Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is considered by many to be the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Yom Kippur falls on the tenth of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, and concludes the Ten Days of Repentance, a period which begins on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Yom Kippur holds deep spiritual meaning that combines soul-searching, repentance, asking for forgiveness and hope for a new beginning, all of which is heightened through fasting and refraining from earthly pleasures. According to Jewish tradition, a person’s fate is inscribed on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur.
In the State of Israel, Yom Kippur is distinguished by a sacred atmosphere shared by both the secular and religious populations. The Israeli character of Yom Kippur differs from the Sabbath and other Israeli holidays, and is expressed in the near total cessation of private and public transportation, trade, leisure and communication activities.
Yom Kippur Commandments and Customs
Yom Kippur is mentioned several times in the Torah as Yom HaKippurim (lit. "Day of Atonements") and Shabbat Shabbaton ("Sabbath of Sabbaths"). The festival is described in Leviticus 23: 27: “Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the Lord. Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God.” In other words, the Torah commands one to place restrictions on oneself or to afflict oneself, in addition to the prohibition of performing work as on the Sabbath.
The main commandment on Yom Kippur is fasting, which is meant to express the sanctity of the day and draw attention to repentance, in contrast to other Jewish fast days that symbolize mourning. This is also the only fast mentioned in the Torah that is carried out on the appointed date, even when it falls on the Sabbath.
On Yom Kippur, extended prayers continue almost from the eve of the festival and throughout the next day, and include special prayers, including Kol Nidre, Avinu Malkeinu, various piyyutim (liturgical hymns), selichot (penitential poems and prayers), Vidui (confession) and Seder Ha’avodah, recounting the yearly Avodah service performed by the High Priest in the Temple. The prayers end with the Neilah (lit. "Conclusion") prayer and the blowing of a shofar immediately after the festival’s conclusion.
On the eve of the festival, it is customary to eat a meal in preparation for the fast, and some observe the customary atonement ritual, called kapparah (where a chicken or money is waved over a person’s head, and the chicken is then slaughtered according to the rules of Kashrut), and immerse in a mikveh (ritual bath). On the holiday itself, many people wear white clothing as an expression of cleanliness and purity, and some men wrap themselves in a tallit (prayer shawl) throughout all the prayers.
Yom Kippur at the National Library
The National Library preserves a variety of historical items related to Yom Kippur that illuminate various aspects of the holiday. In the Library’s collections, you can find among other things, copies of various special Yom Kippur versions of the Mahzor (special holiday and festival prayer book) and ancient and rare manuscripts and recordings of piyyutim and prayers. In addition, you can browse photographs, postcards, posters, stories and newspapers that provide fascinating glimpses into the Yom Kippur atmosphere and the various holiday preparations of diverse communities during different periods.