About Yom Kippur
And this shall be a statute for you forever: that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of
the month, you shall humble your souls, and do no work, the native, or the stranger that
sojourns among you. (Lev. 16:29)
Also, the tenth day of this seventh month shall be a yom hakippurim.
It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall humble your soul, and you shall bring an
offering by fire to the Lord; you shall do no work throughout that day. For it is a yom
hakippurim, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God. (Lev.
On the tenth day of the same seventh month you shall observe a sacred occasion when
you shall humble your soul. You shall do no work. (Num. 29:7)
Ten days after Rosh Hashanah, the holiday of Yom Kippur occurs. Yom Kippur marks the end
of a period of individual introspection, but the holiday itself is a day of communal rather than
individual assessment. The holiday, now considered to be the ultimate holiday of the year, is only mentioned
three times in the Torah. It’s not found elsewhere in the Tanakh. The Torah portion we read in the
morning service doesn’t even have anything to do with Yom Kippur; this reading describes the
dedication service of the Mishkan and was held on 1 Nisan, according to Rashi, based on comments
in the Talmud; this was the date of the Mishkan’s erection and the completion of Aarons’ and his sons’ ordination.
Yom Kippur, in addition to its spiritual importance, also has significant
social and ethical components that complement its significance for the individual Jew. The social
component reflects the Jewish religion’s orientation toward the community rather than the
individual. This is illustrated in the Tanakh, which repeatedly stresses that rewards and
punishments were served on the people by God based upon the community’s behavior as a
whole. In modern times this idea is continued in the Jewish principles of tzedakah, charitable
service, and tikkun olam, “repairing the world.” At Yom Kippur we recall that both the individual
as well as the community are responsible for one another and both have an obligation to do as
much as possible to improve our world.
The ethical component of the holiday reminds us that we all are capable of changing our behavior
to improve our lives and our relationships with others. On Yom Kippur, we atone for our sins as
a community but also as individuals, resolving to refrain from repeating these acts in the future,
and ask that others forgive us for any wrongs committed against them. The idea that one’s
personal actions are inseparable from the fate of the world is embodied in this passage from the
Rabbi Elazar ben R. Shimon said: The world is judged by the majority [of its deeds], and
an individual [also] is judged by the majority [of his deeds]. A man should therefore
always regard himself and the world as half meritorious and half guilty. If he performs
one good deed, happy is he, for he has tilted the scale both for himself and for the entire
world, all of it, toward the side of merit; if he commits even one transgression, woe to
him, for he has tilted the scale both for himself and for the entire world, all of it, toward
the side of guilt. (b. Kiddushin 40b)
What's your name? Yom Kippur is called a variety of names in the Bible and in rabbinic writings. In
Leviticus it's called both Shabbat Shabbaton, "Sabbath of Complete Rest" (16:31) and
Yom haKippurim, "Day of Atonements" (23:27). For the rabbis of the Talmud, the day was known as
Yoma, "the day," and this was the name given to the tractate that dealt with the holiday. In
the Jerusalem Talmud, Yom Kippur is referred to as Tzoma Rabbah, "the great fast" (j.
Peah 7:4), and in another place as simply Tzoma, "fast" (j. Bava Batra 9:7).
- The mitzvah to fast on Yom Kippur is not actually mentioned in the Torah. In Leviticus 16:29,
23:27 (and Numbers 29:7), the word nafshoteichem is used, which refers to “humbling (or
mortifying, afflicting) one’s soul.” This has been interpreted as including, in addition to fasting,
refraining from bathing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and sexual relations (Yad, Shevitat
Asor 1:5), but many say that these are forbidden only by rabbinic legislation (Tosafot, Yoma 7b).
The instances of actual fasting that are mentioned in the Tanakh that can be identified as a
pre-exilic practice seem to refer not to fasts associated with any ritual or cultic observance, but when
an occasion warranted it. One notable example may be found in 2 Samuel 12:16–17, where
David fasts to show remorse and to try to gain God’s pity.
All adults and children past their b’nei mitzvah are expected to fast. The Rabbis,
recognizing that it may not be wise for everyone to fast (piku’ach nefesh, regard for life),
exempt the infirm, the elderly, and children, from fasting. However, if one can adequately fulfill
the mitzvah to fast, one is expected to do so.
A twenty-five-hour fast? But the day is only 24 hours long. Why 25 hours? Since Jews are
expected to fast from one-half hour before sundown until night falls the next day, the fast is
actually longer than one full day; during the early fall this period is quite close to 25 hours.
