What does Yom Kippur mean?

Yom Kippur means "Day of Atonement." It is a day set aside to atone for the sins of the past year. We say about the Book of Life that on Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. By Yom Kippur the 40 days of repentance have passed. This day is our last appeal, our last chance to change God's judgement, to demonstrate our repentance and make amends so that we may be written in the Book of Life.

The holiday of Yom Kippur is instituted in Leviticus 16:29-31, where God said to  Moses,

And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time.

Temple Emanu-El traditionally holds Kol Nidre (Erev Yom Kippur) and Yom Kippur morning, afternoon, Yizkor and Ne'ilah services, as well as offering youth and family programming. For details about this year's services, click here.

How do we atone for our sins?

Yom Kippur atones only for sins between humanity and God. To atone for sins against another person, you must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs you committed against them, if possible. This must be done before the conclusion of Yom Kippur. The period of 40 days of repentance is called Teshuvah, from the root "shoov", meaning to return.

What is the Jewish definition of sin?

In Judaism, the word "sin" refers to an improper act for which one can ask forgiveness - not just of God, but more importantly, of other people as well. Cheit, meaning sin, is often translated to mean "missing the mark".

What is Kol Nidre?

Kol Nidre means "all vows". This best known of all Yom Kippur petitions is chanted at the beginning of the evening service. A free translation reads: "Let all vows, oaths, and promises that we make to You, O God, between this Yom Kippur and the next be excused should we, after honest effort, find ourselves unable to fill them." During the Middle Ages and thereafter, Jews were often forced to vow allegiance to Christianity, while continuing to practice Judaism in secret. Through this prayer, they begged God to forgive them and release them from such vows made under duress. Today, Kol Nidre remains in the liturgy because of its historical associations, its inspirational melody, and its great beauty, but once again it is a petition only between people and God.

Why is Yom Kippur considered the most solemn of Jewish holidays?

Yom Kippur emphasizes human failings and the need to do teshuvah (repentance). As we focus on teshuvah, we disengage from life-affirming activities of our daily routines, such as eating, and we undergo intense self-reflection. We ask ourselves how we can do better in the eyes of God and of other humans, and we search for wisdom, willpower, and compassion. The process of teshuvah helps set right some of our wrongdoings, and in so doing, helps us be partners with God in the creation of a better world.

What are some of the restrictions for Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath; no work can be performed on that day. We are supposed to refrain from eating and drinking (even water). It is a complete, 25-hour fast, beginning before sunset on the evening of Yom Kippur and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. This applies to adults, not to children under 13. If there is a threat to life or health, this restriction is lifted. Some people also refrain from wearing leather products (a sign of wealth in ancient times), bathing (showing more concern for the body than for the soul), and intimate relations. 

Why is it customary to dress in white on Yom Kippur?

On Yom Kippur, it is customary to wear white, which symbolizes purity and recalls the promise that our sins shall be made as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). Traditionally, Jews are buried in plain white garments. Wearing white on Yom Kippur also reminds us of our mortality.

WHy are the confessions done in the plural?

The Al Cheit, "For the Sin", is one of the prayers in the Vidui (Confession). It contains a litany of human sins, and the entire congregation recites it collectively and in the plural, emphasizing communal responsibility for sins.

Why do people raise their fist to their chest when reciting the Al Cheit?

On Yom Kippur, each person is bidden to raise a fist in protest against all that is wrong in the world -- greed, violence, pollution, miseries of every sort. The fist of protest is not raised against the world or its inhabitants. Rather, it is raised in anguish, but ultimately islowered to one's own heart in the sad realization that no amount of rage or self-righteousness will mend all that needs mending unless the mending begins in one's own heart.

Why is the Book of Jonah read on Yom Kippur?

The Book of Jonah is read at the Minchah (afternoon) service on Yom Kippur because God is represented there as the God of all nations. The universality of God is emphasized throughout the High Holy Days liturgy. The Book of Jonah also addresses another High Holy Days theme: that a person can abandon one's evil ways, accept responsibility for one's own actions, and return to God.

What is Yizkor?

Yizkor means "God will remember". Yizkor is the memorial service which is held on Yom Kippur (as well as the last day of Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot). The service commemorates those who have died and brings a higher level of spirituality. Yizkor usually takes place on Yom Kippur afternoon, after the Afternoon Service and before Ne'ilah, the closing service.


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*Tishah B'av: A Brief History

in Jewish Holidays
Tishah B'Av means "Ninth of Av" and refers to a Jewish day of fasting and mourning. Excerpted from The Jewish Home by Daniel B. Syme. URJ Press Traditionally Tishah B'Av is the darkest of all days, a time set aside for mourning the destruction of both ancient…