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What is Yom Kippur?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht


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


A. Yom Kippur commemorates the day when G-d forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf. Forty days after hearing from G-d at Mount Sinai, "You shall not have the gods of others in My presence; you shall not make for yourself a graven image," Jews transgressed and committed the cardinal sin of idolatry. Moses spent two forty-day stints on top of the mountain pleading with G-d for forgiveness, and on the tenth of Tishrei it was finally granted. From that moment on, this Day of Atonement is observed annually as a commemoration of our special relationship with G-d, a relationship which is strong enough to survive any rocky bumps it might encounter. This is a day when we connect with the very essence of our being, which remains faithful to G-d regardless of our outward behavior.

Yom Kippur is the only day of the year which boasts five mandatory prayers. According to Kabbalah, the Jewish soul possesses five components. The day reaches its apex during the fifth prayer, the ne'ilah, when we access our yechidah, the highest level -- indeed the very core -- of our souls.

Yom Kippur is also a day of joy...We’re confident of G-d’s forgiveness, and for that, we couldn’t be happier
B. “Yom Kippur” means “Day of Atonement.” It is the holiest Torah-mandated holiday: “The tenth of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement for you” (Leviticus 23:27). Yom Kippur is observed by abstaining from work, and by “afflicting” oneself (see below).

C. On Rosh Hashanah, the Book of Life is inscribed. On Yom Kippur, it is sealed. The day of Yom Kippur is Day Ten of the Ten Days of Repentance, the climax of ten straight days of introspection and self-growth. On Yom Kippur, we complete the Teshuvah steps we began in the Hebrew month of Elul—we express regret for last year’s misdeeds, and express resolution to be better this year. Yom Kippur thus comes on the heels of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year; we want to start the year with a clean slate.

D. Though Yom Kippur is a somber day, it is actually also a day of joy. Imagine you wrecked your boss’ car while running an errand. He calls you into his office. Now, he’s a nice guy and his personality track record is impeccable. You’re scared as you go in, but you’re confident that he’ll forgive you, as he’s always done. That’s the Yom Kippur attitude. We stand in awe of G-d’s Judgment, but we’re confident all the same: another year! Another chance! We’re confident of G-d’s forgiveness, and for that, we couldn’t be happier.

See also "When is Yom Kippur?" and "How is Yom Kippur observed?"

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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.
Rosh Hashanah
The Jewish New Year. An early autumn two day holiday marking the creation of Adam and Eve. On this day we hear the blasts of the ram's horn and accept G-d's sovereignty upon ourselves and the world. On Rosh Hashanah we pray that G-d should grant us all a sweet New Year.
The seventh month of the Jewish calendar. This month, which arrives in early autumn, has more holidays than any other month: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah.
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.
Jewish mysticism. The word Kaballah means "reception," for we cannot physically perceive the Divine, we merely study the mystical truths which were transmitted to us by G-d Himself through His righteous servants.
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
The 6th month on the Jewish calendar, normally corresponding to August-September. This is the month which precedes Tishrei, the month of the High Holidays, and is a month of introspection and repentance.
The third of the Five Books of Moses. This book deals with the service (of the Levite Tribe) in the Tabernacle, and contains many of the 613 commandments.
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.