According to the Talmud, not only is it a requirement to fast on the tenth of Tishrei, it is also a
mitzvah to eat on the ninth: “One who eats and drinks on the ninth of Tishrei, the Torah considers
it as if one fasted on the ninth and tenth of Tishrei” (b. Yoma 81b). This interpretation is based
upon the statement in Leviticus 23:32, which refers to Yom Kippur as a shabbat shabbaton, a
“sabbath of complete rest.” If Yom Kippur is to be a day of complete rest, the rabbis reasoned,
then the day before should not be grim and forbidding. Thus, the s’lichot service on erev Yom
Kippur is abbreviated and the Avinu Malkeinu prayer is not recited.
The fast of Yom Kippur necessitates some changes in pre-holiday ritual: Since the lighting of
holiday candles ushers in the holiday, the Yom Kippur candles are lit after the meal rather than
before. Also, this is the only biblical holiday for which no kiddush is performed. The
mincha (afternoon) service is said earlier in the afternoon than usual to accommodate the
early pre-holiday meal, and the viddui (confessional) prayer, which is recited at every
Yom Kippur service, is recited at this service as well. This custom was attributed to the
superstitious belief that, should the person die before the holiday began, reciting it early still
allowed the person to seek forgiveness, but its actual source is rooted in the second or
third centuries CE, when the rabbis instituted it because of the fear that people would overindulge
in food in preparation for the fast and neglect to participate in the evening prayer (b. Yoma
Which is the holier day—Yom Kippur or Shabbat? This is a question that has exercised
commentators, theologians, and rabbis—not to mention innumerable laypersons—for many
centuries. Consider: Shabbat is mentioned hundreds of times in the Torah; it is the first mitzvah
in the Bible, observed and sanctified by God (Gen. 2:3). It is the first holy day mentioned in the
Torah. The fourth commandment tells us we must observe the Shabbat. On the other hand, Yom Kippur
is only mentioned three times (being named only once), and is not mentioned at all in the Ten
Commandments. It's true that it is called a shabbat shabbaton, a “sabbath of complete rest”
(Lev. 16:31, 23:32); however, so is Shabbat itself (Ex. 31:15, Lev. 23:3), which is also called a
shabbaton shabbat-kodesh, "a rest, a holy Shabbat" (Ex. 16:23), and even Rosh Hashanah, Shemini
Atzeret, and Sukkot are each called a shabbaton (Lev. 23:23, 39), so this isn't any help
either. What about the penalty for not observing the commandment to rest? In Numbers, we learn
that the punishment for violating Shabbat is death by stoning (Num. 15:32–36), while
violating Yom Kippur is to result in being “cut off from the people” or “destroyed from the
midst of his people,” a punishment reserved for God alone. So on the basis of the Torah, God
sanctified Shabbat, it’s mentioned lots of times, we’re told to “remember it” (in the Decalogue of Shemot) and “guard it” (in the Decalogue of D’varim), and violating it is a capital offense—but Yom Kippur is only commanded to be a "day of complete rest."
What about in the liturgy? Do we find a clue there? Perhaps—when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat,
there is a tension between two prayers, Psalm 92 for Shabbat, mizmor shir le-yom ha-shabbat,
and the shehechiyanu that celebrates Yom Kippur. Which should be recited first? No one knows
for sure. If Yom Kippur is holier, then the shehechiyanu would be said first, and this is how
Ashkenazim do it. But the Sephardim recite the psalm for Shabbat first. So this doesn’t answer
the question either.
Shabbat does add to the Yom Kippur celebration in at least one material way. On a weekday Yom
Kippur havdalah, we use no besamin, spice, while for havdalah on a Shabbat
Yom Kippur we do (Orach Chaim 624:3,4). So Shabbat adds something material to Yom Kippur,
something Yom Kippur doesn’t have on its own.
But of course there is more to Shabbat and Yom Kippur than material symbols; these two days
provide a sacred time, a holy time that stands apart from the mundane world. The rabbis of the
Mishnah, in specifying how the holidays, festivals, and Shabbat were to be observed after the Temple’s
destruction, recognized that the idea of a sacred time could serve as a substitute for the Temple’s
sacred space, and, just as the Temple had a hierarchy of spaces of increasing sanctity, a hierarchy
of sanctity of time could be established. So the ordinary days, festivals, and Shabbat were each
given a number of aliyot, Torah honors, that were designated for the Torah reading of that day.
Thus, on the weekdays when the Torah is read, Mondays and Thursdays (and Shabbat mincha), there are three
aliyot. In the Mishnah we are told that Rosh Chodesh and the intermediate days of Pesach and
Sukkot are allotted four aliyot, the festivals and Rosh Hashanah have five, and Shabbat has seven. Yom
Kippur, however, has six aliyot: one greater than the festivals, but still fewer than Shabbat (j.
Megillah 4:2). So in the Mishnah’s hierarchy of importance, Shabbat has precedence over Yom
Kippur. The rabbis of the Mishnah didn’t learn this from the Torah, they set this precedence for
a reason: they felt that Shabbat was the more sacred day. We see this sanctity exhibited
in the changes that are made to holiday observance when a festival falls on Shabbat; for
example, the shofar is not sounded on a Shabbat Rosh Hashanah, and the lulav and etrog
are not used when Sukkot falls on Shabbat.
