20 September 2015 - 7 Tishri 5776 - ז' תשרי ה' אלפים תשע"ו
Observing the Day of Atonement Print E-mail

The Day of Atonement  or Yom Kippur, falls on the tenth day of the month of Tishrei. It is the holiest day of the year.

This year is unique in that it falls on Shabbat.  While observation of Shabbat is clearly central to our identity as Jews, even it is ‘superseded’ by the observances required for Yom Kippur.

On Erev Yom Kippur, many families serve a challah in the shape of a bird with wings, symbolic of the connection to our ascent to the realm of the angels for the day. It is a mitzvah to partake in the Erev meal. Often prior to this meal, people will call loved ones, friends and acquaintances to personally apologise for any wrongs that they may have committed.


On Erev Yom Kippur, it is also customary to give tzedakah/charity, though in many homes this is a Shabbat custom as well.
Immersion in the mikveh is practiced by men, the tradition for women varies. Another custom is that of kaparot or waving a chicken above one’s head while reciting the prayers. The kaparot is then redeemed and the money given for tzedakah.  

The fast begins following the Erev Yom Kippur meal and extends to the following evening. All girls age twelve and above and boys age thirteen and above are required to fast. Often families will encourage younger children to ‘fast’ for a couple of hours in order to prepare them once they reach the required age. We refrain from all food and drink with exceptions only made out of medical necessity.

Fasting reminds us to focus on the spirituality of the day rather than be distracted by earthly concerns. It allows us to enter the synagogue with a clear mind, void of everyday distractions.

Following the Erev meal, the Kol Nidre service begins, setting the atmosphere for the observance of the holiday. “Kol nidre” means “all vows”. Interestingly it does not mention G-d. It is believed that the liturgy dates back to the ninth century.

Tallit are worn for this special liturgy, though usually tallit are only worn during the day. Kol Nidre is chanted three times, first in a quiet voice, the second time a bit louder and the third in a strong and full voice.

The melodies for the service are unlike any others throughout the year.

Many people wear white on Yom Kippur, symbolising our ascent to the realm of the angels as well as a symbol of purity as we are cleansed of sin. Some men wear kitels, also worn for burial.

All the usual Shabbat restrictions apply, but with additional prohibitions unique to Yom Kippur. There are five physical acts that we are prohibited from engaging in, including refraining from eating and drinking. There are prohibitions against wearing leather shoes, washing one’s body, applying lotions to one’s skin and having marital relations.

Viddui or the confessional is at the core of the observance of Yom Kippur. We ask for the forgiveness of all Jews for all of their sins. All sins are listed and recited in the plural, so that we ask for the forgiveness of the congregation as a whole.

Other unique aspects of the Yom Kippur service include the loud recitation of the second line of the Shema. Also, while on Shabbat we have four services, on Yom Kippur there is an additional service added.

The fifth service is Neilah which begins with a moving chant delivered by the chazzan. The ark is open for the entire service, so participants must remain standing. Avinu Malkenu is recited, even this year when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat.

Following Neilah, Yom Kippur ends with a single blast from the shofar.


(Published in JTA Issue September  2007)

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