Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which started on the evening of Wednesday, 15 September and ends on Thursday evening, 16 September. In this article, we thought we could learn a little more about the holiest day of the year for our Jewish brothers and sisters.

The origins of Yom Kippur trace back to the story of Moses. After Moses climbed Mount Sinai, God gave him two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. The first commandment told people that they should not worship anyone other than God. However, when he descended from the mountain, Moses caught the Israelites worshipping a golden calf and, in his anger, Moses shattered the holy tablets. The Israelites atoned for their idolatry and God forgave them on the 10th day of Tishrei, which then became known as Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day of the year for the Jewish people and, along with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), these festivals are known as the ‘High Holy Days’ or ‘Days of Awe’.

During the Days of Awe, Jews believe God inscribes their names on books, writing who will live and who will die and who will have a good year and who will have a bad year. On Yom Kippur, they believe those books are sealed. Because of this Jews use the days between these dates (the Days of Repentance) to reconcile with those they’ve offended in the previous year and repent of their sins.

Before Yom Kippur, some Jews symbolically throw their sins away in a practice called Tashlich (Hebrew for “to cast”). They will go to a body of water where they say prayers and throw bread into the water as a symbol of casting their sins away.

More religious Jews will perform the kaparot (symbolic “atonement”) rite in preparation for Yom Kippur, where they wave a chicken over their head three times while reciting Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” The fowl is then slaughtered and the person donates the bird, or its monetary value, to a charitable cause.

As well as this, many Jews choose to follow a tradition of wearing white clothing on Yom Kippur, symbolising purity and a Biblical promise that sins that are repented shall be made white as snow.

The most well-known tradition of Yom Kippur is fasting. It is a time for the Jewish people to set aside time to go to synagogues to carry out their fast and to pray. Many Jews fast a full 25 hours for Yom Kippur which helps them ensure they are fasting from sundown until sundown. Anyone who cannot safely fast, including children and pregnant women, are exempt.

Some of the more religious Jews also avoid washing, bathing, makeup and deodorant use, as well as sexual relations during Yom Kippur. And while this is a religious holiday, many Jews who do not actively practise Judaism will also take the day off work for Yom Kippur as they see it as an important day to commemorate. This is evident in Israel when almost all the country closes down over this period and the roads remain completely empty.

Yom Kippur concludes with the blowing of the Shofar (a trumpet made from a ram’s horn).

To break the fast at the end of Yom Kippur, many families hold a festive meal with relatives and friends to break the fast. Often times Jewish mothers will be fasting for 25 hours whilst also having to cook and prepare food for the family feast ahead.

Yom Kippur is a solemn day for the Jewish people. This is not a time to say “Happy Yom Kippur”, as it is not a celebratory day. So instead, if you are greeting a Jewish person today, you can say something like, “I pray you have a meaningful fast” or “may you have a peaceful Yom Kippur”

We hope you enjoyed learning a little about the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur. There is so much more for us Christians to learn from these biblical feasts so we encourage you to do some research of your own and see what you discover.

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