Courtesy of MJL; Photo credit: My Jewish Learning. 

Jewish man blowing the Shofar



What’s Yom Kippur about exactly?

Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, when we ask forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed over the past year. Jewish tradition believes that on this day God places a seal upon the divine decrees affecting each person for the coming year. Traditionally, Jews fast on this somber day and also refrain from other bodily pleasures.


How long does Yom Kippur last?

Yom Kippur, which falls ten days after Rosh Hashanah, lasts one day. It begins at sundown and concludes at sundown the following day. The fast itself lasts twenty-five hours.


Do I have to be a synagogue member to go to Kol Nidre or other Yom Kippur services?

No, although most synagogues require you to purchase High Holiday tickets in advance. If the cost is prohibitive, you can sometimes request a lower rate. In addition, many synagogues do not require tickets for their Yom Kippur afternoon services. A number of congregations and other Jewish institutions offer free services for the entire holiday, but you may need to do a little research to find them.


Why do people fast on Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is the day on which we are instructed to divorce ourselves as completely as humanly possible from the mundane world in order to devote ourselves with all our hearts and minds to our relationship with the divine. Fasting is the most widespread manifestation of this devotion. Other examples include: refraining from washing, sexual relations, and the wearing of leather (a sign of luxury in earlier times).


Do children have to fast? Is anyone exempt from fasting? Can I at least drink water?

Traditionally, Jews are not required to fast until they reach bar/bat mitzvah age (12 or 13), and children under the age of 9 are not allowed to fast. People for whom fasting is a health risk, along with pregnant and nursing women, are also exempt. The fast includes abstaining from water, but, again, only if doing so does not pose a health risk. 


I heard it’s OK to wear sneakers to services. Is that really true?

Yes, many Jews wear sneakers, or white athletic shoes, on Yom Kippur. That’s because of a desire to avoid leather (a sign of luxury in early times) and the tradition of wearing white, as a symbol of purity.


What prayers are unique to Yom Kippur?

The evening of Yom Kippur begins with Kol Nidrei, a prayer that is repeated three times and asks that all vows and oaths that we have made throughout the year be forgiven so we can start the new year with a clean slate. Another major prayer is the Viddui, or confession, which includes Ashamnu and Al-Chet, prayers which list all the sins individuals in the community have committed.


What parts of the Torah are read on Yom Kippur?

On Yom Kippur, congregations traditionally read a passage from Leviticus about the sacrificing of a goat (the origin of the term scapegoat). The Reform movement has replaced that reading with one from Deuteronomy about the human freedom to make moral choices. In addition to these readings from the Torah (the five books of Moses), on the afternoon of Yom Kippur it is customary to read the Book of Jonah, from the Prophets section of the Bible.


What’s this I keep hearing about the Yom Kippur breakfast? I thought people skipped breakfast on Yom Kippur.

A break-fast is an informal meal in the evening, after the Yom Kippur fast has ended. In the United States, break-fasts tend to resemble morning breakfast (or at least brunch) in that they tend to be dairy (rather than meat) and include bagels, cream cheese, smoked fish, salads and sandwich fillings like cheese, tuna salad and egg salad.


How do I greet people on and before Yom Kippur? And are there any special words or phrases I need to know?

You can say, “Have an easy fast” or “gmar chatima tova” (may you be inscribed for a good year.) It’s also acceptable to say “shana tova” (happy new year).

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