How to Jew: Yom Kippur


BACKGROUND

It is said that Yom Kippur, literally “Day of Atonement,” is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur is a time of prayer and fasting during which Jews ask God for forgiveness and think about their actions and sins of the past year. It occurs on the 10th of Tishrei, the culmination of the 10-day period of reflection known as the Days of Awe, and marks the point at which, according to tradition, the fate of each Jew is sealed in the Book of Life.

The original Day of Atonement is said to have occurred when Moses received the second set of the Ten Commandments, after the Israelites sinned by worshipping the golden calf. Later, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies — the part of the Tabernacle where God was said to dwell — just once a year, on Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur consists of five prayer services: Ma’ariv (evening, which includes the recitation of Kol Nidre, asking to be released from vows not kept in the past year and the year to come); Shacharit (morning); Musaf (additional); Minchah (afternoon, featuring a reading from the Book of Jonah); and Neilah, the concluding service. A memorial service called Yizkor is held as well. At the end of the day, a final shofar blast is sounded.

TRADITIONS

Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, meditation and introspection. Worshippers, in an effort to focus only on the spiritual, fast from sunset to sunset and traditionally do not bathe, wear leather shoes, apply lotions, creams or ointment or engage in intimate acts with spouses. They refrain from normal daily activities and work as well.

In some religious circles, the day before Yom Kippur is an occasion to perform the ritual known as kapparot. In order to symbolically transfer one’s sins to another object — often a chicken — a person swings a chicken above their head three times while praying. The chicken, or the monetary value of the chicken, is donated to those in need.

It is a custom to give extra charity on this day, and some choose to immerse in the mikveh.

SPECIAL FOOD

We eat two festive meals before the fast of Yom Kippur, which starts at candle lighting. The meal right before the fast of Yom Kippur, called Seudah HaMafsekes, the “separation meal,” typically consists of foods like challah, chicken soup and kreplach. Break-fasts often include bagels and lox or cream cheese and light bites. 

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