But, on the other hand, Yom Kippur is unique in that it is one of only two days in the year where two
haftarot are read: one in the morning service and one in the afternoon service. (The other day is
Tisha b’Av.) Also, whenever a fast occurs on Shabbat—even Tisha b’Av—the fast is moved to another day, except
for the fast day of Yom Kippur. But perhaps Shabbat really is the holier day. Observing Shabbat has been called
the single practice of Judaism responsible for preserving our faith. As the saying goes, “More than Israel has kept
Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” Perhaps it’s because in observing Shabbat, we’re emulating God after
the work of creation was completed. But perhaps another principle of Jewish ritual law is
operating, the principle of frequency, which states, tadir v’lo tadir, tadir kodem, “that which is
done more frequently takes precedence.” Obviously Shabbat occurs more frequently than Yom
Kippur, so according to this principle when the two days are compared, it’s the more important holiday.
When Yom Kippur falls on a Shabbat, Jews still observe the fast, even though every other fast
day is postponed to Sunday if it falls on Shabbat (except for Ta’anit Esther, which is moved to
the preceding Thursday so that Purim may be observed on its proper day). Another Shabbat-related
change for Yom Kippur occurs in the liturgy. The Avinu Malkeinu prayer, which is recited
four times on weekday Yom Kippurs, is only recited once when Yom Kippur falls on
Shabbat—at the conclusion of the Ne’ilah (final) prayer. This is because the petitionary nature of
the Avinu Malkeinu prayer makes it inappropriate for Shabbat, so it is said just as Shabbat is
ending. Given the same reasoning, while the shofar is not sounded on Shabbat, it is still sounded
at the end of the Ne’ilah service even when Yom Kippur is on Shabbat.
Services for Yom Kippur are the most complex of all the holidays. The erev Yom Kippur
service (called the Kol Nidrei service after its beginning section) is actually two separate
parts: the Kol Nidrei, which is actually recited before sundown and the onset of the holiday,
is a prayer to be released from all unfulfilled vows made to God in the coming year. Since this is a
petitionary prayer, it is improper to recite it during the holiday. This is why it is said immediately
before its onset. Kol Nidrei is followed by ma’ariv, the evening service. Since the
service has begun before nightfall, the tallit, which was donned for Kol Nidrei,
continues to be worn. Since the mitzvah to wear tzitzit (on the tallit)
requires one to be able to see the tzitzit, the Rabbis ordained that the tallit
is not to be worn at prayer after sunset. This evening service is the exception; it is the
only time that the tallit is worn for an evening service.
There are three services for weekdays; these include the ma’ariv (evening), shacharit
(morning), and mincha (afternoon) services; there are four services on Shabbat and festivals.
This fourth service occurs immediately following the morning service and is called the musaf
(additional) service, which commemorates the additional Shabbat and festival sacrifice in Temple times.
Unique to Yom Kippur is a fifth service, Ne’ilah, the concluding service. This is the only holiday
that has such a service. The length of the Yom Kippur service is not a modern result of accretion of
prayers through the years; in the first century CE, the Jewish philosopher Philo remarked about the
Jews of Egypt that they were busy praying on Yom Kippur "from morning to evening" (Treatise on the
Festivals: the Ninth Festival).
Kol Nidrei is an interesting prayer since it is an Aramaic legal petition that asks for God's
forgiveness for future acts of omission. It asks that God consider null and void all
promises and vows that we may make to God and fail to fulfill in the coming year. This is the
Ashkenazic version of the Kol Nidrei; the Sephardim use a slightly different version of the text
which asks for forgiveness for failing to keep vows and promises for the prior year.
Possibly the Sephardic version makes a little more sense. Note that there is no ritual formula
or prayer that applies to promises and vows made to another person and not kept.
Repentance for these promises can be made only after obtaining forgiveness from the offended person;
if forgiveness is not offered after it is requested, one is obligated to try to seek it again, and
even a third time, before ending further attempts (Orach Chaim 606:1). And if you are the
slighted party, it's your obligation to offer forgiveness if the request is sincere.
