Yom Kippur: Jews mark Day of Atonement with prayers, shofar

“… In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work … For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the L_rd.”
Leviticus 16:29-30

SUNSET FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 13: It’s the Day of Atonement, the crescendo of the Jewish High Holy Days: Yom Kippur. Debra Darvick, author of This Jewish Life, has written a very helpful overview of the two closely related holidays: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur services begin at sunset. Abstention from food and drink begins approximately 20 minutes before sunset—and for the next 25 hours, Jews may not eat or drink. Observant Jews usually avoid wearing leather shoes, bathing, applying perfumes or lotions or engaging in marital relations. (Learn more from My Jewish Learning.)


In the synagogue, the evening service is known as Kol Nidre, a dramatic and melodic recitation of an “all vows” prayer that dates back at least 1,000 years. (Wikipedia has a detailed overview of the origins.) During Kol Nidre, men and women pray that “all vows” from the previous year will be nullified. Today, of course, this does not mean that Jews literally shed all of their commitments. But, there is a long and cherished history behind this part of the prayer service. Jewish men and women who want to observe Yom Kippur regard it as an opening part of the liturgy that they do not want to miss. Kol Nidre recalls many times and places, down through the centuries, when the issue of making vows was related to the plight of Jews living as minorities in cultures that often forced them into difficult situations.

There are many moving stories about people reaching the Kol Nidre service under heart-breaking conditions. Five centuries ago, Spanish Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or face tragic punishments—deportation or, eventually, the lethal Inquisition. Under the Nazi regime, many Jewish families hid, again, fearing death. Many Kol Nidre stories arose from communities of Jews forced to live in such concealment.

One of the most famous Kol Nidre tales in American popular culture is the story behind The Jazz Singer, billed as the first “talking picture.” A young Jewish man with a golden voice seems to abandon his commitment to his family and his Jewish community to become a Broadway star—a jazz singer. After a family tragedy, however, the young man leaves Broadway and returns to chant the prayers of Kol Nidre. Today, the movie is rarely seen and Jolson’s “blackface” performance at one point in the movie is condemned. But the film’s plot, in many ways, echoed the bittersweet story of Jolson’s own life. As one of America’s most popular singers,  Jolson was actually born in a Lithuanian Jewish village as Asa Yoelson, the son of a cantor. (The Jewish News Service, JNS, has a very thoughtful column on The Jazz Singer.)


Yom Kippur morning welcomes soaring numbers of synagogue attendees—after all, more Jews attend High Holy Days prayer services than any other throughout the year. White clothing symbolizes purity, and a prayer shawl is worn through prayers; the afternoon service includes a reading of the entire Book of Jonah, which relays the story of God forgiving those willing to repent. (Find interactive tools and more at Chabad.org.)

Following the liturgy with a machzor prayer book, Jews travel home for an afternoon nap and then return to synagogue for evening services, which complete a total of five prayer services throughout the day (in comparison to the usual three). Ne’ilah, the concluding service, is a “closing of the gates”—a final chance to ask forgiveness before Yom Kippur draws to a close. A long blast of the shofar ends the fast and Yom Kippur services.


The photo at the top of today’s story shows the dramatic change of pace in Israel on this sacred day. Though not a legal holiday, Yom Kippur is, out of respect, observed with the absence of radio and television broadcasts; no running transportation; the closing of shops and businesses. Israelites do not eat in public on this day, nor do athletes participate in sports. Several famous athletes have refused to play on Yom Kippur through the years, and this year, the International Tennis Federation fined the Israel Tennis Association upward of $13,000 because the Israeli team refused to play against Belgium on Yom Kippur. (The Jerusalem Post reported.)

After Yom Kippur, Jews prepare for Sukkot, which arrives in five days.

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