Yom Kippur is NOT a federal holiday in USA (However in Israel it is). In some areas it is a day off, and most of Jewish schools and businesses are closed. In other areas, Yom Kippur is a normal working day.
Yom Kippur a National Holiday in Israel
Yom Kippur is the “Day of Atonement,” a day when Jews atone for their sins of the prior year. Sometimes referred to as the “Shabbat of Shabbats,” Yom Kippur has been an integral part of Judaism for thousands of years.
The last of the Days of Awe, Yom Kippur is observed on the tenth of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. While Shabbat is the holiest of days, it’s human nature to regard Yom Kippur, which occurs only once a year as opposed to once a week, as something very special. That’s why even those Jews who never attend a Shabbat service during the rest of the year often go to synagogue on Yom Kippur.
The first Yom Kippur occurred at the time Moses received the Ten Statements at Mount Sinai. Returning to the base of the mountain, and upon seeing the Hebrews worshipping a golden calf, Moses destroyed the original Ten Statements. Later, when Moses ascended Mount Sinai for the second time, the Hebrews fasted from sunrise to sunset, praying for forgiveness. On the tenth day of Tishri, Moses returned with the second set of the Ten Statements. Having found that the Hebrews were truly repentant, Moses announced that God had forgiven them.
Is Yom Kippur In The Bible?
Yes, Yom Kippur is in the bible. In Leviticus 16:29–31, it is written that every year on the tenth day of Tishri “you must fast and do no work. … This is because on this day you shall have all your sins atoned. ….”
It doesn’t get any clearer than this. For thousands of years, Jews have refrained from work, instead fasting, praying, and doing everything in their power to fulfill the obligation to honor this “Shabbat of shabbat”
Over the centuries, Jews have observed Yom Kippur in different ways. For example, in biblical times, the high priest sacrificed animals as an offering to seek forgiveness for sins. Later, the high priest of the Temple atoned ritually for the sins of the Hebrews by symbolically placing them on two goats—one to be sacrificed and the other sent to its death in the wilderness. (It is said that this is the origin for the word “scapegoat.”)
Another ancient practice involved the custom of kapparot (atonements), which occurred on the afternoon before Yom Kippur. A live chicken was swung around a person’s head while a special prayer was recited. The chicken was then slaughtered and given to the poor, or else a donation was made to a charity. Though not common, very observant Jews and many Sephardim (both religious and secular) living in Israel still follow this practice.
Today, God’s forgiveness is sought through prayers of penitence and fasting. People also pursue other introspective activities, to help them accomplish teshuvah and lead a better life.
Which Activities Are Prohibited on Yom Kippur?
Most people, even non-Jews, know that eating and drinking is forbidden on Yom Kippur. The fast commences before sunset on the evening of Yom Kippur and ends after nightfall the next day.
Jews should only observe the mitzvah to fast as long as it does not pose a physical threat. Children under the age of nine and women in childbirth (that is, from the time the labor commences to three days following the birth) are absolutely not permitted to fast. Older children and women from the third to the seventh day after childbirth are permitted to fast, but should resume eating or drinking if they feel the need.
There is no need to have a reason to fast. It is a mitzvah from God that appears in the Torah. However, many rationales have been offered in this regard. For one, refraining from consuming food or liquid is a concrete expression of the gravity of the day. It helps each person attain the state of mind required to focus on the spiritual. Furthermore, fasting manifests a form of self-mastery over bodily needs. Another more socially conscious justification states that by fasting, people can identify more readily with the poor and the hungry. Any of these reasons, or any one that is personally meaningful to an individual, will do. Whatever the reasons, fasting is fundamental to the observance of Yom Kippur.
But fasting is only one of five prohibitions that must be obeyed during Yom Kippur.
The other prohibitions are:
- No washing or bathing
- No using any electricity device
- No using creams and oils (a prohibition that extends to deodorants and cosmetics)
- No having sexual relations
- No wearing leather shoes
One reason for not wearing leather shoes is the incongruity of deriving a benefit from the slaying of one of God’s creatures while praying and beseeching God for a long life. This proscription might explain why it’s not uncommon to see men wearing formal suits and canvas sneakers on Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur Preparations, Services and Prayers
Yom Kippur White Clothing
Many activities are involved in preparing for Yom Kippur. It is customary for men to wear white during all Yom Kippur services, because it is believed it enhances the mood. More observant men often wear a kittel, a white ankle-length robe, over their clothes. The rabbi and cantor also wear white robes. The Torah scrolls are dressed in white, and the table on which the Torah is read is covered in white. Even the parokhet curtains (the curtains inside the Holy Ark, where the Torah scrolls are stored) are white.
Yom Kippur Seudah Mafseket
In anticipation of Yom Kippur, preparations are also made for the final meal before the twenty-five-hour fast, the Seudah Ha-Mafseket. While there are no absolute requirements concerning what you should eat or drink at this time, the meal is traditionally similar to what is served on Shabbat, although the Kiddush is not recited.
Yom Kippur Kol Nidre Prayer
The liturgy for Yom Kippur (and Rosh Hashanah) is so extensive that a special prayer book, known as the machzor, exists specifically for these services. The Yom Kippur services begin in the evening, with a special service before the main service called the Kol Nidre (all vows), named for the prayer with which it begins. The Kol Nidre prayer is chanted with a haunting melody. The prayer itself, a legal formula, was written in Aramaic and renders null and void all promises that are made to God but will not be kept in the ensuing year. (However, the Kol Nidre does not apply to promises made to other persons.) Kol Nidre is also considered to be a declaration by worshippers that they should not be held liable for oaths made either in anger or under duress.
Following the Kol Nidre service is the customary Ma’ariv evening service including a special confessional prayer called Amidah. The Ma’ariv is chanted in a melody reserved for Yom Kippur. After Ma’ariv, it is time to go home to prepare for the full day of prayers (without nourishment) that lies ahead.
The Shacharit (morning service) is similar to most morning services held on festivals, except that extra poems are recited and the Shacharit Amidah includes a confessional. The congregation reads a portion of the Torah and then a Haftorah from Isaiah (57:14–58:14), a passage critical of those who fast without having a true understanding of the day. A special memorial prayer, called Yizkor, is recited for those who have lost their relatives, particularly their parents.
Then the congregation goes on to the lengthy additional Musaf service. The two high points of the Musaf are the Avodah and the Eleh Ezkerah portions of the service. In contrast to the length of the Musaf, the traditional afternoon service, the Mincha, is the shortest on this holy day. As you can see, Jews can easily spend the entire day in synagogue, although most congregations take a break after the Musaf to allow families to go home for a rest.
Neilah concludes the Yom Kippur service. During the entire service, which lasts about an hour, the ark is kept open and the congregation must remain standing. The Hebrew word neilah means “locked,” and symbolizes the closing of the gates of heaven. Neilah ends with a very long blast from the shofar (ram’s horn). Once Yom Kippur has concluded, families hasten home for the break-the-fast meal.
Throughout the Yom Kippur liturgy, all sins are confessed in the plural, using “we” and “us.” This is because Judaism sees the individual in terms of a greater group and holds the belief that each person should assume responsibility for the entire community.