Yom Kippur: Jews gather for ‘holiest day,’ the Day of Atonement

Black-and-white drawing of soldiers gathered in room around man speaking

A Kol Nidre service for Jewish soldiers during the Franco-German War, depicted by Hermann Junker. Photo by Center for Jewish History, NYC, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 18: The high hopes and sweetness of Rosh Hashanah have passed, and Jewish families move to the solemn observance of what often is called the holiest day in the calendar: Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. Most Jews aged 13 and older try to complete a 25-hour fast with nothing passing the lips—no liquids or foods of any kind. That extreme fast deepens each individual’s spiritual reflections and makes everyone across the community share in completing a difficult tradition.

Old manuscript of Jewish prayer

The Kol Nidrei prayer of Yom Kippur. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Between the two major holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—a period sometimes called the Days of Awe—Jews reflect on the past year and make amends for their failings. They look toward the balance of the new year 5779 (which is only 10 days old on Yom Kippur) and pray that God will renew their spirits and guide them in good ways.

YOM KIPPUR: THE HOLIEST DAY

Visit any Jewish house of worship and you will see ways that the main seating area can be expanded on special occasions. On Yom Kippur, the main holiday when all partitions separating rooms are removed, overflow seating sometimes is added in other parts of the building and everyone in the Jewish community shows up for at least part of the long series of services.

Services open with Kol Nidre, now widely regarded as a deeply emotional moment when the larger Jewish community gathers, amends are made, and the community symbolically opens itself to regular members as well as others who rarely attend services. There is a long and complex history to the traditions of Kol Nidre, but overall, it represents a fresh resetting of commitments and promises within the community.

The rest of the Yom Kippur litugy also has beautiful moments that encourage repentance, recommitment to the faith’s ideals and remembrance of the core story that has led the Jewish people through thousands of years of challenges. Rabbis typically spend a great deal of time preparing their Yom Kippur sermons, recognizing that they are preaching to many men and women who only hear them on Yom Kippur.

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