10 Things to Know About Your First Yom Kippur

published Sep 11, 2017
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(Image credit: Erin Wengrovius)

Yom Kippur, which translates to the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish Year. It’s a serious holiday. The point is to ask G-d and your fellow humans for forgiveness so you can start the year with a clean slate, and deem yourself worthy of another year on earth. (NBD.) The intense period of reflection is accompanied by a day-long fast.

A cheat sheet to a holiday with such gravitas is a good idea for first-timers, so here are 10 things you should know about your first Yom Kippur.

1. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish Year.

If you notice that your Jewish coworkers aren’t in the office on Yom Kippur, that’s because it is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. This is the day that Jews ask G-d for forgiveness for all the sins they committed that year, and ask that their names be inscribed by G-d in the book of life for the year to come.

2. It’s a chance for a clean slate.

Yom Kippur literally means Day of Atonement in Hebrew, and “atone” means to ask forgiveness. Unlike Catholics who confess their sins throughout the year, Yom Kippur is the one day prescribed for Jews to unload theirs. In addition to praying in temple for G-d’s forgiveness, Jews also ask it of their fellow humans. The idea is that after observing the holiday, your slate is wiped clean and you can start the new year sin-free.

3. Fasting is involved.

There are multiple fast days in the Jewish calendar, but Yom Kippur is the most observed. The directive comes straight from the bible, Leviticus 26:27, which directs Jews to “afflict their souls” on Yom Kippur. This has been interpreted by rabbis to mean fasting (which also means no drinking), although it also applies to other bodily pleasures, such as having sex, bathing, or otherwise making oneself smell nice.

4. But it just lasts a day.

Unlike Ramadan, which can last around a month and forbids eating from sunrise to sunset for that entire duration, Yom Kippur lasts just one day — from sundown to sundown. According to Jewish law, you’re not supposed to break the fast until you can see three stars in the sky with your naked eye, though more casual observers may be inclined to break into the bagels as soon as the sun goes down.

5. You shouldn’t wish people a happy holiday.

Yom Kippur is a somber affair that’s all about humility and contrition. So no “Happy Yom Kippur.” Wishing someone an easy fast is one good way to acknowledge this holiday, but the traditional greeting is g’mar chatima tova —meaning, may you be inscribed in the book of life.

6. The fasting period is bookmarked by eating.

It’s typical to sit down to a substantial meal the afternoon before Yom Kippur, and to end the fast when the sun goes down the following day. This meal is called a “break fast.” Usually, families and friends gather at home after temple and feast on comfort food. Depending on who’s hosting, you may encounter a full-on spread of bagels, tuna and egg salads, smoked fish, and assorted desserts. If you’re invited as a guest to a break fast, ask the host if you can bring something — a babka is never a bad idea.

7. People will be wearing white.

If you go to services for Yom Kippur, you may notice that many congregants will be wearing flowing white clothing. There are a few reasons for this. The white clothing is reminiscent of a burial shroud, and meant to remind observers of their mortality. It also symbolizes purity and mercy, and alludes to angels, which Jews try to emulate on the holiday.

8. And sneakers.

Wearing something that died for your look is not permitted on Yom Kippur, which, in addition to other things, means no leather shoes. This translates to lots of vegan sneakers (and even — gasp — Crocs!) with suits.

9. That horn is called a shofar.

Services generally end with a long blow from the shofar. It’s done to celebrate closeness to G-d achieved through praying, express hope for the future, let people know the holiday has come to a close, and, less formally, that it’s nearly time to eat.

10. There’s an art to breaking the fast.

It’s a rookie move, but it happens all the time. Folks chow down after fasting and often feel pretty ill as a result. If you’re fasting, ease back into noshing after going a day without by choosing light foods and drinking plenty of liquids. Remember: Chew a lot and eat slowly.

Are you fasting for Yom Kippur this year?