Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the most sacred day observed in the Jewish calendar. During Yom Kippur, the faithful gather to reflect on their sins and to ask for forgiveness. Yom Kippur is observed through a 25-hour fast and prayer. Many Jews will wear white during Yom Kippur and will also forgo sex, bathing and the wearing of any makeup and perfume.
Yom Kippur takes place 10 days after Rosh Hashanah during and the time between the two holy days, known as the Days of Repentance or the Days of Awe. Jews will spend time reflecting on their sins of the past year and making things right again before asking for God’s forgiveness.
Because of its great significance in the Jewish religion, Yom Kippur has five prayer services as opposed to the usual three on a regular day. Even non-observant Jews will spend Yom Kippur in the Synagogue in continual prayer.
The first of the prayer services takes place on the eve of Yom Kippur and is called Kol Nidrei. Meaning ‘annulment of vows,’ Kol Nidrei is recited during sundown and consists of the opening of the Ark and the taking out of the Torah while reciting the prayer. The Torah scrolls are then returned to the Ark. The prayer is a statement of the promises, vows and commitments made during the year and invalidates them, by saying that they are ‘absolved, remitted, cancelled, declared null and void, not in force of effect.’
The following morning, Shacharit, or the morning service, takes place. The morning service consists of prayers called Shema and Amidah, which are followed by reading the Torah. The Torah reading is about the Day of Atonement, the only day of the year in which the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies to pray on behalf of his people.
This is followed by the Yizhor service, which is a time for people to connect to departed relatives. It is said that during the service, the departed join their loved ones in prayer. It is recited by people who have lost their parents. Those who still have living parents leave the synagogue at this time.
Immediately after the Morning Service is finished, the Musaf Service takes place. The cantor repeats the Amidah and recounts the Yom Kippur that took place in the Holy Temple and the priestly blessing. During this service, the priests are commanded to bless the Jewish people by removing their shoes and ritually washing their hands. While the blessing is taking place, the people in the Synagogue refrain from looking directly at the priests, instead covering their eyes with their prayer shawls (for the men) or looking at their prayer books (for the women). When the blessing is completed, the people will thank the priests by saying Yashar Koach, meaning literally ‘strength’ or ‘may you have strength’.
The following service is the Afternoon Service during which the Torah is read, the Amidah prayer is said and Avinu Malkenu (‘our father, our king’) is recited. The Torah reading is about the purity of the Jewish religion and warns the people not to follow in the unholy ways of the Egyptians and Canaanites. The Book of Jonah is then read in its entirety, containing a message on the importance of repentance and prayer which lead from darkness to light again.
The final service of Yom Kippur is the Neilah service. This opens with the Amidah and concludes with the sounding of the shofur, or ram’s horn, and closing prayers. Neilah means ‘closing the gate’ and during this time, the people ask God to accept the repentance for their sins and to acknowledge their new resolutions, asking that they may be granted a new year of happiness and goodness. During the service, the Ark remains open. The reciting of the closing prayers is the emotional peak of Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur concludes the period known as the High Holy Days and is the most solemn and sacred time for the Jewish people, practising or not. During Yom Kippur, the synagogues are full of those wishing for forgiveness of their past transgressions and the opportunity to start anew.