Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement


Q: Why is Yom Kippur such an important holiday in the Jewish year?

According to tradition, Yom Kippur is the day on which God accepted the Jewish people’s repentance for building the Golden Calf by giving Moses a second set of ten commandments. Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with them on the tenth of Tishri (Yom Kippur).Yom Kippur begins before sundown and ends after sundown the following day. This makes a fast day of more than 25 hours!

The ten days from Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah (The Ten Days of Repentance.) This is the time when we think about our deeds, apologize to those we have wronged and give extra tzedakah. We are preparing ourselves for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Yom Kippur is a day of prayer and fasting. Healthy people, over the age of 13, fast on Yom Kippur. Why do people fast? There are many reasons:

  1. Fasting is a way of saying, “I did something wrong, and I want to say I’m sorry.
  2. Fasting says, “I have self-discipline. I can control what I do.”
  3. Fasting makes us think about more spiritual things (higher thoughts about God) and not about our bodily needs.
  4. Fasting helps us know how it feels to be hungry.

During Yom Kippur many people spend nearly the whole day in synagogue. Jewish tradition teaches us that on Yom Kippur the gates of heaven are open to our prayers. At the last part of the Yom Kippur service, called Ne’ilah, the gates begin to close. Although we can repent everyday of the year, the Ne’ilah service marks our last chance to pray for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. At the Ne’ilah service, the Shema is recited by everyone,“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” Then comes one very long shofar blast and the holiest day of the year is over.

Reprinted from the Alef Branch, a publication of the Council for Jewish Education and the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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