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Yom Kippur Traditions

Renee Eder on Monday, October 10, 2016

Yom Kippur (or “Day of Atonement”) is probably the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Beginning on the evening of October 11th this year and going through October 12th, it is 25 hours set aside to atone for the sins of the past year, and to demonstrate your repentance and make amends.

I grew up in a reform family, but for us and for most of my Jewish friends, whether reform, conservative, or orthodox, Yom Kippur was a holiday we observed. These are some of the customs that are followed on that day:

  • No work can be performed on that day;
  • It is a complete fast beginning before sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur and ending after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur. You are supposed to refrain from eating and drinking (even water);
  • It is customary to wear white on the holiday, which symbolizes purity and calls to mind the promise that our sins shall be made as white as snow;
  • Most of the holiday is spent in the synagogue, in prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, services begin early in the morning (8am or 9am) and continue until about 3pm. People then usually go home for an afternoon nap and return around 5pm or 6pm for the afternoon and evening services, which continue until nightfall. The services end at nightfall, with the blowing of the tekiah gedolah, a long blast on the shofar. Then we eat!
  • There are additional restrictions that are less well-known, including washing and bathing, anointing one's body (with cosmetics, deodorants, etc.), wearing leather shoes (Orthodox Jews routinely wear canvas sneakers under their dress clothes on Yom Kippur).

When can these restrictions be lifted?

  • Any of these restrictions can be lifted where a threat to life or health is involved.
  • Children under the age of nine and women in childbirth (from the time labor begins until three days after birth) are not permitted to fast, even if they want to.
  • Older children and women from the third to the seventh day after childbirth are permitted to fast, but are permitted to break the fast if they feel the need to do so.
  • People with illnesses should consult a physician and a rabbi for advice.

No matter how your family observes Yom Kippur, we at the J wish you a meaningful day!

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