Yom means “day” in Hebrew and Kippur comes from a root that means “to atone”. Thus Yom Kippur has come to mean “day of atonement”. Some say there is a link to kapporet, the “mercy seat” or covering of the Ark of the Covenant. Abraham Ibn Ezra states that the word indicates the task and not just the shape of the ark cover; since the blood of the Yom Kippur sacrifice was sprinkled in its direction, it was the symbol of propitiation.
Yom Kippur is “the tenth day of [the] seventh month” (Tishrei) and also regarded as the “Sabbath of Sabbaths”. Rosh Hashanah (referred to in the Torah as Yom Teruah) is the first day of that month according to the Hebrew calendar.
Yom Kippur completes the annual period known in Judaism as the High Holy Days or Yamim Nora’im (“Days of Awe”) that commences with Rosh Hashanah.
According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, a Jewish person tries to amend his or her behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God (bein adam leMakom) and against other human beings (bein adam lechavero). The evening and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt (Vidui). At the end of Yom Kippur, one hopes that they have been forgiven by God.
The Yom Kippur prayer service includes several unique aspects. One is the actual number of prayer services. Unlike a regular day, which has three prayer services (Ma’ariv, the evening prayer; Shacharit, the morning prayer; and Mincha, the afternoon prayer), or a Shabbat or Yom Tov, which have four prayer services (Ma’ariv; Shacharit; Mussaf, the additional prayer; and Mincha), Yom Kippur has five prayer services (Ma’ariv; Shacharit; Musaf; Mincha; and Ne’ilah, the closing prayer). The prayer services also include private and public confessions of sins (Vidui) and a unique prayer dedicated to the special Yom Kippur avodah (service) of the Kohen Gadol in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Erev Yom Kippur ( “eve [of] day [of] atonement”) is the day preceding Yom Kippur, corresponding to the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. This day is commemorated with two festive meals, the giving of charity, and asking others for forgiveness.
Leviticus 16:29 mandates establishment of this holy day on the 10th day of the 7th month as the day of atonement for sins. It calls it the Sabbath of Sabbaths and a day upon which one must afflict one’s soul.
Leviticus 23:27 decrees that Yom Kippur is a strict day of rest.
Five additional prohibitions are traditionally observed, as detailed in the Jewish oral tradition (Mishnah tractate Yoma 8:1)
The number five is a set number, relating to:
- In the Yom Kippur section of the Torah, the word soul appears five times.
- Soul, in the Torah is known by five separate names: soul, wind, spirit, living one and unique one.
- Unlike regular days, which have three prayer services, Yom Kippur has five- Maariv, Shacharis, Mussaf, Minchah and Neilah
- The Kohen Gadol rinsed himself in the mikveh five times on Yom Kippur.
The traditions are as follows:
- No eating and drinking
- No wearing of leather shoes
- No bathing or washing
- No anointing oneself with perfumes or lotions
- No marital relations
A parallel has been drawn between these activities and the human condition according to the Biblical account of the expulsion from the garden of Eden. Refraining from these symbolically represents a return to a pristine state, which is the theme of the day. By refraining from these activities, the body is uncomfortable but can still survive. The soul is considered to be the life force in a body. Therefore, by making one’s body uncomfortable, one’s soul is uncomfortable. By feeling pain one can feel how others feel when they are in pain. This is the purpose of the prohibitions.
Total abstention from food and drink usually begins 20 minutes before sundown (called tosefet Yom Kippur, lit. “Addition to Yom Kippur”), and ends after nightfall the following day. Although the fast is required of all healthy adults over 12 or 13, it is waived in the case of certain medical conditions.
Virtually all Jewish holidays involve a ritual feast, but since Yom Kippur involves fasting, Jewish law requires one to eat a large and festive meal on the afternoon before Yom Kippur, after the Mincha (afternoon) prayer.
Wearing white clothing (or a ‘kittel’ for Ashkenazi Jews), is traditional to symbolize one’s purity on this day. Many Orthodox men immerse themselves in a mikveh on the day before Yom Kippur.
In order to apologize to God, one must:
- Give to charity
Before sunset on Yom Kippur eve, worshippers gather in the synagogue. The Ark is opened and two people take from it two Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). Then they take their places, one on each side of the Hazzan, and the three recite (in Hebrew):
“In the tribunal of Heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God—praised be He—and by the permission of this holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with transgressors.”
The cantor then chants the Kol Nidre prayer (Hebrew: כל נדרי) in Aramaic, not Hebrew. Its name is taken from the opening words, meaning “All vows”:
“All personal vows we are likely to make [with God], all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths.”
The leader and the congregation then say together three times “May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault.” The Torah scrolls are then replaced, and the Yom Kippur evening service begins.
(the afternoon prayer) which includes a reading (Haftarah) of the entire Book of Jonah, which has as its theme the story of God’s willingness to forgive those who repent.
The service concludes with the Ne’ila (“closing”) prayer, which begins shortly before sunset, when the “gates of prayer” will be closed. Yom Kippur comes to an end with a recitation of Shema Yisrael and the blowing of the shofar, which marks the conclusion of the fast.
In the Torah
The Torah calls the day Yom HaKippurim (יוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים) and in it Leviticus 23:27 decrees a strict prohibition of work and affliction of the appetite (נפש means soul or appetite) upon the tenth day of the seventh month, later known as Tishrei. The laws of Yom Kippur are mentioned in three passages in the Torah:
- Leviticus 16:1–34: God told Moses to tell Aaron that he can only enter the sanctuary in front of the cover that is on the ark when God is present on the cover in a cloud. If Aaron is to enter otherwise, he will die . On the tenth day of the seventh month, God said that the people must not work in order to cleanse and atone for their sins. The Kohen will lead in the atonement of all the people.
- Leviticus 23:26–32: God said to Moses that the tenth day of the month is the day of atonement and will be holy. The people must give a fire-offering to God and must not work. God told Moses that whoever does work, God will rid of the soul from its people. This is a day of complete rest from the evening of the ninth day of the month to the following evening.
- Numbers 29:7–11: The tenth day of the seventh month is a holy day and one must not work. For an elevation offering, one must sacrifice a young bull, a ram and seven lambs who are a year old. As well, for a sin offering, one must sacrifice a male goat.
Traditionally, Yom Kippur is considered the date on which Moses received the second set of Ten Commandments. It occurred following the completion of the second 40 days of instructions from God. At this same time, the Israelites were granted atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf; hence, its designation as the Day of Atonement.