Jewish: Fasting on Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement

Jewish houses of worship will be packed on Yom Kippur. These stained glass windows greet visitors at Temple Ohev Shalom in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania USA. Photo by Toksook, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.SUNSET, TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 25: From the sweetness and high hopes of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish families move to the solemn observance of what often is called the holiest day in the calendar: Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement. Most Jews 13 and older try to complete a daunting 25-hour fast with nothing passing the lips—so no liquids or foods of any kind. That extreme fast deepens each individual’s spiritual reflections and makes everyone across the community share in completing a difficult tradition.

Between these two major holidays, a period sometimes called the Days of Awe, Jews reflect on the past year and make amends for their failings. They look toward the balance of the new year 5773, which is only 10 days old on Yom Kippur, and pray that God will renew their spirits and guide them in good ways.

Want a taste of this experience, if you’re a non-Jew? The Washington Post published a tasty food story about the ways Jewish families break the long fast—typically with easy-to-fix and easy-to-digest brunch-type foods. There’s a tasty Twice Baked Challah recipe at the end of the article. But of course, the holiday isn’t about food. It’s about coming as close as possible both to God and to the larger Jewish community—both are essential elements in the traditions and rituals associated with this holiday.


A 13th Century Kol Nidre manuscript.Visit any Jewish house of worship and you will see ways that the main seating area can be expanded on special occasions. Yom Kippur is the main holiday when all the partitions separating rooms are removed, overflow seating sometimes is added in other parts of the building and everyone in the Jewish community shows up for at least part of the long series of services.

Services open with Kol Nidre, now widely regarded as a deeply emotional moment when the larger Jewish community gathers, amends are made, and the community symbolically opens itself to regular members as well as others who rarely attend services. There is a long and complex history to the traditions of Kol Nidre—and there are many examples in Jewish fiction of moving scenes set at Kol Nidre. Overall, Kol Nidre represents a fresh resetting of commitments and promises within the community. The rest of the Yom Kippur litugy also has beautiful moments that encourage repentance, recommitment to the faith’s ideals and remembrance of the core story that has led the Jewish people through thousands of years of challenges. Rabbis typically spend a great deal of time preparing their Yom Kippur sermons, recognizing that they are preaching to many men and women who only hear them on Yom Kippur. Christian clergy face a similar challenge, each year, in preparing their Easter sermons.


Sandy KoufaxJudaism doesn’t often make Sports headlines, except at Yom Kippur. This year, the big story is that the Chicago White Sox came up with a solution to their own version of “The Sandy Koufax” question: Will Jewish players compete in games that fall on Yom Kippur? In 1965, the celebrated pitcher declined to pitch in the first game of the World Series, touching off a national discussion on the role of faith in public life.

This year, the White Sox’s talented third baseman Kevin Youkilis faced the same question in a night game against the Cleveland Indians. The White Sox’s solution, which also benefits Jewish baseball fans, is moving the game from a 7 p.m. start time to an afternoon game starting at 1 p.m. Yahoo Sports has a news story about the switch by Chicago.

“You have to stick with your beliefs,” Youkilis says. “You can’t worry about people who aren’t influential in your life who say things or tell you you’re wrong.”


This is one of the major religious holidays that U.S. Presidents now mark with an annual message on behalf of all Americans. The White House already has released the 2012 Yom Kippur message, which includes these words from President Obama: The Jewish Tradition teaches us that one of the most important duties we have during this period is the act of reconciliation. We’re called to seek each other out and make amends for those moments when we may not have lived up to our values as well as we should. At a time when our public discourse can too often seem harsh; when society too often focuses on what divides us instead of what unites us; I hope that Americans of all faiths can take this opportunity to reach out to those who are less fortunate; to be tolerant of our neighbors; and to recognize ourselves in one another.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email