Photograph by Xinhua, Li Rui/Getty
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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray at the Western Wall during Yom Kippur in the Old City of Jerusalem, on September 23, 2015. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year and marks a time for atonement through fasting and prayer.

Photograph by Xinhua, Li Rui/Getty

Why Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year

This day of atonement marks the end of the Jewish High Holidays—and is an opportunity for people to change their fate through prayer, repentance, and charity.

From guilt to mourning and self-abnegation to resolve, Yom Kippur is the emotional climax of the Jewish faith’s High Holidays. The holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur means “day of atonement.” It takes place on the 10th day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the lunisolar Hebrew calendar—and, this year, it will be celebrated on 10 Tishrei, 5781—September 27 and 28, 2020, on the Gregorian calendar.

Origins and meaning of Yom Kippur

Tradition has it that the holiday originated with the prophet Moses. After God gave Moses the Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai, Moses returned to the Israelites. During his prolonged absence, they began worshiping a golden calf, considered a false idol. In anger, he smashed the commandments, set in stone, then headed back up the mountain to pray for God’s forgiveness for himself and his people. Moses returned with a second set of the Ten Commandments—and God’s forgiveness for Israel.

Yom Kippur marks the end of the Days of Awe, or Days of Repentance, that begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. During the 10-day period, a person is thought to be able to influence God’s plans for the coming year. In the Mishnah, the legal text that dictates Jewish daily life, God is portrayed as inscribing people’s names in one of three books on Rosh Hashanah: a book that records the names of good people, a book of evil people, and a book of people who are neither totally wicked nor righteous.

Jews believe that they can perform acts of prayer, repentance, and charity during the Days of Awe to influence God, changing how they are categorized before the books are sealed on Yom Kippur.

How Yom Kippur is celebrated

The holiday begins at sundown and lasts until sundown the following day. Work is forbidden, and atonement for sins of the previous year is expressed through “afflictions,” including fasting and refraining from washing or bathing, sexual relations, wearing leather shoes, and applying lotions or creams. Though not all Jews observe all aspects of the holiday, it’s known as the one holiday on which many nonobservant Jews attend synagogue. (See how generations of Muslims have helped take care of a Jewish synagogue in India.)

Synagogue is a critical part of Yom Kippur, offering five prayer services. During each one, the congregation confesses its sins collectively. Some attendees wear white clothing or a kittel, a white garment that symbolizes a burial shroud, the clothing of angels, and the purity of forgiveness.

The first service, which takes place at sundown, includes the Kol Nidrei declaration, in which the congregation prays that any vows to God that cannot be fulfilled during the coming year be declared null and void. The declaration is thought to have become part of the ceremony as a way of allowing Jews who had endured forced conversions to return to their faith on the day of atonement. Historically, it has served as a pretext for anti-Semitism among those who claim it offers Jewish people a blanket permission to ignore their promises (it does not).

Since Jewish tradition dictates that God judges both the dead and the living, the first daytime service includes the Yizkor, a mourning service in which people recite a prayer on the behalf of a lost parent or loved one. Survivors also promise to perform acts of charity in the hopes of ensuring God’s positive judgment for their loved ones.

During the final service, which represents the “closing” of the gates of Heaven and the sealing of God’s book, those who can remain standing do so, and the entire congregation rededicates itself to the spiritual tenets of Judaism through prayer. (Pictures: Orthodox Jews observe Yom Kippur.)

As the last prayers of Yom Kippur fade, the shofar, or ram’s horn, is sounded, an indication that God’s forgiveness has been granted and that the 25-hour fast is over. Hungry congregants head home to break their fast with family and friends. In the United States, a classic Yom Kippur meal to end the fast is brunchlike, with bagels, smoked fish, and sweet and savory delights.

For a community that has been marking its day of atonement since biblical times, the age of coronavirus won’t derail the holiest of days. Many congregations in the United States will worship “together apart” on Zoom. Other strictly observant Jews who do not use electronics on Yom Kippur are finding creative ways to attend services anyway. In Baltimore, Orthodox Jews will worship outdoors, and in Washington, D.C., some in-person services will be shorter and lack music and sermons to reduce the risk of transmission.