What is Yom Kippur? The Jewish High Holiday



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Learn the basics of the Day of Atonement in 3 minutes. Yom Kippur is the most holy day of the Jewish year and it is full of spiritual opportunity if you open yourself up to its customs, prayers and melodies. This short video is a basic primer on what Yom Kippur is, for everyone. It explains what the holiday is about, where it comes from, what to expect at a service and how to break the fast! A great intro for Jews and non-Jews alike – share with your curious coworker or family member.

This video was made possible with generous support from The Koret Foundation, as part of its Initiative on Jewish Peoplehood.


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Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year
for the Jewish people. This is the time of year when most Jews show
up for services, or at least more than usual. In big cities, you sometimes even need tickets. The places get so crowded. To prepare, during the days before the holiday,
people make amends, and ask forgiveness from their family and friends. And then the day arrives. We learn: On this day you are to “afflict
your soul…and Yom Kippur makes atonement for you and all Jewish people.” So how do you afflict your soul? Famously, by fasting from food and drink. There are other prohibitions, too – no bathing,
perfume, sex or wearing leather. That’s a lot of stuff you can’t do. Fasting and praying, though, are not enough
as Yom Kippur demands that Jews also commit to changing their behavior. As it says in the haftarah reading from the
prophet Isaiah: “An empty fast is not sufficient. This is the fast I desire: To share your bread
with the hungry, to take care of the poor, to clothe the naked and to not ignore our
fellows.” Traditionally, you spend the entire evening
and next day at prayer services. There’s many ways that people actually do
this holiday – some people create their own rituals, taking a contemplative walk, or fasting
at home. Yom Kippur begins with a service just before
sunset called Kol Nidre. Kol
Nidre You’ll notice it’s the one time a year
people wear a prayer shawl, or tallit, at night, and many are dressed in white. Kol Nidre is a public apology in advance for
failing to meet our own vows and admitting we’re not perfect. The chanting of this stirring melody, is the
beginning of a marathon that ends 25 hours later. The Evening, morning and afternoon services
that follow each contain special passages. Importantly, people chant confessions, called
vidui, silently, as well as out loud. Readers chant from Leviticus about the scapegoat
ceremony that atoned for people’s misdeeds, as well as the Book of Jonah, about the prophet
who ran away from God and eventually changed his ways. There is a memorial service, called yizkor. Yom Kippur is a time for relationship maintenance,
requiring Jews to seek out reconciliation with others, with themselves and with G-d. The imagery of the holiday is of gates – the
gates of prayer, of soul searching, and of forgiveness – which are closed at the final
service – N’eilah, or “locking of” the gates. There’s another metaphor – being “written
in” the book of life on Rosh Hashana and now, being “sealed in” the very same book
on Yom Kippur. You might hear people say “g’mar chatima
tova,” may you be sealed for a good new year. As Ne’ilah concludes the shofar is sounded
in a dramatic closing ceremony. With the final blast, the ups and downs of
a really long day come to a full stop. [Shofar Blast] Ahhhh. It’s chow time, time to eat, as Jews gather
together for “break the fast!” Not breakfast, because it’s at night. Like any good cleanse, Yom Kippur leaves you
feeling wrung out like a sponge, having gone along a spiritual journey, refreshed and renewed,
ready to begin again with a clean slate. G’mar Chatima Tova