Observances and Customs of Yom Kippur

Jewish people have been observing Yom Kippur for thousands of years, often going against great odds to fulfill the obligations of this special day. The customs of observing Yom Kippur have changed over centuries. When the Jews had the Temple in Jerusalem, the High Priest would make sacrifices in order to seek God's forgiveness of all Jews. One custom was to place all of Israel's sins on two goats—one to be sacrificed and the other sent to its death in the wilderness. (It is said that this is the origin for the word “scapegoat.”)

As you may recall, Yom Kippur was the only time the high priest was allowed to enter the inner chamber of the Temple, known as the Holy of Holies. There, in a sacred place said to be inhabited by the spirit of God, the high priest would utter a special prayer on behalf of the people of Israel.

Another ancient practice, still observed by very observant Jews and many of the Sephardim (both religious and secular) living in Israel, is Kapparot (atonements). The person performing Kapparot swings a live chicken around his head while reciting a special prayer. The chicken is then slaughtered and the meat is given to the poor (or a donation is made to a charity).

Today, forgiveness from God is sought through prayers of penitence and by fasting. In addition, people pursue other activities, mostly of an introspective nature, to help them accomplish teshuvah and lead a better life.

A Day of Fasting

Almost everyone—even non-Jews—knows that Yom Kippur is a day when Jews are forbidden to eat and drink. But fasting is only one of five prohibitions that must be obeyed. The other four forbid the following:

  • Washing or bathing.

  • Using creams and oils (a prohibition that extends to deodorants and cosmetics).

  • Sexual relations.

  • Wearing leather shoes.

One reason for not wearing leather shoes is the incongruity of deriving a benefit from the slaying of one of God's creatures while praying and beseeching God for a long life. This proscription might explain why it's not uncommon to see men wearing formal suits and canvas sneakers on Yom Kippur.

Unlike most religious fasts, which begin at sunrise and end at sunset, on Yom Kippur the fast commences before sunset on the evening of Yom Kippur and ends after nightfall the next day.

Since the fast lasts twenty-five hours, you can imagine the extensive preparations that go into the final meal before the fast, known as seudah ha-mafseket (the final meal). While there are no absolute requirements governing what is eaten, the meal is traditionally very similar to what is served on Shabbat.

Families traditionally light candles that will burn throughout Yom Kippur. Customarily, candles are lit before the holiday meal, but on Yom Kippur, the Jews will eat first and then light the candles, an act that symbolizes the beginning of Yom Kippur.

Why do the Jews fast on Yom Kippur? The best answer is that the Torah tells us God commanded the Jews to fast on this day, but there are other explanations as well. For one, refraining from consuming food or liquid is a concrete, physical expression of the gravity of the day. It helps each person attain the state of mind necessary to focus on the spiritual. Furthermore, fasting manifests a form of self-mastery over bodily needs. Another more socially conscious justification states that by fasting, people can identify more readily with the poor and hungry. But regardless of the reason, fasting is fundamental to the observance of Yom Kippur.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Jews are allowed to break the fast if it poses a physical threat. Thus, children under the age of nine and women in childbirth (that is, from the time the labor commences to three days following the birth) are absolutely forbidden to fast. Older children, not yet bar or bat mitzvah (thirteen years old for boys and twelve years old for girls), and women from the third to the seventh day after childbirth, are permitted to fast, but should resume eating or drinking if they feel the need.

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