Zodiac sign for Tishri
Machzor, London, 1772.
Note link with judgement.

(Yom Kippur), The Day of Atonement, the most important day of the Jewish calendar, is mentioned in the Bible as (Yom Hakippurim). on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement; it shall be a holy gathering to you; and you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. And you shall do no work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make an atonement for you before the Lord your God.1. It also says: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and do no work at all, whether it be one of your own country, or a stranger who sojourns among you; For on that day shall the priest make an atonement for you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before the Lord. It shall be a Sabbath of rest to you, and you shall afflict your souls, by a statute forever.2.

These quotations may well date back to a time just after the Babylonian exile. For when Ezra returned from Babylon he read the scroll on the first of Tishri and told the people to prepare to observe Succot,3. but does not mention Yom Kippur. It is therefore thought that the main festival in the autumn was originally the harvest festival of Succot, which was probably celebrated with jollification like the wine harvest later was in parts of Europe. Later it was felt necessary to create some solemnity before the wild revelry of Succot and so Yom Kippur was instituted and observed in the second Temple.4.

(1.) Leviticus 23, 27-8. (2.) Leviticus 16, 29-31. (3) Neh 8, 1 -3 & 14 - 17. (4.) Schauss: The Jewish Festivals. pp. 119ff.


Detail from The Scapegoat
by Holman Hunt.

Ritual for Yom Kippur practised in the second Temple centred around two goats which had been selected. On Yom Kippur they were selected by lot. One was to have the sins of the people symbolically placed upon him and sent to Azazel. The other was offered up as a sin offering to seek forgiveness for the people.5.

Opinions differ as to what happened to the scapegoat. Some say it was set free to wander in the wilderness, while others say that it was pushed off a cliff and killed so that the sins would be destroyed. Whatever happened, the practice gave rise to the English word scapegoat describing someone who bears the sins of others. Looking back about 2,400 years we can see that the custom was very unfair on the goats.

There were other sacrifices on the day; but Yom Kippur in Temple times was not only concerned with sacrifices. There was a solemn ritual when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies, the innermost part of the Temple. There, he said a prayer asking forgiveness for all the Jewish people. This was seen as a critical part of the ritual as all depended on it being carried out properly. This was the only occasion in the whole year when anyone entered the Holy of Holies.


(5.) Leviticus 16, 7 - 10. In many Machzorim the ritual is described in the Musaf service for Yom Kippur.


Because sacrifices had played such an important role in the ceremonies of Yom Kippur in Temple times, after the temple was destroyed in 70CE, the people worried that without having sacrifices, their sins would never be forgiven. About this time Rabbi Joshua expressed this worry to Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai. He replied:- We have means of atonement as effective as sacrifices, for it is written For I desire lovingkindness and not sacrifice6. He went on to describe what he meant by lovingkindness by saying that besides kind deeds it also included prayer.7. Others have used the text Say to Him "Forgive all iniquity .. so will we render for bullocks the offering of our lips."8.

The result of these teachings has meant that sacrifices have been completely replaced by services of prayer. To this day, the Hebrew names of our services are those of the original sacrifices in the Temple and they take place at the same time of day.

(6.) Hosea 6, 6. (7.) Avot d'Rabbi Nathan 4, 5. (8.) Hosea 14, 2.


During Yom Kippur we have the following services:

There is also a (YIZKOR) Service in memory of the dead, which in Orthodox ritual is part of the Musaf service, while many Reform and Liberal Synagogues have this as a separate service between Minchah and N'ilah. The Yizkor service is not derived from a Temple sacrifice. (See also YIZKOR. )


If we accept the references in Leviticus 23, 27f and 16, 29f as the oldest references to the day, we find that in its early observance there is no direct reference to fasting. (see THE ORIGIN OF THE DAY. for quotations.) There is no actual mention of fasting on the day elsewhere in the Bible. There is a reference to the Fast of the seventh month in Zechariah 8, 19; but this refers to the Fast of Gedaliah and not to Yom Kippur as can be seen from it's context. What we do find in Leviticus verses, however, is a mention of afflicting your souls. using the word nafshoteichem from the word nefesh. (Nefesh), which in Biblical Hebrew was used to mean: soul, life, person, desire, appetite, emotion or passion. Josephus in the 1st century CE mentions fasting.9. By the time of the Mishnah in 200 CE it was taken in these verses to mean appetite or desires. So by then Yom Kippur had become a fast day, for it startes:- On the Day of Atonement it is forbidden:
Penitential Flagellation
Nuremburg, 1734.
Kirchner's Jewish Customs

This list concerns some things which give ease or comfort to the body. Sandals or leather shoes were regarded as a comfortable luxury. In a hot climate washing and anointing were also viewed in the same light. Part of reason for these prohibitions was that by observing them, we make ourselves feel uncomfortable and punish ourselves for our sins. In the Middle Ages, it was quite common for Jews to either flagellate themselves or to get others to beat them.11. (see also KAPPAROT. ) The remnant of this custom may still be seen in some synagogues, where some Jews beat their breasts when they say the prayers of confession of sins.

(9.) Antiquities 3, 10, 3. (10.) Yoma 8, 1. (11.) Ganzfried Kitsur Shulchan Aruch 3, 131, 11.


Various explanations have been given for the practice of fasting on Yom Kippur. Some of these are:


(12.) Louis Jacobs, Guide to Yom Kippur p.18. (13.) Philo, 1st cent. CE. (14.) Yehudah Ha-Levi, Kusari III, 5.


