Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Yom Kippur

It's the holiest Jewish holiday.

For my entire life, trying to explain the holiday of Yom Kippur to my nearest and dearest non-Jewish friends, has always prompted the same question back to me.

“If it’s the most important Jewish holiday of them all, why can’t you eat?” Trust me, by about noon on every Yom Kippur, I find myself asking that very same question.

Yom Kippur isn’t a holiday of celebration and it’s not something that Jewish people take lightly. In fact, a lot of Jewish people consider Yom Kippur the most important day of the entire year.

Wondering what Yom Kippur is about, why Jewish people fast on that day, and how it’s celebrated? Read on to get all of your questions answered.

What is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is known as the holiest Jewish holiday. It comes 10 days after the Jewish New Year (also known as Rosh Hashanah). During that time period, the Jewish people are supposed to spend quality time doing self-introspection and expressing regret or remorse to those they may have hurt during the previous year.

In the Jewish tradition, it is said that on Yom Kippur, God determines a person’s fate for the upcoming year. That’s why Jewish people spend those 10-days making amends, asking for forgiveness, and repenting for any sins that may have occurred over the last year.

What’s the history of Yom Kippur?

Jewish tradition says that after the Jewish people left Egypt, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. While Moses was in Mount Sinai receiving that gift, the Jewish people assumed he wasn’t coming back so they built and worshipped a golden calf. Moses saw this, broke the Commandments, and prayed for the people’s forgiveness since this act is considered a sin in Jewish tradition.

It was on Yom Kippur that God forgave the people and gave Moses a new set of Ten Commandment tablets.

How is Yom Kippur celebrated?

The Jewish people view Yom Kippur as the most sacred day of the year and because of that they will often refrain from work and spend most of the day (and early evening) at religious services.

Not only is it a somber day for many Jewish people, but it’s also a day of fast. The Torah says that all Jewish adults should not eat or drink from sundown, the evening before Yom Kippur, until nightfall on Yom Kippur.

With this in mind, it’s important to note to not say “Happy Yom Kippur” to others who may be celebrating. This is because this isn’t a time of celebration, but rather of reflection. Becky Sobelman-Stern, the chief program officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles told USA Today, “Yom Kippur is not about being happy. It’s about thinking. It’s about self-examination.” So what should you say instead? “G’mar chatima tova” is the customary greeting on Yom Kippur. It means: “May you be sealed in the Book of Life.” 

Why do people fast on Yom Kippur?

Jewish tradition not only says that fasting helps cleanse the body and spirit but also to get in touch with our inner selves.

At the end of 25-hours, after the final Yom Kippur service, the breaking of the first happens. That’s when many Jewish people will come together and eat breakfast-like foods as a sign of the end of Yom Kippur and many hours of not eating.

While Yom Kippur is a holiday filled with atonement, many emotions, and an empty stomach, I’ve always viewed it as a much-needed reset button in my year, helping me move forward in a more mindful and compassionate way.