Jewish Calendar - Yom Kippur Basics

Meanings of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the holiest and most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, is a 25-hour fast devoted to prayer and penitence. This is in accordance with the tradition that a person's destiny for the coming year is decreed on Rosh ha-Shanah (first and second days of Tishri) and sealed ten days later on Yom Kippur (tenth day of Tishri). Thus, Yom Kippur closes the period of penitence and self-examination known as Aseret Yemei Teshuva (the Ten Days of Repentance). The prayers of the day stress confession of sins and supplications for forgiveness, and are couched in the plural, on behalf of the "entire congregation of Israel."The rabbis teach, however, that the day can only serve to atone for transgressions against God; sins committed against individuals require their forgiveness prior to the day.

"Count the entire community of Israel..." (Numbers 26:2)

Names and customs

Yom Kippur, also called the "Sabbath of Sabbaths," is the only fast day that is never postponed, even if it falls on the Sabbath. Five mortifications are prescribed for the day, from sunset to sunset: abstention from food, drink, sexual intercourse, anointing with oil, and wearing leather shoes. Despite these rabbinic mortifications, based on the biblical injunction to "afflict yourselves,"Yom Kippur is still considered a festival.


In the synagogue

The evening prayer services begins with the moving Kol Nidrei prayer. Prayers continue the entire next day until sunset, when the closing Ne'ilah ("locking" in Hebrew) service marks the "closing of the gates of heaven." Yom Kippur concludes with the declaration of God's unity, a single, powerful sounding of the shofar, and the prayer "Next year in Jerusalem."

The festival prayer book (mahzor) includes all the prayers recited from the morning of the day before Yom Kippur until the last prayer at the close of the holiday. The prayer shawl (tallit) is worn during all five Yom Kippur services (evening, morning, afternoon and evening). It is customary on Yom Kippur to hang a white Torah curtain in the synagogue and to dress the Torah scrolls in white mantles. Many worshippers, too, wear white, the color associated with symbolic purity (and hence forgiveness of sins), integrity and piety. In certain Ashkenazi congregations it is still customary to wear a special white gown called a kittel.

The traditional greeting on Yom Kippur is Gemar Hatimah Tovah - "a propitious final sealing [of the divine judgment]."

Kol Nidrei, meaning "All Vows," are the opening words of a declaration recited by the prayer leader in the synagogue at the commencement of the Yom Kippur evening service. It states that all kinds of vows made before God unwittingly or rashly during the year (and hence not fulfilled) shall be considered null and void. Kol Nidrei, a very old declaration, is recited in Aramaic is recited in most congregations three times, and in Aramaic. During its recitation the ark is opened and two Torah scrolls are removed, one held on each side of the prayer leader.

At home

Observance of the Day of Atonement commences with a festive meal (se'udah ha-mafseket), prior to the start of the fast at sunset.After the meal, festival candles are lit at sunset ; the Shehe'heyanu prayer, is then recited, thanking God for the gift of life and for having brought us to this season. It is customary to wear non-leather shoes to the synagogue and to dress in white.

The meal eaten prior to the fasts of Yom Kippur and Tish'ah be-Av (the Ninth of Av) are both called se'udah ha-mafseket. The meal eaten before Yom Kippur is a festive meal with abundant food, unlike the meal before Tish'ah be-Av which is traditionally sparse (no meat or wine) as an expression of the mournful nature of the upcoming day.

Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha'olam, asher kid-shanu be'mitzvotav ve'tzivanu le-hadlik ner shel Yom Tov (when the festival falls on Shabbat, the concluding words are "ner shel Shabbat v'Yom Tov"). (Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your mitzvot and has commanded us to kindle light for the festival.)

Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha'olam, she'hecheuanu v'kiymanu v'higiyanu lazman a-zeh. (Praised are You, Sovereign of the Universe, for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this day.)

Traditional foods (eaten at se'udah ha-mafseket)

Round hallah, suggesting's God's crown (kingship being a central theme; also suggests the continuing cycle of life), apples dipped in honey, expressing the wish for a sweet and fruitful year.



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