What Jews celebrate on Yom Kippur

5 Oct

It is celebrated on the 10th day of the month of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar, which corresponds to September or October in the Gregorian calendar.


It comes 10 days after the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year's festival. The days between the two holidays are seen as days of repentance and inner contemplation. Jews admit to their sins, ask God for forgiveness and seek to rectify wrongs committed. It is also a time for repairing relationships with others and resolving conflicts.

The biblical roots of Yom Kippur

According to the Bible, 40 days after receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people were selected as God's chosen people. During those 40 days, they had prayed to a golden calf, thereby committing the sin of idolatry. 

Seen in this religious context, Yom Kippur marks the day on which God forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf. Moses asked God to not destroy them, and God forgave them on the 10th day of Tishrei.

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According to tradition, on the day of atonement, a male goat symbolically carrying the sins of the Jewish people was sent out into the desert. The practice gave rise to the English term "scapegoat," which today means a person who bears the blame of others but is in fact innocent, or someone who is irrationally blamed for unfortunate incidents or problems.

The symbolic recognition of one's sins, catharsis, forgiveness and the unbreakable connection to God are all a part of Yom Kippur.

Rules for repentance and fasting

Yom Kippur is observed as a day of strict fasting, during which Jews commonly refrain from food and drink for 25 hours, starting on the evening prior to the day of atonement itself and lasting until sundown of the holiday. Yom Kippur is also the only day of fasting that is fully observed on the sabbath, a day on which it is normally forbidden to fast.

The goal is to go beyond worldly affairs and focus on the spiritual. Other prohibitions can include washing, sex, wearing makeup and other things considered indulgences. Very observant Jews may also avoid wearing any leather products but make a point to wear white clothing.

Today, a majority of Jews around the world continue to observe Yom Kippur. While the strictness of adherence varies greatly, the solemn character and meaning of the holiday remain consistent. 

A day of prayer

The day before Yom Kippur is filled with generous eating and drinking.  There are two festive meals, one during the day and one just before the holiday begins in the evening. Honey may feature in some Jews' meals in the form of honey cake.

Strict abstinence marks Yom Kippur itself. For many Jews, the holiday is largely celebrated in the synagogue, with some services lasting the entire day without pause. At the end of the service, the shofar, a ram's horn, is blown, its drawn-out tone marking the holiday's end. Families then gather together for break-fast, a relaxed meal that is well-enjoyed.


Author Günther Birkenstock

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