Most Jewish people would agree that Yom Kippur (meaning “Day of Atonement” in Hebrew) is the most important day on the Jewish calendar. Synagogue attendance is consistently higher on this day than any other. Even many secular, non-observant Jews who otherwise rarely if ever attend temple services make an exception for Yom Kippur.
But what is Yom Kippur, and why does it have such significance for the Jews?
In Leviticus 23:26-28, it is written: “God spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial, and you shall do no work throughout that day for it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God.'”
Based upon this passage, Jewish teachings hold that as an act of mercy, God set aside one day per year such that if people repented of their sins, reconciled with those they had wronged, and asked forgiveness of God, then their sins would be forgiven. This day is Yom Kippur.
The ten day period from the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur each year is called the “High Holy Days” in Judaism. During this period, a Jewish person should seek to make amends toward anyone with whom he or she has been in conflict, so as to start the new year clean.
There are severe restrictions on a Jewish person on Yom Kippur, the purpose of which is to lessen worldly distractions and facilitate focusing instead on God and truth, and the need to atone for one’s sins. It is not a holiday for feasting and celebration, but a solemn occasion for prayer and introspection.
For Yom Kippur, the usual Sabbath restrictions on all forms of “work” are in place. However, the limitations go well beyond that.
From sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur until nightfall on Yom Kippur itself-a period of approximately 25 hours-an observant Jew must refrain from all eating and drinking, even water. He or she may not wash or bath, wear perfume, lotions, cosmetics, etc., wear leather shoes, or have sex. No indulgences, no sensory pleasures, are to take time or concentration away from the sacred purpose of the occasion.
It is traditional to wear white on Yom Kippur, to represent being purified of sin. Many Jews spend the bulk of the day at synagogue, engaged in prayer. The Yom Kippur service builds to a climax in the final hour, when those who have fasted and prayed call out together for forgiveness, the shofar (sacred horn) is blown, and the congregation concludes with “Next year in Jerusalem.”
While there are other meaningful holy days on the Jewish calendar, including Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah, none surpass the importance of Yom Kippur.
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“Yom Kippur.” Judaism 101.