Beginning at sunset this evening and continuing until tomorrow evening at sunset is the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Known as the “Day of Atonement”, it is the holiest and most solemn day of the year for the Jewish people.
Yom Kippur is the culmination of the High Holy Days, (Yamim Nora’im in Hebrew, which properly translates as “Days of Awe”) which began 10 days earlier with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah. Traditionally this entire time period is meant to mark a time of repentance, reconciliation and new beginnings.
Jews traditionally observe this holy day with a 25-hour period of fasting and intensive prayer, often spending most of the day in synagogue services.
The word “Yom” means “day” in Hebrew and the word “Kippur” comes from a root that means “to cover or hide” with a secondary meaning of “to obliterate” (as relates to sin) with the broader meaning of “to expiate”. Some say there is a link to kapporet, the “mercy seat” or covering of the Ark of the Covenant. Since the blood of the Yom Kippur sacrifice was sprinkled in its direction (Lev. 16), it was the seen as a gesture of appeasement.
Traditionally, Yom Kippur is considered the date on which Moses received the second set of Ten Commandments, following the completion of the second 40 days of instructions from God at Mt. Sinai. At this same time, the Israelites were granted atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf, hence, the designation of this holiday as the Day of Atonement.
According to Jewish tradition, God inscribes each person’s fate for the coming year into a book, the Book of Life, on Rosh Hashanah, and waits until Yom Kippur to “seal” the verdict. During the Days of Awe, a Jew tries to amend his or her behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done against God and against other human beings. The evening before and day of Yom Kippur are set aside for public and private petitions and confessions of guilt called the Vidui. At the end of Yom Kippur, those who participate consider themselves absolved by God.
Unlike a regular day, which has three prayer services (Ma’ariv, the evening prayer at dusk the night before, Shacharit, the morning prayer, and Mincha, the afternoon prayer), or a Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) service which has four prayer services (Ma’ariv, Shacharit, Mussaf and an additional prayer called Mincha), Yom Kippur has five prayer services (Ma’ariv, Shacharit, Musaf, Mincha and Ne’ilah, the closing prayer).
Yom Kippur is a legal holiday in the modern state of Israel. There are no radio or television broadcasts, airports are shut down, there is no public transportation, and all shops and businesses are closed. It is considered impolite to eat in public on Yom Kippur or to even drive a motor vehicle, except in emergency situations.
As one of the most culturally significant Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is observed by many secular Jews who may not observe other holidays. The High Holy Days are the only recurring times of the year in which many attend synagogue, causing attendance on that day to often soar, not unlike the rising attendance at Christian services on Christmas and Easter.