Yom Kippur is both a somber and celebratory time. These may sound contradictory, but they combine gracefully on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur marks the end of the Ten Days of Repentance, set aside each year for us to affect repentance from our sins of the past year. Our repentance culminates in a day of prayer and fasting. Fasting -- afflicting our bodies -- serves to atone for all those sins toward God which have not already been atoned for by other means. Tradition holds that sins between human beings must be taken care of prior to Yom Kippur by the offending asking the forgiveness of the one offended. Whatever can be rectified must be rectified. Once this has happened and the two people are reconciled, the offender can approach God and ask God's forgiveness because in hurting another human being, the offender sinned against God, as well. The fast of Yom Kippur atones for these sins. Atonement brings about a spiritual cleansing, a cleaning of the slate, and it is this religious experience which makes it a celebratory day, for we are confident in God's forgiveness. Our God is a merciful and forgiving God and sincere repentance is always rewarded with forgiveness.
Atonement is the final stage in the process of repentance. The essence of atonement is the effort to correct the damage caused by sin. While it is never possible to take back our words and deeds entirely, it is usually possible to apologize and reverse some of the ill effects of what we have said and done. Implicit in this effort is reconciliation, both with the one whom we have offended and with God, who is offended by every sin. When all efforts to atone and reconcile have been made, on Yom Kippur Jews above the age of 13 are commanded to fast for the duration of Yom Kippur in order to atone for all other sins against God. This complete 25-hour fast, during which no food or water may be ingested, is intended to both afflict the body and also remove all distractions from the worshiper who is then free to concentrate on the spiritual business of the day. (More on fasting below.)
One who is thirteen and a day (bar or bat mitzvah) is obligated to fast on Yom Kippur. This means a complete abstention of all food and drink from sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur until three stars appear in the sky at the end of Yom Kippur and Havdalah (the ceremony of separation from holy time) is recited. Children are not permitted to fast because it might be dangerous to their health, but older children who are approaching 13 are trained to fast by skipping one meal, or snacks, during the day. Those whose health depends upon medicine which must be taken with food, and elderly people who are weak, or anyone who is sick and needs food to maintain their health, is forbidden from fasting and required to eat.
The prayer services of Yom Kippur are many and long. The prayerbook is a called a Machzor (from the root meaning "return" because of the cyclical nature of the year.) (Click here for a synopsis of the prayer services on Yom Kippur and other occasions throughout the Jewish year.) They feature confessional prayers of both a private and communal nature. Many people spend the entire day in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. When there are breaks between the prayer services, they may use these for study, meditation, or discussion with others. Yom Kippur is unique in that the tallit (prayer shawl) is worn for all the prayer services of the day, from the evening before through Havdalah at the end of the day. Perhaps the most famous prayer of the entire day is Kol Nidre, which is actually recited prior to Yom Kippur, before the sun sets. It is chanted dramatically and movingly before a beit din (court) of three, one of whom is holding a scroll of Torah. Technically, it is a legal procedure (and hence must be conducted prior to sundown) by which the members of the congregation are released from unfulfilled vows which will be made during the coming year, the assumption being that these are vows made under duress. (Sephardic Jews recited a slightly different text in which they are released from unfulfilled vows made during the past year.) It derives from a period in our history when forced conversions were common and many Jews continued to maintain their religious heritage in secret. Kol Nidre released them from the vows they had made in duress against their will. Some have argued that we no longer need to chant Kol Nidre because our situation is one of freedom and tolerance, but most would counter that Kol Nidre reminds us that this was not always the case nor is freedom the right of all people today, and in addition, the prayer is so beautiful and moving, few Jews could imagine Yom Kippur without Kol Nidre.
For all their solemnity, the prayers of Yom Kippur are also joyous because we are confident in God's mercy and forgiveness. If our repentance has been sincere, our atonement will be complete. The prayers of Yom Kippur reflect this joy. The prayers for forgiveness are shorter on Yom Kippur than on Rosh Hashanah, and Avinu Malkeinu, which asks God to write us into the Book of Life, is omitted. The Vidui (confessional) prayers are recited in every service. They are couched in the plural ("we have sinned...") and list more sins than any one person is likely to have committed in the past year, promptly commentators to ask: Why do we confess to sins we didn't commit? The answer often given is that the Vidui is a public confessional because we do not ask individuals to stand before the community and confess their sins publicly. Rather, we stand before God as a community and confess as a people. In addition, as a community, we each bear some responsibility for the sins of others if we could have helped guide and support them but failed to do so. Hence, part of their guilt rests with each of us.
