Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Yom Kippur – The Holiest Day for the Jews

 Yom Kippur
An Ultra-Orthodox Jew swings a chicken over his children’s heads. According to Jewish beliefs, the ritual is supposed to transfer the sins of the past year to the chicken, and is performed before the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Photo: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP

Ahmed Abdeen

Yom Kippur or the “Day of Atonement” is considered the holiest day and holiday of the year in Judaism. It is the tenth day of the month of “Tishrie”: the first month in the Jewish calendar, as it is the day that completes the ten days of penance that begin on the Jewish New Year, or as it is known among the Jews as “Rosh Hashanah” or “Gush Hashneh” among Ashkenazi Jews.

The Jews celebrate Yom Kippur or “Yom Ha-Kippurim Day” with rituals that completely differ from other holidays and occasions, as preparations begin forty days before. Orthodox Jews regularly pray in the morning and evening and read Psalms, especially Psalm 27 (The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?).

The pinnacle of the festivities begins on Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, where prayers and reverence continue for ten days, known as the days of repentance. Then Yom Kippur begins on the ninth night of the month of Tishrie and continues until the beginning of the next night, as this day requires a day-long fast of 25 hours.

Some of the rituals on this day are similar to the rest of the thirteen Jewish holidays, such as the Festival of Lights, “Hanukkah,” or the Sabbath days, such as no work, writing with pens, lighting fires, or running cars.

However, Yom Kippur has unique rituals, such as abstinence from sex or doing anything pleasurable, unlike other holidays, which Jews celebrate by enjoying pleasure in addition to worship. Yom Kippur is a day of worship and forgiveness only, which includes not eating, drinking, showering, washing, or wearing leather shoes.

Unlike other Jewish religious holidays and occasions and the Sabbath, this day is also revered by Jewish secularists and non-orthodox Jews. For example, Jewish secularists do not use cars on this day, despite the fact that they do not adhere to this on the Sabbath of every week. The sanctity of Yom Kippur is to the degree where not fasting on this day is a declaration of leaving the Jewish faith or belonging to the secularist Jews.

According to the Jewish religious narrative, the celebration of Yom Kippur goes back to when Moses led the Jews out of Egypt and left them to go up to Mount Sinai to speak to God, and they started worshiping the Golden calf. When Moses returned, he climbed Mount Sinai once again and prayed and worshipped for forty consecutive days. He returned to them with Tablets of Stone, announcing to his followers that God had forgiven this sin.

That is why Jews celebrate this religious occasion as the final opportunity to atone for the sins of the past year and to change their personal fate or the fate of the world in the coming year, so some believe that the more accurate translations of the Hebrew word Kippur are “Atonement,” not forgiveness.

Yom Kippur
Religious Jewish women pray at the women’s section of the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on the eve of Yom Kippur also known as the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Photo: THOMAS COEX / AFP

This is based on Chapter 16 of the Book of Leviticus in the Torah: “And [all this] shall be as an eternal statute for you; in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, you shall afflict yourselves, and you shall not do any work neither the native nor the stranger who dwells among you.
For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of rest for you, and you shall afflict yourselves. It is an eternal statute. And the Kohen who is anointed or who is invested in serving in his father’s stead, shall effect [this] atonement, and he shall don the linen garments, the holy garments; And he shall effect atonement upon the Holy of Holies, and he shall effect atonement upon the Tent of Meeting and upon the altar, and he shall effect atonement upon the kohanim and upon all the people of the congregation. [All] this shall be as an eternal statute for you, to effect atonement upon the children of Israel, for all their sins, once each year. And he did as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

Yom Kippur observes strange rituals. As an indication of ridding themselves of the sins, guilt, and sinful deeds they committed throughout the past year, a Jew buys a chicken the day before and raises it above his head, and twirls it three times while reciting Talmudic poems to transfer the sins to it and the chicken is then slaughtered while reciting prayers.

Another ritual is going to the sea and reciting Talmudic hymns, poems, and biblical prayers, then throwing what is in their pockets into the sea so that the sins are transferred to the fish. And before fasting, families prepare two tables and exchange honey cakes and women light candles in stages, to gain mercy for deceased family members, and to ask for forgiveness.

Five distinct prayer services take place on Yom Kippur instead of the usual three, most notably the well-known “all vows” prayer, and is concluded with the prayer of closing the gates at sunset. The high priest dresses in white lights incense and sacrifices a bull or a goat, sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice on what is known as the Holy of Holies located in the temple. It is the only time of the year when he enters it to regain the symbolic sacrifice of Moses’ prayer for his people’s salvation. The rituals include a communal admission of sin in front of others as an additional form of purification.

The Yom Kippur ritual ends five days later, with Sukkot or the “Festival of Tabernacles,” which lasts eight days in commemoration of the walled structure covered with s’chach, which the Jews took harbor in following the Exodus from Egypt. They built tents and umbrellas from palm fronds in front of the houses then entered them and prayed for rain.

Yom Kippur has been associated with a sad memory for the Jews in Israel since 1973 when the armies of Egypt and Syria attacked the Israeli-occupied forces. During their celebration, the Egyptian forces managed to cross the Bar Lev Line and go deep into the Sinai Peninsula, which was occupied by Israel in 1967. This was the beginning of the Israeli army’s exit from Sinai, which concluded with its exit from Taba in 1982 after international arbitration.


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the writer(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

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