Yom Kippur literally means the “Day of Atonement” and is considered the holiest day of the Jewish year. Along with Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur is considered a High Holiday. Three different times in the Torah (the first five books in the Old Testament, also called the Law), the people of Israel are told that the tenth day of the seventh month is to be a sacred occasion for the people – the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29; 23:27; 25:9; Numbers 29:7-11).
The Law describes Yom Kippur as a festival whose day is centered almost exclusively upon the Temple in Jerusalem. It was on this day that the high priest performed complicated sacrifices and rituals that worked to purify the Temple and as a result the sins of the Israelites.
Yom Kippur focuses attention upon acknowledging our sins against others and against God. It accepts responsibility for the pain and suffering we may have caused. It dedicates our efforts on reconciling ourselves to God first and then to others.
Dates for Yom Kippur
(begins sundown, evening before)
The concept of setting aside a day to provide atonement is grounded in biblical history. God’s gracious acts to provide just payment for those who break the law is as constant as man’s tendencies to break the law.
The root for the word “Kippur” is probably kafar which means “ransom.” The word is similar to the word “redeem” (Psalm 49:7) and means to “atone by offering a substitute.” Through the ritual of sprinkling the blood of the sacrificial animal by the priest, the sin or defilement of the people was set aside. The priest would place his hands on the head of the sacrifice and would confess his sins over the animal. Once confession was made, the animal would either be sacrificed or was sent out as a scapegoat.
While the priest performed these rituals, the people would anxiously await the completion of the ceremony. The Day of Atonement also served as a day of spiritual cleansing. The Law would see fasting as a legitimate expression of this. Often the people would wait near the Temple or in a synagogue, spending time in prayer.
According to tradition, the people were to abstain from the five pleasures of life during the period of Yom Kippur. Those pleasures, based upon Leviticus 23:27, are eating and drinking; washing and bathing; applying lotions or perfume; wearing leather shoes; and sexual relations. Tradition held that by abstaining from these things, humans could begin to resemble the angels.
Following the destruction of the Temple, Yom Kippur of necessity began to focus solely on the inward work of atonement. It becomes an act of self-discipline and self-purification. The denials of some of the pleasures of life serves to cleanse the soul. By giving up the most basic of necessities, the attentions of life can be on the spiritual rather than the physical. Yom Kippur becomes the moment in time when the Jewish believer dedicates himself to reconciling with God, others and himself.
Customs and Rituals
Tradition holds that Rosh HaShanah is the day when names are written into the Book of Life. It is on Yom Kippur that the decree for the coming year is sealed. People of faith hold that by repentance, prayer and charity the outcome of the year ahead is solidified before God.
Fasting is seen as a way to fulfill the biblical commands to practice discipline and self-denial. The Yom Kippur fast encourages the believer to focus on spiritual needs and relationships rather than physical ones. During the fasting, prayer, repentance and the disciples of life are meditated upon.
All females from the age of 12 and all males from the age of 13 must fast at Yom Kippur. The fast takes place for twenty-four hours, beginning after the Erev Yom Kippur meal in the evening and extending to the following evening. No eating or drinking is permitted during this time.
Judaism holds a deep respect and honor for life. While the Yom Kippur fast is of deep significance, it should never be done if it would jeopardize health. Those too ill to fast are actually prohibited from doing so. Special exceptions are made for those who are taking medicine, pregnant or nursing, or of advanced age.
If there is concern about a specific circumstance, it is encouraged that a rabbi be consulted for proper procedures during Yom Kippur.
Funerals and Mourning during Yom Kippur
Jewish teaching provides specific guidelines for how the deceased should be properly mourned by the family through defined Periods of Mourning in Judaism.
The Jewish burial usually takes place within a couple of days after the death. It is usually a time of stress and busyness for the family, as many decisions and details surrounding the funeral must be considered. A telephone call relaying personal condolences would be welcomed.
Public viewing of the body is against Jewish law and tradition. There is no equivalent to the wake or funeral visitation. Today Jewish funerals are held at a funeral home, synagogue, cemetery building or graveside. Attending a funeral is a demonstration of care and concern for the surviving family and respect for the deceased. Invitations to a funeral are rarely offered, but friends are always encouraged to attend. In Judaism accompanying the family to the gravesite is one of the highest forms of kindness.
After the burial, the first period of mourning begins. Shiva (meaning “seven”) consists of seven days of mourning during which family members remain in their home. During shiva the family would stay home from work, refrain from public appearances, and not conduct any business transactions. Friends and family members would reach out to the bereaved by visiting the home to offer comfort and support.
When Yom Kippur falls in the middle of the shiva period, the remainder of shiva is anulled upon the commencement of the holiday. It is permissible for the family to attend congregational services, but they should not participate in any leadership role. During the holiday, it would be permissible for the family to attend congregational services, but they should not participate in any leadership role.
Because of the sensitive nature of the time of loss, a Rabbi should be consulted for proper procedures for mourning during the holiday, particularly in complicated situations. The rabbi will take into account the circumstances, traditions and Scripture and offer guidance.
Remembering Loved Ones during Yom Kippur
Since Yom Kippur serves as a solemn day of atonement, there is a prescribed time to honor and reflect upon life and loved ones. The Yizkor (also Yiskor) is a special memorial service held four times a year. Yizkor is the Hebrew word for “remembrance.” This dedicated part of the service is considered one of the most recognized times to remember the deceased.
Because Jewish festivals contain moments of remembrance and family, the Yizkor during Yom Kippur is a perfect time to honor and commemorate deceased family members. Lasting tributes such as contributions to charities, hospitals or hospices, synagogues or other organizations provide meaningful memorials for departed loved ones.
The tradition of inscribing one’s name in the book of life is a common occurrence in the Jewish faith. Families may light a yizkor candle, plant a tree in Israel, or dedicate a name plaque. Other meaningful and appropriate ways to memorialize a loved one include the creation of a Plaque and Memory page online through the National Jewish Memorial Wall (NJMW.org). The inclusion on a memorial or yahrzeit wall is a meaningful way to show honor and respect for the deceased.