Yom Kippur on the Jewish Calendar

The Shabbat of All Shabbatot - השבת של כל השבתות
  • Yom Kippur occurs on the 14th of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar. This year it will start on a Sabbath - the evening of Friday, September 13th, 2013.
  • Shabbat Shuva, the "Sabbath of Repentance", is the Shabbat between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. Its name comes from Hosea 14:2-10, the Haftorah reading for that day, which begins with "shuva Yisrael", "Return O Israel". The rabbi would give a long sermon on this Shabbat on the theme of teshuva and repentance.
  • Yom Kippur is regarded as the preeminent "Shabbat of all Shabbatot" (no matter the day it falls on). Because of this, it is the only fast day which does not get postponed when it falls on Shabbat. The pleasures of Shabbat are simply considered to be on a more elevated spiritual plane.
    The Jewish calendar is configured in such a way so that Yom Kippur will never fall on Friday, Sunday or Tuesday! As for occurring on a day next to Shabbat, it was considered to be too problematic for some instances (like speed in a case of burial, for example). As for Tuesday, it would then mean that the 7th day of Sukkot (aka "Hoshana Rabba") would fall on a Shabbat - making it impossible to beat willow branches as part of the special service that day).

Yom Kippur in Israel

  • On Yom Kippur in most of Israel, starting from a few hours before sundown, no motor vehicles are allowed except emergency services practically anywhere. There are no local television or radio broadcasts either. This means the whole country is quiet in a way - minus all those modern sounds always in the background of daily life - that you have to "hear" to believe. Those secular folks who do not attend synagogue take to the streets to walk, ride bikes, skate,etc. The observant and "traditional / masorti" types (more relaxed partial observant of various kinds) are seen out walking too (to and from services, and when kids take a break, etc). The entire country is like one giant pedestrian mall, the likes of which you never see except here on this one day. It is a truly extraordinary experience.

Customs of Yom Kippur

  • Kapparot – literally means "sacrificial rites". The current, more common form of this custom involves giving tzedaka (charity) the morning before Yom Kippur, as well as saying prayers. Sometimes the donation may be a sum like 18 or a multiple (since the letters of the Hebrew word chai / חי have a numerical value of 18). Some additionally place the donation first into a kerchief - one would then swing it around one's head while reciting a blessing, the concept being symbolically expiating one's sins. In general, one is expected to give generously to tzedaka during the period between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, but even moreso on this day.
  • The origins of "scapegoat", or se-ir le-azazel , come from part of the Torah readings for this day. The High Priest would take 2 goats, one to be slaughtered as an offering to God, and the other would be the designated scapegoat. The people's sins would be symbolically transferred to the goat, who was supposedly allowed to run off to the desert (he may have also been done away with, unfortunately, so as to make sure he could not return). Please also see "Let's Talk About It".
  • The day before Yom Kippur the observant go to the mikva [ritual bath].
  • It is considered a mitzva to eat well at the two meals preceding erev Yom Kippur. The last meal however, while meant to be festive, should be fairly easily digestible and not spicy. One is expected to actually start fasting slightly more than a whole day. So as not to be rushed, generally one starts fasting about half an hour before sunset. The blessing for candles and the Shehechiyanu blessing (as in any festival) are said. There is customarily a round challah (symbolizing for example a crown), and it would be dipped in honey together with "May God give you a good and sweet year". There is no Kiddush. A blessing would also usually be said for the children before going into the evening services.
  • a tallitBefore the chag / holiday starts, it is a custom to light a memorial candle (it lasts about 25 or so hours) called a "candle of life" in the synagogue. If a parent is no longer living, one would also light another memorial (aka Yahrzeit) candle at home – a ner neshama – "candle of the soul".
  • Many wear white to symbolize purity. Some men also wear a white robe called a kittel. While at other times the tallit is usually only worn at a morning service, on Yom Kippur it is also worn in the evening for the Kol Nidre service, in keeping with the feeling of purity and this very special occasion. Wearing gold jewelry or trim on a robe, etc. is not a good idea on this day – it is too reminiscent of that golden calf incident, a mighty big and fast failing in our history, and on this day of all days, we are aiming for the opposite.
  • In addition to what is typically forbidden on a Shabbat if observant, there are five types of physical pleasure one abstains from during Yom Kippur: no drinking and eating, no wearing shoes with any leather, no major washing of the body, no marital relations / physical intimacy, no ointments or creams or cosmetics. Fasting is traditionally expected from the age of thirteen. There are obvious exceptions to the above. One should not fast if it is contrary to health restrictions and the same goes for medication. With the same reasoning, one does wash hands after using a lavatory; also if one got dirty somehow anywhere, or would have to be handling some food preparation at some point (like for a child). These restrictions have a balance of negative and positive, in that we deny ourselves to demonstrate regret, but also this is part of being at least temporarily at a higher spiritual place in our interaction with God, which transcends our more physical aspects. (Some compare this as akin to the state of an angel).
  • Jonah and the Whale The Book of Jonah
    There are five services held through the chag. In the evening there is Maariv, with Kol Nidre. The next in the morning is Shacharit prayers, followed by Musaf, then Mincha in the afternoon, and finally Neila closes the day.
    In the morning, the Torah readings are Leviticus 16: 1-34 - dealing with scapegoat ritual, and Numbers 29:7-11 - describing additional sacrifices that were offered on Yom Kippur. Some Reform congregations replace this reading with one of Deuteronomy 29:9-14 and 30:11-20. These concern choices given by God to humanity- life and goodness or death and evil. The Haftorah portion is Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14.
    In the afternoon, the tradition Torah reading is Leviticus 18:1-30, a detailed review of incest prohibitions. Of note is the opening, which emphasizes to follow the norms being now given by God alone, as opposed to those of the culture we came from (Egypt) and the culture we were headed to (Canaan). Some Reform congregations instead read Leviticus 19:1-4, 9-18, 32-37, which describe acts that make one holy. The Haftorah portion is the Book of Jonah. Some congregations also add a reading of the Book of Job in early afternoon.
    Neila means "closing" and is the final service of Yom Kippur. In this part one is asking to be sealed in the Book of Life with more confidence that God is willing to forgive.
  • At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, one breaks the fast with a light and digestible festive meal. One starts building the sukka by the next day or so. Sukkot starts a scant five days later, with the full moon, and notably - a totally different tone and emphases.