Known as the Day of Atonement in the Bible, Yom Kippur is regarded as the holiest and most solemn holiday on the Jewish calendar. It is a day of purposeful prayer, complete fasting and repentance, personal and communal. Yom Kippur is observed as the 10 Days of Awe (Yamim Nora’im, meaning Days of Awe, a sacred and serious period of time in the Jewish community) draw to a close, after having begun with Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, heralding the onset of the nearly month-long High Holy Day season. Together, these two holy days are closely linked.
Commencing on the tenth day in the Hebrew month of Tishrei, as commanded in the Bible, Leviticus 16:29-34, Yom Kippur signifies the final opportunity for Jewish people to seek atonement, forgiveness for their sins committed in the previous year, and to receive God’s blessing for the new year. The main observance is a fast—abstaining from all food and drink—from sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur to sunset the following day.
All of Israel comes to a halt during Yom Kippur. It is customary to see families and individuals walking together to their synagogue or to a place where they observe the solemnity of the day with others. Traditional dress includes garments made of white fabric (not leather) to symbolize purity. The prayer shawl, not typically donned in the evening, is, on this holy day, worn for the full Yom Kippur observance. There is virtually no traffic on the highways or roads nor sunbathers on the beach. Even children are sensitive to the gravity of the day. Businesses are closed. Israeli radio and television stations suspend operations until the close of the holiday.
Community members exchange various holiday greetings during this time of year. In the midst of the 10 Days of Awe, it is customary to greet one another with the following wish: “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.” On the eve of the onset of Yom Kippur, it is appropriate to tell fellow worshippers, “Have a meaningful fast,” with the wish that, despite the possibility of being thirsty or hungry, community members receive the holiness of the day with intentional prayer. At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the greeting shared is, “May you have been sealed in the Book of Life, G’mar chatimah tovah,” during which time the shofar – usually a ram’s horn – is blown by one or several worshippers in front of the entire congregation, signifying God’s redemptive act in responding to worshippers’ genuine repentance.
If you happen to be in Israel during this time, consider making arrangements to participate in Yom Kippur services at a local synagogue. Perhaps you can use this occasion to take a long stroll around the area. If you are staying in a hotel, there is usually a limited buffet available to guests who do not wish to participate in the fast. Despite the quietude of the holy day, and the fasting that takes place, it is a full day, abundantly embraced by prayerful observance and personal and communal pleas for good health, success, and peace.