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Yom Kippur

Home > Holidays > Yom Kippur's Guide to Yom Kippur
Erev Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur: Observance

The fast begins in the evening, when Yom Kippur starts, and continues until dark the next day. Children over the age of bar/bat mitzvah are required to fast; children close to bar/bat mitzvah usually fast part of the day. Anyone who is ill or needs medications should consult a rabbi, though generally speaking health concerns supercede the requirement to fast.

In addition to eating and drinking, other comforts are also prohibited on Yom Kippur. Wearing leather shoes (considered the most comfortable), anointing the body with oils, and sexual relations are out. Whereas on Tisha B'av these comforts are prohibited due to the observance of mourning, on Yom Kippur the ban helps Jews take on an angelic state, focusing solely on their spiritual side. Yom Kippur is also known as Shabbat Shabbaton, the highest of Sabbaths; anything prohibited on Shabbat is also prohibited on Yom Kippur.

Dressed in the customary white-a sign of purity-both men and women attend the evening service. The Kol Nidrei prayer, one of the most beautiful prayers in the Jewish liturgy, is chanted by the cantor three times. Kol Nidrei stems back to the days when Jews were forced to vow to follow other religions; it absolved Jews of any religious vows made for the coming year. Although today most Jews are lucky enough to live in places where they can practice Judaism freely, that was not always the case.

Kol Nidrei is recited in a special tune that dates back several centuries. All of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services have special tunes, niggunim, used only on these days. The solemn tunes convey the seriousness of the day.

The prayer most often said during the Yom Kippur services is a special confessional prayer, viddui, which includes the "Ashamnu," an alphabetical list of wrongdoings, and the "Al Chet," an alphabetical list of the most common sins. During both parts worshipers softly beat their chests as they read each of the sins. Interestingly, Both parts are read in the plural form "we have done," rather than "I." This group confession attests that every person must bear some responsibility for others.

Morning services begin early and run late. The Torah portion and haftorah portion are appropriate for the day, dealing with the Yom Kippur service and the prophet's urging of the Jewish people to repent, respectively.

Yizkor, the Jewish memorial prayer for lost loved ones, is recited on Yom Kippur. Some congregations have the custom that people who do not have to recite Yizkor step outside for this brief service, mainly for superstitious reasons, that people do not want to be present for a memorial prayer with their parents still alive, perhaps even standing next to them in synagogue.

During the musaf prayer, the avodah prayer is recited, detailing the service the high priest performed in the Beit Hamikdash, the holy temple, to attain forgiveness for the people. Yom Kippur marked the one day of the year the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies in the temple; entrance on any other day of the year would result in sudden death.

Musaf also features one practice reserved exclusively for Yom Kippur: prostrating. Four times-three during the avodah and once during the well known Alenu prayer-during the cantor's repetition of musaf, everyone present prostrates themselves on the ground, bowing down to God.

After musaf, some congregations take a break for people to head home and rest, while others offer discussion groups or programs to help people focus on Yom Kippur themes while keeping their mind off hunger.

The mincha, or afternoon, service would typically end a day, but Yom Kippur is no ordinary day. Yom Kippur ends with Ne'ilah, the concluding prayer. Ne'ilah means closing up and sealing. The ten days of repentance are ending. The gates of heaven are closing. God is now sealing his decree for the coming year.

Ne'ilah is a tiring service. The ark is kept open, and many people stand for the entire service. Yet hunger and thirst give way to the spiritual nature of the moment. The fasting has served its purpose, making everyone in synagogue think about their actions until that point-and what they can do to improve.

Final prayers for mercy are recited with strong voices as Ne'ilah nears its end and the intensity of the prayers increase. The service includes selichot, the special prayers that began the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, bringing the entire High Holiday period full circle. People look deep inside their souls as they recite Avinu Malkeinu, "Our Father, Our King" one last time. The Shema is recited, and the shofar is blown. Everyone joyously sings "Next Year in Jerusalem."

Yom Kippur has ended. The fast is over. But the commitments people made to improve their actions remain. And God, as is recited so often on Yom Kippur, is the ultimate judge.

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