Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur: Holiday in Flux?

Yom Kippur has been exalted to a place of extreme significance in later Judaism. Sadly, little is known with any certainty of the specific circumstances surrounding the transformation.

We cannot be certain when all these changes and reforms in the Jewish calendar took place. For all this happened in a period of Jewish history, regarding which there is little documentation—the four hundred years between the first destruction of Jerusalem and the rise of the Hasmoneans. In these four hundred years there evolved a practically new Jewish spiritual life with new forms and institutions. . . . It is, therefore, not surprising that we know so little of the greatest holiday that arose in that period: Yom Kippur.[37]

According to one of the leading rabbis of this century, Adin Steinsaltz declares:

Yom Kippur, though classified among the usual run of festivals, differs from them in that, like the Sabbath, it is a “day of rest” on which work is forbidden. . . . and it is clear from the Torah and even from tradition that the Sabbath interdicts are even more stringent than those pertaining to Yom Kippur—there are no great practical implications.[38]

Beyond fasting (which is the most noteworthy distinction of the festival), Yom Kippur is treated as a Sabbath with comparable work prohibitions. It is called a shabbat shabbaton—a sabbath of complete rest.


It is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from his people. And whatsoever soul it be that doeth any manner of work in that same day, that soul will I destroy from among his people. Ye shall do no manner of work; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be a sabbath of solemn rest, and ye shall afflict your souls (Leviticus 23:28b-32).

One primary difference that can be readily identified between the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement relates to the punishment for disobeying the biblical injunctions.

The violation of the Sabbath laws is punishable by execution by an earthly court, while the violation of the Yom Kippur laws is punishable by excision.[39]

5 Yom Kippur “Afflictions”

The rabbis traditionally teach that in addition to the regular Sabbath prohibitions, observant Jews must follow five basic restrictions to avoid profaning the Day of Atonement. These added regulations are intended to fulfill the biblical injunction, “And you shall afflict your souls” (Numbers 29:7). The “afflictions” are as follows:

     It is a fast day, therefore, no eating or drinking is allowed from sundown on the night prior to the festival—Erev Yom Kippur until sundown the following evening. This is to be adhered to by all healthy folk. Various exceptions exist for the sick and small children.

(Samaritans, who reject the Oral Law, extend the fasting requirement to “babes in arms as well).[40]

     There is to be no bathing on Yom Kippur.

     No one should anoint there bodies with oil on Yom Kippur.

     Sexual relations are forbidden on Yom Kippur.

     It is forbidden to wear leather shoes and some suggest observance requires going barefoot on Yom Kippur.  


All of these activities were considered physically pleasurable. To go barefoot or wear nonleather shoes was believed by the rabbis to be much less comfortable than wearing leather shoes.[41]

5 Services in Yom Kippur Liturgy

The fast is typically endured while involved in a lengthy time of prayer, worship, and fellowship in the synagogue. One finds himself surrounded by family, friends, and members of the Jewish community. The spirit of repentance often dwells in the sweetness of the synagogue. Repentance is first horizontal and only then can it be vertical. In essence, we must first make peace with our fellow man before we can satisfy God’s requirements and then find peace with Him. We must seek forgiveness from those whom we have wronged if we are to find forgiveness from God.

Yom Kippur represents the time when God is closing the account books for the year. We focus on God during this precious season of prayer.

     Kol Nidre—named for the prayer
chanted on the evening prior -- Erev Yom Kippur (see below).

     Shaharit—the morning service. This service is similar to the morning service of other festivals. The Scriptures are read (haftarah) from Isaiah 57:14-58:16 (sic see note 14). The Torah reading details the Temple service.

      Musaf--the additional service. This holiday has several interesting alterations to a standard musaf service. It is in this section that the scapegoat--Azazel and the martyrology are discussed. Both sections convey a notion of atonement for sins via the sacrifice of another. The martyrology describes the various talmudic sages who were killed. (See below.)

    Minhah-- the afternoon service is the shortest of the day.

     Neilah—this unique concluding service symbolically closes the gates of heaven. It reminds all hearers that the time is short. There is a clear sense of urgency associated with Neilah and some people stand throughout the entire service. The Ark is often left open. Observant Jews want God to hear their prayers as the service draws to a climactic conclusion and ended with the powerful final blast of the shofar—ram’s horn.

The shofar, which is the central symbol of the High Holidays, marks the definitive end to the day and to the whole period. It evokes the feeling of a successful passage from sin to repentance, from death to life. Some commentators say it is blown as a reminder of the great shofar blast of the Jubilee year.[42]

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