What’s (or who’s) Azazel? During the Yom Kippur musaf service, many congregations read the
Avodah, the Service of the Kohen Gadol, a recitation of the details of the Yom Kippur sacrificial
service of the Temple. Most of the priests’ procedures described in this service are taken from the
description in the Talmud tractate Yoma, but the Torah in Leviticus 16 recounts the sacrificial
procedures for this holiday. One of these instructions includes directions for selecting a goat
designated for “Azazel.” Biblical commentators, including Ibn Ezra and Nachmanides, have
assumed that this ritual recalled a very ancient belief that demons resided in wilderness areas, and
that the sending of a goat into the wilderness was to placate its demon. The text of the Torah
seems to be very careful in specifying, however, that both goats used in this ritual are part of the
offering to God, even though one of them is to be sent into the wilderness. Thus it appears that
“Azazel” was likely a holdover from a more ancient belief that placating demons was an
important thing to do; in later times the demonic imagery was replaced with a wilderness imagery,
and sending the people’s sins into the wilderness was to remove their sins—a kind of sympathetic
The recalling of the “Azazel” figure is not the only mention of demons in the Bible. Sometimes
foreign gods, called shedim, are referred to as “demons.” An example may be found in Psalm
106:37, “Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons.” In Deuteronomy 32:24,
the word resheph, which translators render as “pestilence,” is used. (The word is also found in
Habakkuk 3:5.) Interestingly, the Canaanites’ god of pestilence was named Resheph.
Other words used in biblical writings recall the names of demons from other cultures. For
example, Psalm 91:5–6 reads, “You need not fear the pachad, “terror,” of the night, the
chetz, “arrow,” that flies by night, the dever, “pestilence,” that prowls in the dark,
the ketev, “scourge,” that stalks at noon.” Cultural anthropologists have associated these
Hebrew terms with the names of demons of neighboring societies.
Finally, the Talmud has much material on demons. Pirke Avot tells us that demons were created
at twilight just before the first Shabbat (5:6). And demons are mentioned in tractates Eruvin,
Berachot, Chullin, Sandedrin, Pesachim, Gittin, among others, and in
Most everyone is familiar with the term “scapegoat.” During Temple times, as described above,
two goats were designated for sacrifice to God: one remained at the Temple for the full sacrifice
ritual while the other was sent into the wilderness, carrying with it the sins of all the people. This
goat came to be called the “scapegoat,” and it served to atone for the sins of the Jewish people
until the ritual came to an end following the destruction of the Temple. After Temple days, the
process of atonement came to be part of the synagogue observance of Yom Kippur. But what of
the symbolism of the scapegoat? Actually, the custom seems to have survived and eventually
reappeared during the eighth and ninth centuries CE, and instead of a goat, a fowl was involved,
where the fowl took on a kind of scapegoat property. In fact, during the twelfth century one
scholar theorized that this ritual involving the fowl grew out of the desire to conduct a re-enactment
of the Azazel rite (Machzor Vitry 373).
The custom is called kapparot, “atonements,” and while it was widespread in Ashkenazic
communities of the last several centuries, it is only observed in a few modern communities. For
kapparot, a family purchases a live fowl, waves it over the heads of family members, and then
has the fowl slaughtered and given to the poor. Waving money in a scarf and donating the money
has become the most popular modern substitute for the ritual.
Some interesting customs have arisen concerning this ritual—for example, white roosters are
considered particularly efficacious, and in some circles, a fowl is used by each member of the
family. For the case of a pregnant woman, two chickens would be used—one for the mother and
one for the baby. In some ultra-observant circles, the sex of the chicken is matched to the person,
so we might see a woman waving three chickens over her head; a female for herself, and a male
and female for the baby, if its sex is unknown. (Forget about what would be done in cases of
expected multiple births!) Obviously, rabbis have been opposed to this ceremony because of its
possible magical overtones, but its popularity has managed to keep it around for centuries.
Apparently Yom Kippur wasn’t always observed as a solemn day. We learn from the Mishnah
that Tu b’Av (15 Av) was celebrated in a very joyful way—young women would dress in white
garments and dance in the fields, singing: “Young man, raise your eyes and see what you are choosing;
do not set your eyes on beauty, but set your eyes on family,” (Otsar HaTefilot, p. 1158)
and young men would gather to watch and choose brides, a sort of Jewish Valentine’s Day. Tu b’Av is
only one of the days the Mishnah speaks of where this tradition was observed. The other
day is Yom Kippur! According to R. Samuel b. Gamliel, "There never were in Israel greater
days of joy [yomim tovim] than the fifteenth of Av and Yom haKippurim" (b.
Ta’anit 26b) This tradition is a clue to a possible origin of Yom Kippur,
and indeed, to the three major fall holidays: They were rooted in agricultural customs and
closely tied to the fall harvest season. Indeed, some commentators have speculated that the
holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot had a common origin and may have been at
one time a single holiday period. This would appear to make sense, since Tu b’Av marks the
beginning of the fall harvest and Yom Kippur falls during its end. Then the tithes from the
harvest were brought to the Temple at Sukkot.
After Yom Kippur.
Immediately after Yom Kippur ends, on the next day if possible, it’s a mitzvah to begin
to build your sukkah (Rema, Orach Chaim 624:5).
Unusual food customs of Yom Kippur.