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Yom Kippur

Star of David on a pew bench

How wonderful that you will be experiencing the Jewish High Holidays at a synagogue this year! (And if you’re reading this but haven’t yet found a synagogue to call home, check out our Find a Congregation tool before the High Holidays arrive.)

You will not be expected to give money during the Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur services. In fact, it is customary to not exchange money on Shabbat or major Jewish holidays.

However, if you would like to make a donation to the synagogue in the days before or following the service, the congregation would surely be grateful, as most synagogues support themselves with membership dues and donations. 

Prior to visiting, you might want to check with the congregation you will be visiting to see if they will be collecting non-perishable foods for the community food pantry during the time you’ll be there. Because Yom Kippur is a fast day, many congregations either encourage worshiper to donate the equivalent dollar amount of what they would have spent on groceries for that day, and they organize a non-perishable food collection to stock the local food pantries. 

Finally, please also note that many North American Reform synagogues require tickets for High Holidays services – even for members – to ensure that there are enough seats for everyone who wishes to worship. There may be a fee for these tickets, or not, depending on the congregation; your local synagogue will be happy to outline for you its ticket policies.

May you find the High Holiday services to be meaningful. 

Answer By: 
Rabbi Julie Zupan

Mazel tov – congratulations on your upcoming marriage!

Although Jewish weddings may take place on the days in between the Jewish High Holidays, it is generally discouraged because during that period, also known as the Days of Awe, we are focused on the solemn themes of the season. In addition, because this period is an especially busy time for rabbis and cantors, you will be more limited in your options for clergy-officiants.

At the same time, some people consider the four days between Yom Kippur and the start of Sukkot to be especially auspicious days for a wedding because the wedding partners will have just experienced a period of deep reflection.  

Regardless of when during the year you decide to marry, check out these resources to plan a Jewish wedding. If you're searching for an officiant for your wedding and you reside or plan to get married in the Phoenix or Atlanta areas, fill out this survey to be connected with available clergy who fit your wedding needs.

Wishing you every joy and blessing!

young women giving holiday hugs

On Rosh HaShanah, we can say “Shanah tovah um’tukah,” which means “May you have a good and sweet new year.” The greeting can be shortened to “Shanah tovah” (“A good year”). The more formal expression is “L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu”, which means “A good year, and may you be inscribed and sealed (for blessing in the Book of Life).”

You may hear people say “Chag sameach” (“Happy holiday”), but strictly speaking, chag sameach is used only on the three pilgrimage festivals: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  

Another traditional greeting for both Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is a Yiddish greeting, “Gut yontif,” which means “Wishing you a good holiday.”

Special greetings on Yom Kippur include “G’mar chatima tovah,” which means, “May you be inscribed (or sealed) for good [in the Book of Life],” and “tzom kal,” which is used to wish others an “easy fast.”  

You can learn more about terms to use during the High Holidays in the glossary.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Daniel B. Syme

Traditional Jews make a point of visiting the graves of loved ones during the month of Elul just prior to the onset of the High Holidays, on the day before Rosh HaShanah, or the day before Yom Kippur. Many Jews also visit the cemetery on the loved one’s birthday, an anniversary, or a special personal day. Visitations to the cemetery are not made on Shabbat or Jewish festival holidays.

Jewish tradition discourages excessive mourning and constant cemetery visitations, especially if it becomes an impediment to a return to life. Jeremiah 22:10 proclaims: "Weep ye not [too much] for the dead." Wisely, though, Jewish practice provides for a regular, structured, communal expression of reminiscence, through yahrzeit and Yizkor.

Source: Rabbi Daniel B. Syme, The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (URJ Press, 2004)

Though Yom Kippur does have a confession service (vidui), it is not similar to other confessionals. The community confesses together to a list of sins and then sings in celebration of God accepting their repentance. No one is singled out, and while many choose to think at this time of personal resolutions to do better, there is no individual confession to a rabbi.

On a private level, in preparation for Yom Kippur many take the opportunity to speak to people in their lives with whom they feel a need to clear the air or ask forgiveness.

Typically, young people are expected to fast once they have become b’nai mitzvah, the age after which they are considered adults in the religious community.

Fasting is never supposed to endanger one’s life or health. Those with medical conditions that might make fasting dangerous should not fast. Pregnant women also are exempt, as are nursing mothers. Abstaining from food and drink are not the only way to demonstrate one’s intention.  Those who do not fast may still refrain from the other luxuries that the rabbis name as forbidden on Yom Kippur: wearing leather shoes and jewelry, bathing, anointing with lotion or perfume, and sex.

See also:  Meditation Before Yom Kippur for One Who Cannot Fast 


No food

The practice of fasting goes back to the biblical verse in Leviticus 26:27, which instructs the people of Israel to "afflict their souls" on Yom Kippur. The rabbis interpreted this passage as a commandment to fast. They also thought that it meant that we should refrain from luxuries on Yom Kippur, and listed wearing leather shoes and jewelry, bathing, anointing oneself with lotions or perfumes, and sex, as things from which we should particularly abstain. Often, those who cannot fast on Yom Kippur will refrain from the other things on this list. Some feel that refraining from food or luxuries helps them better focus on the meaning of the day.

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell

At one time, it was customary for Reform rabbis and cantors to wear robes when leading worship. While this custom has decreased in popularity, it is still common for rabbis and cantors to wear robes on the High Holidays. White represents purity, and so the clergy wear white robes on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. 

According to Jewish tradition, Jews are buried in a simple white shroud. Thus, wearing white on Yom Kippur serves as a reminder of our mortality. Some congregants also choose to wear white clothing on Yom Kippur.

More common is the custom of refraining from wearing leather shoes. To better focus on the day’s meaning, some Jews refrain from wearing leather, a symbol of luxury. Thus, on Yom Kippur one may see people wearing sneakers in synagogue. 

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell
folded tallitot

In the book of Numbers (15:38-39), we read that the Israelites were instructed to "make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments…that they shall look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them..."

Over time, this garment became a tallit, or prayer shawl. Since the instruction is to observe the fringes, the custom developed to wear a tallit at services taking place during daylight hours. The tallit is therefore worn during morning services and not at night. The exception to this rule is the night of Yom Kippur, commonly known as Kol Nidre. The tallit, often made of a white fabric, has come to represent the sincerity of our repentance. So, yes one can wear a tallit to services the night of Yom Kippur. And, it is customary for those who wear the tallit to wear it throughout Yom Kippur, for all prayer services. 

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