Yom Kippur Customs and Rituals
Tradition teaches that on Rosh HaShanah the Book of Life is written, and on Yom Kippur our decree for the New Year is sealed. We are taught that by doing t’shuvah (repentance), t’filah (prayer), and tzedakah (charity), we can temper that decree. As a result, much of the Yom Kippur liturgy and the rituals for all of the Yamim Nora-im (“Days of Awe”) are aimed at achieving this goal. For example, one of the greetings for this day is “G'mar chatimah tovah,” "May you be sealed [in the Book of Life] for a good year ahead.”
Yom Kippur is a day when we focus on our spiritual well-being, and setting our physical requirements aside helps us focus on that important work. Though there are five specific practices we abstain from on Yom Kippur (eating and drinking, wearing leather, bathing and shaving, anointing ourselves with oils or lotions, and having sexual relations), fasting (not eating or drinking) is the most familiar custom.
Fasting originally was seen as fulfilling the biblical commandment to “practice self-denial.” The Yom Kippur fast enables us, for at least one day each year, to ignore our physical desires, focusing instead on our spiritual needs. Throughout the day, we concentrate on prayer, repentance, and self-improvement before returning to our usual daily routine after the holiday.
Customarily, all people from age 13 must fast (in some communities, girls begin at age 12 and boys at age 13). The fast encompasses a full 24-hour period, beginning after the Erev Yom Kippur meal and extending to the following evening. During this time, no eating or drinking is permitted.
Judaism has a deep reverence for life, and though the Yom Kippur fast is of great importance, it is never allowed to jeopardize health. Those too ill to fast (or to fast fully) are prohibited from doing so. Those who need to take medication are allowed, as are pregnant women or women who have just given birth.
Some Jews wear white on Yom Kippur. Because white is a symbol of purity and Yom Kippur is a day when we undertake a spiritual cleansing, it is an appropriate color for the occasion. Others interpret white as representative of the white shroud in which Jews are buried, symbolizing our mortality and reminding us of the need for humility and repentance.
Hearing the Shofar
Yom Kippur ends with a single, long blast of the shofar. The stirring sound of the shofar at the conclusion of the holiday has many different explanations. One is that the practice recalls the giving of the Torah at Sinai (when the shofar also was blown). Another is that the shofar signals the triumph of the Jewish community over its sins for another year.
In the Congregation
The heart of the Yom Kippur liturgical experience is congregational and communal worship. Yom Kippur, like Shabbat, is a day when one refrains from work. Leviticus 23:32 describes Yom Kippur as a Shabbat Shabbaton – a sabbath of complete rest. So it is seen as a mitzvah (commandment) to attend all the services on Yom Kippur, from Kol Nidrei in the evening, throughout the next day, ending with N’ilah (concluding services) and the sounding of the shofar. A memorial service (Yizkor) is included on Yom Kippur, and Havdalah (a service of separation) is recited at the end of the day, following the sounding of the shofar. A joyous “break-the-fast” meal is served at the conclusion of services, either at the congregation or at home.
The Erev Yom Kippur service is called Kol Nidrei, meaning “all vows,” and refers to the special liturgical formulation chanted solely on Yom Kippur, during the evening service at the beginning of the holiday. It is a legal formula for the annulment of vows, which dates back many centuries. The practice of reciting Kol Nidrei probably began in about the 9th century C.E. Recited in a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic, the vernacular language of the time, Kol Nidrei cancels and annuls all unintended vows made to God during the previous year.
Customarily, Kol Nidrei is repeated three times. In some congregations, these repetitions may include chanting, an instrumental rendition of the haunting melody played on a violin, viola, or cello, or even a spoken reading of the text. The threefold repetition most likely derives from the ancient practice of reciting all official proclamations three times. During Kol Nidrei, the congregation stands together in silence, and in some congregations, the Torah scrolls are held by leaders of the community.
Customarily, in addition to Erev Yom Kippur, the entirety of the next day is spent in synagogue. The liturgy for the day of Yom Kippur includes powerful readings from the Torah, the core of Jewish teaching and practice, and Yizkor, a memorial service to remember our loved ones who have died and, perhaps, to draw from their memories the inspiration to be the best of what we can yet be.
The Days of Awe are about more than confessing our sins. They are an opportunity to envision what our lives and our communities could be like if we each become a little more caring with each passing year. On Yom Kippur morning, we read from the Torah portion entitled Nitzavim, in which we learn that meaningful Jewish lives are not too hard for us and not too far away – if we are willing to choose a life of caring for each other. We also recite the Al Cheit, a prayer that recounts our sins: gossip, arrogance, exploiting the weak, and all the other missteps we took during the year just ended. The High Holidays are a time for t’shuvah, which is usually understood to mean repentance. But t’shuvah is much more than repentance. Its literal meaning is “return” and, indeed, t’shuvah is a return forward to something holy inside us that hasn’t yet reached fruition, a return to the goodness and the caring that could have been and can still be. T’shuvah is our search to find the potential for good and for holiness that has been within us all along but somehow became hidden in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Beginning at sundown prior to Kol Nidrei, it is customary to begin some of the ritual practices of Yom Kippur. Therefore, a family meal, known as se’udah mafseket (the concluding meal before the fast) customarily is eaten before sundown, with the candle lighting happening at the end of the meal. This process is a way to mark the entrance of Yom Kippur into the home and, with that blessing, the fast begins.
Tradition holds that acts of tzedakah are key to our observance of Yom Kippur. In many synagogues, a fundraising appeal coincides with the High Holidays. Many Jews make tzedakah a part of their Shabbat ritual, depositing a few dollars in a tzedakah box prior to the beginning of Shabbat. This practice can also be done as part of the ritual prior to the meal eaten before Kol Nidrei. To make this custom even more special, the Days of Awe can be a time to tally the funds set aside each week during the prior year and determine to which causes they will be donated.
By reciting prayers in a synagogue on Yom Kippur, we atone for transgressions against God. For wrongs committed against other people, however, it has become customary to seek out friends and relatives whom we have wronged during the year and to ask their forgiveness before Yom Kippur begins. The holiday is a time when families should be at peace and gives us a yearly opportunity to put aside past hurts and create a new beginning.
It also is customary on Yom Kippur to perpetuate the memory of loved ones. To do so, many Jews visit the cemetery the day before Yom Kippur and kindle 24-hour yahrzeit candles in memory of loved ones who have died (learn more about yahrzeit candles and other Jewish mourning rituals). Yahrzeit candles are lit prior to the lighting of the holiday candles. During the Middle Ages, this custom was seen as a means of atonement for the dead. Today, however, it is a beautiful expression of tribute and remembrance.