Jewish Holiday: Yom Kippur

Laws & Customs
By: Amy J. Kramer

Since the first of Elul, more than a month before Yom Kippur, all of the customs, traditions, introspection, prayers, even foods, have been a kind of dress rehearsal for Yom Kippur: the day Jewish fate is sealed.

Preparation for Yom Kippur begins the day before:

Atonements: The ancient custom of Kapparot, or atonements, used to be practiced the afternoon before Yom Kippur. It involved swinging a live chicken around one's head and reciting the following prayer:

This is my change, this is my compensation, this is my redemption. This Rooster is going to be killed, and I shall enter upon a long, happy and peaceful life

When the rite was completed, the chicken was slaughtered and given to the poor. Because of the ceremony's seeming magical undertones, it ultimately drew rabbinic disaproval. Today, instead of waving a chicken, those who practice kapparot, put some money in a handkerchief, swing it around, and then donate it to charity.

Confession: The viddui, or confessional, is said during the afternoon prayers on the day before Yom Kippur. It is a custom for men to wear white. Although the vidui is repeated throughout Yom Kippur, it was thought that if one should die later that day, perhaps over something eaten before the fast, one would have already recited the confessional and sought forgiveness.

Seudah Ha-Mafseket: The final meal. Since Yom Kippur is the toughest fast day of the Jewish calendar, (about 25 hours) the rabbis thought to add a little festivity to the day before. The Talmud, in Tractate Yoma (81b), says that just as it is a mitzvah to fast on the tenth of Tishri, so is it a mitzvah to eat on the ninth.

The meal, which is similar to a traditional Sabbath meal, with soup and chicken, takes place before sunset and before synagogue services. Kiddush, the prayer over wine, is not recited, but the blessing over challah, taditional Jewish bread, is:

Baruch ata adonai, elohaynu melech ha'olam, hamotzei lechem, meen ha'aretz.

Blesses are you king of the universe who delivers forth bread from the earth.

During this last meal, salty foods, which may make the fast harder, are avoided. Drink plenty of water, and don't forget to wash and brush your teeth before beginning the fast. If you drink a lot of caffeine, it is a good idea to start cutting down at least one week beforeYom Kippur to avoid headaches from caffeine withdrawal.

Memorial Lights: In memory of parents who are deceased, special candles that burn throughout Yom Kippur are lit. Then the two holiday candles are lit and blessed. This lighting signals the beginning of Yom Kippur, which means no eating or drinking from this point.

First Blessing: Baruch ata adonai elohaynu melech haolam, asher keedshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadleek ner shel (shabbat) yom hakeepureem.

Blessed are You Adonai, Eternal One, Who enables us to welcome (shabbat) Yom Kippur by kindling these lights

Second Blessing: Baruch ata adonai elohaynu melech haolam, shehehayanu, v'keeyomanu v'higeeyanu laz'man hazeh.

Blessed are You Adonai, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us, and encouraged us to observe this day.

Blessings over Children: Before leaving for the synagogue, it is custom to bless one's children.

May G-d make you like (for a boy) Ephraim and Menasseh, (for a girl) like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. May G-d bless you and safeguard you. May G-d illuminate his countenance for you and be gracious to you. May G-d turn his countenance to you and establish peace for you.

Five Prohibitions: Once the holiday candles are lit, Yom Kippur and its five prohibitions take effect. From sunset to sunset, there is

  • no eating or drinking;
  • no bathing;
  • no using creams or oils;
  • no wearing leather shoes;
  • and no sexual relations.

However, children not yet bar or bat-mitzvah, women who are pregnant or nursing, and anyone who is sick or infirm, may eat and drink as needed. (Consult with a rabbi to be certain you qualify for an exemption.)

Central Prayers

TheYom Kippur service consists of the following prayers: Kol Nidrei and Maariv, recited the night before; and Shaharit; Musaf; Minchah; and Neilah, all recited the day of Yom Kippur.

Kol Nidrei: Written in Aramaic, this prayer makes null and void all vows and promises we make to G-d and may not keep in the coming year. It is the first prayer of Yom Kippur and should be recited before sunset. (Kol Nidrei does not effect promises made to other people.)

Maariv: Similar to other evening services, it is chanted in a special melody reserved for the High Holiday. This service also includes the vidui, or confession, followed by a selection of Selichot, penitentional prayers.

Shaharit: The morning service is not that different from other festivals with the exception of a number of extra piyutim, or poems. The morning Torah reading deals with the service in the temple and contains six aliya's, the special blessings said by men when called up to the Torah. This is one more aliah than regular holidays and one less than Shabbat. This is followed by the haftorah, which is from Isaiah (57:14-58:16), which is critical of those who fast out of "duty", rather than a true understanding of the day.

Yizkor: This is a special memorial prayer for those who have lost parents. It is usually recited during the shaharit service just following the Torah reading. Anyone whose parents are still alive should exit the main sanctuary until the prayer is finished.

Musaf: The longest service of the year, musaf is divided into two parts: The Avodah, which recounts the temple service; and the Eleh Ezkerah, the martyrology, which describes the murders of ten talmudic sages who were tortured by the Romans during the Hadrianic period, 115-138 C.E.

Minhah: If musaf is the longest service of Yom Kippur, minhah, the traditonal afternoon service, is the shortest. Most synagogues take a break after musaf so families can go home and rest for a couple of hours. During this service the Book of Jonah is read. (See, Heroes & Villains)

Neilah: This is the final, or concluding service of Yom Kippur. The Hebrew word, neilah, means locked, and is meant to symbolize the closing gates of heaven. During neilah, the ark is left open for maximum communication between the congregation and G-d. As a result, it is custom for the congregation to remain standing. At the conclusion of the service, the shofar is blown again.

Break-The-Fast: When the fast is over, families return home and eat a light, dairy meal, usually prepared in advance. It may include bagels and lox, or noodle kugel. Juice and coffee are almost always present.