A high point of the Yom Kippur liturgy is the recitation of the Avodah during Musaf (the additional service in the morning). The Avodah is a detailed account of the rites and practices of the High Priest on Yom Kippur during the Second Temple Period. These are preserved for us in the Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Yoma. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest would affect atonement for himself, his family, all the priests, and the entire nation through a complex series of rituals in the Temple involving the sacrifice of several animals, the burning of incense, and the release of a goat to Azazel (this ritual appears to be the origin of the "scapegoat" because the goat sent to Azazel carried on its back -- figuratively -- the sins of the people). During the course of the day, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, where tradition holds that the Ark of the Covenant was kept during the First Temple Period (it disappeared when the First Temple, built by King Solomon, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.). In the Holy of Holies, the High Priest recited a confessional in which he pronounced God's ineffable name, uttered outloud at no other time. Indeed, we no longer know how it is properly pronounced because Hebrew had no vowels until many centuries after this rite had ended. Hence, we know the four consonants which comprise God's Name, but not how they are connected with vowels.
Another feature of the day is the Martyrology. The deaths of ten Sages at the hands of the Romans during the reign of Hadrian are recounted. These sages died rather than acquiesce to the Romans' command that they stop teaching and practicing Torah. The Martyrology was instituted in the wake of the Crusades, a time when many Jews were killed for their beliefs and practices. The recitation of the Martyrology permitted them to view their own suffering and sacrifices in the framework of the suffering and sacrifices of the Sages who died to preserve Torah one thousand years before them. Contemporary machzorim (High Holy Day prayerbooks) often contain readings which speak of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust, as well.
Yom Kippur is a day dedicated to prayer and meditation. One does no work, fasts, avoids pleasurable activities (such as bathing, anointing, sexual relations, and all forms of entertainment). It is a day set aside for prayer and contemplation and those who keep Yom Kippur in this way will tell you of its spiritual power.
I am often asked about the order of blessings associated with the meal prior to Yom Kippur. This is not a festival or holiday meal, because it takes place prior to the onset of Yom Kippur. Hence the only blessing preceding it is Motzi and Birchat Hamazon follows. There is no need for challah, though most people serve a round challah with raisins because it is still the New Year season, nor is there Kiddush, because the holiday has not begun. However, when the table is cleared and the sun sets, a yahrzeit candle may be lit to recall the memories of those who have died. The holiday candles are lit and the blessing ends "asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Yom HaKippurim." If Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat, the blessing is amended to read "asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat v'shel Yom HaKippurim."
It is traditional to wear white on Yom Kippur because white is the color associated with both purity and death. Some people wear a kittel, the garment in which they will eventually be buried. Yom Kippur is a time when we consider deeply the meaning of life and death, as we consider that that metaphorically God's judgment will be sealed in the next 24 hours. Many people abstain from wearing leather on Yom Kippur, as required by tradition, since an animal died in order that the leather garment could be produced. Yom Kippur is a time for being especially sensitive to life and death concerns, including the lives of animals. (And yes, one feeds one's animals on Yom Kippur. Animals are not obligated to fast.)
The shofar is blown but once on Yom Kippur: one long blast (Tekiah Gedolah) at the very end of the holiday, signifying that it is over and bespeaking the future blast of the shofar when the ultimate Day of Judgment will dawn, the Messianic Age.
It is traditional for people to gather, either in their synagogue, or in small groupings of family and friends in their homes, to break the fast of Yom Kippur together. Different people have different traditions of how to break the fast, but potatoes are popular among many people. They enjoy a small meal together and then tradition dictates that before eating a large meal, they move to the next mitzvah (religious obligation) which is to put up their Sukkah for the Festival of Sukkot. They therefore begin the task to symbolize their eagerness to engage in the next mitzvah, and then finish their meal.
The Jewish Holidays: A Guide & Commentary by Michael Strassfeld (Harper & Row).
The How To Handbook for Jewish Living by Kerry M. Olitzky and Ronald H. Isaacs (Ktav).
It's a Mitzvah! by Bradley Shavit Artson (Behrman House and the Rabbinical Assembly).
Jewish Family & Life by Yosef I. Abramowitz and Rabbi Susan Silverman (Golden Books).
The Kid's Catalog of Jewish Holidays by David Adler (Jewish Publication Society).
Seasons for Celebration by Rabbi Karen L. Fox and Phyllis Zimbler Miller (Perigee Books).