t a celebration per se, it is a momentous day of the year when we come out feeling cleansed, refreshed, joyful, and ready for another year.
After Yom Kippur, we make Havdalah, the prayer we recite at the conclusion of Shabbat and holidays, and then we break our fast! Finally, the bagels and shmear we have been dreaming and drooling about all day. Many people traditionally break their fast on bagels, lox and cream cheese, as it is a light fare which is easy to digest after a long fast.
While we don’t greet each other on Yom Kippur, we do say “Gmar Chatima Tova”, may you be sealed for a good year. Or, you can wish each other an easy fast.
And once Yom Kippur is concluded, we still wish each other ‘Shana Tova’, meaning a good year, or ‘Good Yom Tov!”, which means Happy Holidays. Because even though it is over, we still have Sukkot to look forward to. The month of Tishrei, the Hebrew month that includes Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, really is one long month of holidays.
And we wish our readers an easy fast and a Shana Tova U’Mituka!- a good and sweet New Year!