What Is Yom Kippur? A Description and Overview

(Last Updated On: September 13, 2018)

What Is Yom Kippur?
Religions have many holidays or holy days, with one typically being of the utmost importance and holiness. For Christianity, it is Easter, a day that celebrates and reflects upon Christ dying on the cross and resurrecting three days later. For Islam, it is Ramadan, a 29-30 day celebration/introspection period held during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar; it marks the month in which the Quran was revealed to Muhammad. And for Judaism, it is Yom Kippur, otherwise known as the Day of Atonement. What is Yom Kippur, you ask?

Understanding Yom Kippur and the Sabbath

Many people outside of the Jewish faith falsely believe that Hanukkah is the holiest holiday in Judaism, as it is frequently the only Jewish holiday that is represented in the media — in movies, on TV, and in books. While Hanukkah is a big deal, just like Rosh Hashanah, Purim, and Passover (to name a few), it is Yom Kippur that is the most sacred.

To understand Yom Kippur, you must first understand that in Judaism, something called the Sabbath is very important. The Sabbath is the mandated day of rest on the seventh day of each week. It begins at sundown on Friday and remains in effect until nightfall the next day. The Sabbath originates from Genesis where it states that on the seventh day, after creating the world and man, God rested. Jewish faith dictates that those in observance remain free of work and celebrate the day, frequently known as Shabbat, with prayer and three celebratory meals. Devout Jewish faith holders celebrate the Sabbath every Saturday, week after week.

What is Yom Kippur?

Frequently, Yom Kippur is referred to as the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” Just like during the weekly Sabbath, those of the Jewish faith must refrain from working. Work can mean anything from going to a job to household responsibilities to, when it comes to the most devout, even operating a motor vehicle.

Unlike the typical weekly Sabbath, though, Yom Kippur is different in that meals are not eaten. Rather, participants fast for 25 hours. The Jewish learning website, Chabad, offers an explanation as to why fasting is observed on the “Sabbath of Sabbaths:”  

“Yom Kippur… doesn’t “deprive” us of the pleasures—eating, drinking, resting, etc. Rather the extremely holy nature of Yom Kippur accomplishes the same objectives, albeit in a higher, more spiritual manner.”

The site goes on to say that: “the essence of the soul… has no need to be fortified through their consumption. Thus, on Yom Kippur, when this essence is revealed and expressed within every Jew, there is no need for eating or drinking.”

Essentially, for one day a year, on this holiest of Sabbaths, you are to feed your soul rather than your body.

How to Celebrate Yom Kippur

The biggest way one can feed his or her soul is to atone for past sins. Hence, Yom Kippur is also called the Day of Atonement. In addition to fasting, followers are to confess to God their past sins and to make amends for the errors made during the past Jewish calendar year. It’s important to note that Yom Kippur falls ten days after Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year); it is on this day, Yom Kippur, that God decides what the next Jewish calendar year will have in store for everyone. It is believed that those who properly atone for their sins will have a fruitful year, while those who do not, will be in for a tumultuous time.

Yom Kippur, being the holiest of all Jewish holidays, is a day filled with prayer and introspection. As such, synagogues are typically packed with worshippers. Prayers and services begin just before sunset on the day prior to Yom Kippur. This late afternoon/evening service is called Kol Nidrei or “All Vows.”

Many services are offered throughout the morning and early afternoon of Yom Kippur; typically these services center around forgiveness and repentance. The final service, just before Yom Kippur concludes, is called the Neilah, which means closing. According to My Jewish Learning, this is to represent the “symbolic closing of the gates of heaven and, hence, God’s willingness to hear the prayers of the Jewish people.” This final service is typically timed to coincide with the sunset, meaning that once the service concludes, Yom Kippur has officially ended and the newly forgiven and cleansed followers of the Jewish faith may break their fast and celebrate what should be a joyous next Jewish calendar year.

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