Judaism For Dummies
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Many non-Jews (as well as Jews who had little connection with their heritage growing up) find Yom Kippur, which literally means “The Day of Atonement,” baffling. The holiday has no Christian equivalent. But even though most Jews can’t explain why Yom Kippur resonates so deeply for them, they’re drawn to Yom Kippur services, even if it’s the only time they wander into a synagogue all year.

Rafael Ben-Ari / Adobe Stock
The shofar is blown during the Jewish Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services as a spiritual wake-up call to the soul.

For many Jews, Yom Kippur services provide a chance to say, “I’m still Jewish, even if I don’t know what that means.” For other Jews, Yom Kippur is the highlight of their year, a day that seems sad but is actually uplifting, a day during which “atonement” becomes “at-one-ment.” They feel an extraordinary sense of release and spiritual unity that comes with forgiveness.

Seeking forgiveness from God

Aside from being a holiday when people strive to let go of grudges, seek forgiveness, and unite with each other, Yom Kippur also serves as an important time to seek forgiveness from God.

This High Holy Day is called the Shabbat of Shabbats, and is traditionally seen as the day on which God finalizes the judgment of all Jews each year, sealing people’s names in the Books of Life or Death. Yom Kippur is the last chance to change, to repent, and to atone before this judgment.

By the time Yom Kippur rolls around, Jews are expected to have asked for forgiveness for sins against other people. The actual day of Yom Kippur is then reserved for atoning for sins against God. Of course, if you believe that God is One (and includes everything), then all our sins impact everyone on some level.


When most people hear the word repentance, they think of a system in which some authority figure absolves people of their sins. In Judaism, however, there is no such authority. Jewish tradition clearly states that Yom Kippur offers a blanket forgiveness from God if (and only if) you have both repented and atoned for any wrongs. The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah, which signifies a psychological or emotional “turning,” resulting in a retargeting of your life.

The word for “sin” in Hebrew is khet, an archery term that means “missing the mark.” The Hebrew meaning exposes an important difference between the Christian and Jewish concepts of sin. Jews don’t believe in original sin, believing instead that each person is born innocent. Judaism also believes that each person is responsible only for his or her own sins or mistakes.

To a Jew, sinning means going astray, not following through, or losing focus. Certainly, lack of honesty or integrity is sinful, as is ignoring or contradicting the Jewish laws. But an unconscious or accidental omission or slight can also be considered sinful.

Jewish sin isn’t just what you do; it can even be what you don’t do. For example, walking by someone in need can be considered a sin because of the missed opportunity to do a good deed. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said that the worst sin is despair, perhaps because it so deeply undermines faith.

Jews believe that there are three ways of sinning: sinning against God (making a vow that you don’t keep or violating ritual law), sinning against another person (acting illegally, hurtfully, or deceitfully), and sinning against yourself (hiding behind addictive behavior or bringing harm to yourself).

Although Yom Kippur stresses the sins against God, the High Holidays as a whole encourage people to focus on all three types of sin, providing an opportunity to actively seek and extend forgiveness, and freeing people to act with greater integrity and truthfulness in the New Year.

Atonement has more to do with actually making amends, fixing something that you have broken. Just apologizing isn’t enough; you have to find a way to make reparation. A rabbi might help you discover a suitable action, but ultimately he or she can’t prescribe anything — that’s between you and the other person, or between you and God.

The Talmud (record of rabbinic teachings) states that you can’t just go out and sin with the understanding that you’ll be forgiven by God on Yom Kippur. You can’t circumvent the important work of reconciliation with yourself, your family, your neighbors, and so on.

Ultimately, the point of all of this is to change, to grow, and to develop. In fact, the ancient Jewish rabbis taught that you haven’t fully repented until you’re twice confronted with the opportunity to engage in the same sin, and you refuse.

Although Yom Kippur is traditionally the last day to atone, Judaism ultimately says that the doors of repentance are open all the time — it’s never too late. But if there wasn’t at least a symbolic deadline, would anyone ever really get around to it?

How to forgive others

Jewish tradition identifies three stages in the process of forgiveness, whether you’re being forgiven or you’re forgiving others. The steps are identified by the words s’lichot (“forgiveness”), m’khilah (“letting go”), and kapparah (“atonement”). Forgiveness begins with the conscious intention to forgive. But if the process ends there, the feelings of guilt or resentment reappear when you least expect them. Letting go means, “I no longer need the past to have been any different than it was.” At this stage, you may remember the pain, but you are no longer consumed either with guilt or resentment.

With atonement, you can accomplish something positive that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. You still remember, and you still may feel the pain, but the act of atonement transforms the pain into a blessing.

Observing Yom Kippur

Most Jewish holidays are distinguished by what you’re supposed to do; Yom Kippur, however, is famous for what you’re not supposed to do.

