Yom Kippur is the most important festival in the Jewish calendar, falling in the months of September or October each year in the Jewish month of “Tishri”. It is a festival observed by all Jews, young and old alike. This festival is so important that in Israel, all business comes to a standstill. Television and radio broadcasts are suspended and even the transport system is suspended. The whole nation comes to a halt to observe the festival in all the solemnity that it calls for.
Yom Kippur History
So what is Yom Kippur all about? Yom Kippur is the “Day of Atonement” and is considered to be the “Sabbath of all Sabbaths”. It is marked by a 25 hour period of prayer, meditation and fasting. The origins of Yom Kippur can be traced down to the Bible in Leviticus chapter 23, verse 27 where God speaks to Moses and says, “on the tenth day of the seventh month there shall be a day of atonement … ye shall not do work on that same day …”. So the interpretation of this is quite clear – all work should stop. One should spend the period of Yom Kippur in prayer and fasting. One should also meditate for self-improvement and engage in charitable activities.
Rules of Yom Kippur
The rules to be followed during Yom Kippur are rather stringent. The most prominent of them are as follows:
- Fasting: One should not eat or drink anything not even water for 25 hours, starting at sunset the previous day and ending on the evening of the next day.
- Bathing: Nobody is allowed to bathe during the observance of Yom Kippur.
- Makeup and Jewelry: No-one should wear makeup or jewelry. Even ointment or lotions and creams, and use of sprays or deodorants is prohibited.
- Use of leather: Use of leather articles of any type is banned.
- Marital relations: Celibacy is to be practiced during this period.
Facts about Yom Kippur
There are a few interesting things to note about this festival. Listed below are a few of the salient features of Yom Kippur.
- Blowing of the Shofar: The period of fasting is ended by the blowing of the Shofar which is a ram’s horn. It is an acquired skill. It is not easy and involves a particular technique.
- Clothes worn during Yom Kippur: The general color worn is white. Married men wear a “kittle” which is a white robe and also a prayer shawl known as “tallit”. They wear a kippah or yarmulke which is the traditional headgear of Jews. It is not so clearly defined what women should wear, except that a few women will also wear Kippahs but usually they cover their head with a scarf or a hat.
- Prayers in the Synagogue: On the eve of Yom Kippur, people go to the synagogue where special prayers are offered. The rituals start with the Kol Nidrei which is a prayer which seeks forgiveness for all the unfulfilled vows of the year gone by. The Jewish people often make resolutions at this point about things that they will do in the year to come. There are totally five main prayers performed during the period of Yom Kippur. All prayer services end with the sounding of the Shofar which signifies the closing of the gates of Heaven.
- Kapporot: This is a rare custom practiced by some orthodox Jews. Chickens are swung over the heads of people – a hen for a woman and a rooster for a man. The person chants that the act of the bird dying will result in a peaceful, long and happy life. This sacrifice has today been replaced by just giving alms to the poor wrapped in a handkerchief.
- Yizkor: The meaning of Yizkor is to pay one’s respects to the dead. The late ancestors are remembered and graveyards are visited. As the children may not be familiar with some of the people’s graves they are about to visit, they are shown photographs and told stories about the lives of those people. That way they get an idea about the person whose grave they might visit.
- Mitzvah: Mitzvah is a Yiddish word which means a good deed. A person can do a Mitzvah by visiting needy and lonely or sick people and offering them gifts. So a person can visit an old age home, an orphanage, or a hospital. It is important to present a gift which will be useful to the recipient, thereby imbibing some meaning into the act.
- Breaking of the fast: When finally the 25 hours come to a close, the fast can finally be broken. There are several rituals to be observed at this point. The fast can be broken in the synagogue or at home. In any case, it is a communal affair, and will be shared by friends and family. The fast is broken by “challah”, a kind of Jewish bread and cake.
These are some salient points surrounding the tradition of Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of all Sabbaths – a Day of Atonement, self-appraisal, forgiveness, prayer and meditation.
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