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How is Yom Kippur observed?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht


Library » Holidays » Yom Kippur » About | Subscribe | What is RSS?


Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, is observed as follows:

1. See the Light

We usher in this holy day with added light. Just before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur people who have experienced the loss of a parent light yahrtzeit candles; everyone lights a Neshamah (Soul) Candle1; and women light Holiday candles (with a special blessing).

2. Be an Angel

On Yom Kippur we are commanded to "afflict yourselves"2. This is understood to mean we should refrain from animalistic/humanistic pleasures, and instead focus on humanistic/angelic behaviors. We do the things that make us like angels the most and like animals the least. That’s why we refrain from eating, drinking, bathing, wearing leather shoes3, applying creams, perfume or colognes, and marital relations.

Going with the angelic flow we adorn ourselves in white on this day. The Tallit is worn during all prayer services4, and many have a custom to wear a kittel as well. (See also "Why is a kittel worn on Yom Kippur"?).

3. Go Fast

That’s right. Don’t eat or drink. Not even a sip of water. See Why do we fast on Yom Kippur? for more.

4. Get Spiritual

One of the reasons Yom Kippur is so spiritual is that when you spend a whole day doing spiritual things, of course that day is going to be spiritual. Of course, the day is spiritual already, and our prayer merely expresses that pre-existing condition, but on Yom Kippur, you spend over 24 hours in spiritual steam cleaning—really working on your character qualities and defects to make yourself a better person to G-d and to your fellow humans. This is the essence of Teshuvah, and teshuvah is the essence of Yom Kippur.

Practically speaking, Yom Kippur consists of five services, one at night and four by day: Kol Nidrei/Maariv, Shacharit, Musaf, Minchah, and Ne'ilah (pronounced neh-EE-lah), conducted at twilight. The night service lasts about two hours, while the day services last almost all day. Yizkor services are recited during the morning prayer services, and the Torah is read during the morning and afternoon services.

Rabbis give numerous sermons during this day, and are most likely to make an appeal. Charity is a key ingredient in transforming the physical into the spiritual, and although it may not be given in cash, it may be given in pledges.

See also "When is Yom Kippur?" and "What are the laws and customs pertaining to the day before Yom Kippur?"


  • 1. The soul is known as the candle of G-d as King Solomon writes (Proverbs 20:27) "The candle of G-d is the soul of man". On this holy day when our souls are accentuated, we light a candle. One lights a 24 hour "Yahrtzeit candle" although it is not for the purpose of a Yahrtzeit.
  • 2. Leviticus 23:27
  • 3. The prohibition applies solely to leather shoes. Other leather, such as a belt, is permitted.
  • 4. Whereas ordinarily it is only worn for morning services


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Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Repentance. Or, more literally, "return" to G-d. Teshuvah involves regretting the past and making a firm resolution not to repeat the offense.
Yom Kippur
Day of Atonement. This late-autumn high-holiday is the holiest day of the year. We devote this day to repentance and all healthy adults are required to fast.
Morning prayer service. One of the three prayers a Jew is obligated to pray every day.
The additional prayer service added (after the morning prayers) on Sabbath, Biblically mandated holidays and the first day of the Jewish month.
Evening prayer service. One of the three prayers a Jew is obligated to pray every day.
A prayer shawl. A large four-cornered woolen garment with fringes attached to its corners in a specific manner. This garment is worn by males during the morning prayers, fulfilling the Biblical obligation of attaching fringes to four-cornered garments.
(Yiddish) A long white garment, normally made of cotton or linen, customarily worn by Ashkenazi married men on Yom Kippur. A kittel is also worn by Ashkenazi men beneath the wedding canopy.
Afternoon prayer service. One of the three prayers a Jew is obligated to pray every day.
The soul of a Jew. This soul belongs to anyone who was born to a Jewish mother or converted according to the dictates of Jewish Law. The soul is a spark of G-d Himself.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.
The (Jewish calendar) anniversary of a person's death.
Kol Nidrei
A solemn prayer stating the annulment of vows recited at the start of Yom Kippur.