Tradition states that on this day Jews should refrain from bathing luxuriously (though necessary washing with cold water to remove dirt is okay), anointing themselves with perfume or moisturizers, having sex, wearing leather (the soles of shoes, specifically, though some Jews don’t wear any leather), and — probably the most-commonly observed restriction — eating or drinking. Of course, because Jews consider Yom Kippur to be like Shabbat, all the regular Shabbat restrictions apply.

Fasting, but not quickly

Rabbis have interpreted the fast — which lasts for 25 hours from sundown to just after sundown — in a number of ways:
  • Some say that fasting afflicts the body (because eating is pleasurable) and thereby atones for every sin committed that hasn’t been atoned for in another way.
  • Instead of seeing the fast as a punishment, many rabbis see it as freeing Jews from thinking about ordinary things, which allows them to focus on their prayers and the spiritual energies of the day.
  • The fact that humans can choose to fast symbolizes the freedom of choice that gives humans a greater responsibility in the world than other animals.
  • Yom Kippur is like the prayer before a meal, and the meal is the whole year to come. So just as you wouldn’t eat during a blessing, you don’t eat during Yom Kippur.

The Talmud states that you shouldn’t fast if you’re really sick, pregnant (or recovering from giving birth), or if you’re under 13 years old. Some children refrain from eating one or two meals during the day as a way to “warm up” to the fast they’ll perform when they get older. And although tradition clearly calls for a fast from both food and fluid, some Jews do drink a little water throughout the day. No, you can’t eat at McDonald’s, even if they do serve “fast” food.

Here are a few suggestions to think about if you choose to fast:
  • Most healthy adults can last a month or more without eating. However, you do need water. If you’re going to go without fluids on Yom Kippur, make sure you drink a lot in advance. However, avoid alcohol or caffeine, which dry you out.
  • If you’re avoiding fluids, don’t eat salty foods (pickled or smoked foods, commercial tomato sauce, and so on) the day before.
  • Doctors report that the nausea and headaches that some people experience when fasting have nothing to do with not eating or drinking. Rather, these symptoms are generally the result of caffeine withdrawal. Laying off caffeine a day or two earlier may help significantly.
  • Some traditional Jews bring fragrant herbs or essential oils with them to synagogue in order to nourish the soul through smell. Others find that smelling such fragrances just makes them hungrier.
  • After the fast, don’t pig out (pun intended). It’s best to begin your “break-fast” meal with a couple glasses of juice in order to put some sugar into your bloodstream.

A first-timer's guide to Yom Kippur services

Yom Kippur services vary radically depending on the observance of the synagogue. A traditional Orthodox service might be wonderfully intense, but deeply indecipherable for the novice.

Yehoshua Halevi / Adobe Stock

More liberal congregations may have a much simpler makhzor (Holy Day prayer book), leaving out some of the readings and prayers in favor of more explanation or a break between services. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you show up for services:

  • Like at Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur services require buying tickets in advance at most synagogues. If money is tight, try calling ahead to see if they offer a sliding scale.
  • Remember that many Jews don’t wear leather shoes during Yom Kippur, and some wear no leather at all. So while most Jews wear their finest clothes, you may see people in suits or dresses wearing canvas high-tops, sneakers, or other shoes made without leather.
  • Most Jews who attend services also fast on Yom Kippur, so if you bring any food or drink, keep it out of sight (and smell).
  • Don’t expect the best hygiene of your neighbors on this day. Traditional Jews don’t brush their teeth or bathe on Yom Kippur.
  • Yom Kippur is an ideal time to remember that all human beings make mistakes; the important thing is to continually review your life, learn, and grow. With this in mind, don’t worry if you can’t pronounce all the words of the prayers, or if you mess something up. By showing up and trying, you fulfill the spirit of the day.
At the very end of the Yom Kippur services, when the Neilah has concluded, a member of the congregation blows one long blast on the shofar (ram’s horn). Yom Kippur is now over.

Believe it or not, many Jews then stick around for the evening service, which follows immediately. Others rush for the doors in search of their break-fast meal. Either way, it’s become a tradition that after the meal, Jews go out and hammer two pieces of wood together or plant a stake in the ground to signify that they’ve begun to build a sukkah (a temporary structure) in preparation for Sukkot. Some teachers point out that this shifts attention from your own emotional and spiritual rebuilding during the High Holidays to a renewed focus on rebuilding and repairing the world around you.

Honoring the light of Yom Kippur

On Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition says that the day itself makes the atonement. Something about the day carries the energy of healing and forgiveness and touches on the deeply human need for the release of guilt and resentment.

In the eighteenth century, an Italian kabbalistic scholar named Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto wrote that, “Any great light that radiated at a certain time, when that time comes around again, the radiance of that light will shine again … and be available for whoever is there to receive it.”

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is such a time of radiant light — the radiant light of forgiveness. If the day itself carries such energy, then the task of the participant is to allow herself to be fully present, to allow himself to be available for the healing influences of the moment.

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David Blatner is an award-winning author of 15 books, including Spectrums: Our Mind-Boggling Universe From Infinitesimal to Infinity.

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