The Day of Atonement is referred to in the Bible as a Sabbath.15. Even if it falls on a weekday, the Sabbath laws concerning work etc still apply. However just like the regular Sabbath, the doctrine of (Pikuach Nefesh) preserving life, applies to the rules of Yom Kippur as well. (see SAVING LIFE ON SHABBAT) Therefore anyone who is not well ,and who might reduce his or her chance of recovery if they fasted, is forbidden to fast.16. The Shulchan Aruch clearly states here, that these people should eat on Yom Kippur and say the appropriate blessings over the food.

The most famous occasion when this principle was applied, was in Vilna in 1848, when the highly respected Orthodox Rabbi and scholar, Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement was serving as Rabbi. That year there was a Cholera epidemic, which continued over the High Holydays. Fearing that fasting might weaken his congregants' resistance to the disease, he ordered them not to fast. In order to set an example to them, he went into the pulpit and publicly ate some food to show them that eating was permitted. This ruling has been applied to many different groups including diabetics, some pregnant women etc. Even if only one doctor advises against fasting, a patient should not fast.


(15.) Leviticus 23, 32. (16.) Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 618 and Ganzfried Book 3, 133, 14-18. See also Yoma 83a.


The Hebrew word for repentance is (Teshuvah). This comes from the Hebrew root (Shuv) which means to return. So Teshuvah literally means returning. This meaning is full of symbolism in the English language. The original concept was that God had instructed us to follow a certain path through life. By following that path we become closer to Him and to his teachings. When we do this we are "going straight". When we fail to do so, we may be described as being "bent", a "crook" or just someone who has "gone astray" or "erred" (ie. wandered off the path.) Teshuvah, therefore, is repenting and returning to the path shown us by God. So by repenting we become closer to God and to His Torah.


Yom Kippur Prayer
15th Cent. Ashkenazi Machzor

Sin is defined as going against God's teaching and doing something that he has forbidden or not doing something that He has ordained. Sin puts a barrier between the sinner and God. Those seeking to break down the barrier must truly regret the fault and resolve to follow God's teachings in future; but mere words without a change of conduct will not suffice. If a person says "I will sin and repent and sin again and repent", he will be given no chance to repent.17. Maimonides said: What constitutes perfect repentance? If an occasion in which a person has once transgressed occurs again, so that he has it in his power to commit the same offence again , and he refrains from it, not out of fear or impotence, but solely from repentance."18. What matters is not empty promises to improve, but a change in attitude and the amended course of action which follows it.

There are three Hebrew words for sin and they represent three different sorts of wrong-doing:

(17.) Yoma 9, 1. (18.) Mishne Torah, Laws of Repentance, 2, 1. (19.) Adapted from Louis Jacobs: A Guide to Yom Kippur, pp 75-6.


Kippur, Atonement is the ceremony or ritual act which restores one to a state of cleanliness or spiritual purity. Originally the ritual act was in the form of a sacrifice in the Temple (see PRAYER REPLACES SACRIFICE.; but now it is prayer and contrition.

The Atonement process is long. One begins to think about repentance in Ellul, when some congregations even sound the shofar during the month. On the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah the first Selichot service takes place, when prayers asking for forgiveness are included. Such prayers are included in services until Yom Kippur. Jews are encouraged to ask forgiveness from those whom they have wronged prior to Kol Nidre. (See BEFORE YOM KIPPUR. )

During the Day of Atonement the liturgy includes prayers which express our feelings and which help us on our journey towards forgiveness. The process involves:
Yom Kippur
Amsterdam 1724.

Many of the prayers said list different types of sins, like the Al Chet and the Ashamnu. These are meant as aids to prompt us to consider whether we have been guilty of such sins. In most cases we say we have sinned in the plural and not I have sinned. This is because we include ourselves with the rest of the congregation, and because we recognise the communal responsibility which we all share when one of our fellow Jews does wrong. Some of these lists of sins are arranged in alphabetical order as if to imply that there is a complete range of sins we might have committed.

The Jewish concept of confession of sin is that we confess direct to God, rather than through a human intermediary or representative, whether it be a priest or a Rabbi. And it is to God that we address our pleas for forgiveness.

By the end of Yom Kippur we should have reached a better understanding of ourselves, our actions, our inner motives and the direction and purpose of our lives. The heavy burden of sin should have been lifted from us and been replaced by the lighter burden of the task of carrying out God's will in the world.


Kapparot. Augsburg, 1530.

(Kapparot), expiations, is a ceremony, reminiscent of the scapegoat , carried out by a few ultra-orthodox Jews with Kabbalistic tendencies. On the day before Yom Kippur, they take a live chicken and waving it over their head or the head of their child they say:" This is my substitute, my vicarious offering, my atonement; this chicken shall meet it's death, but I shall find a long and pleasant life of peace." This custom seems to be based upon the superstitious belief that such an action can remove any punishment due to them, for their past sins will now have been transferred to the bird. They then kill the chicken then either eat it or sell it and give the proceeds to charity. Some bowdlerise the ceremony and put money inside a napkin and wave that over their heads instead of a live bird; but that does not alter the superstitious basis for the custom. The practice goes back to the Gaonic period around the 9th century CE. Later in the 16th century Joseph Caro among other Rabbis advised Jews to refrain from observing this ceremony20., but Moses Isserles encouraged the practice as did Ganzfried in the Kitsur Shulchan Aruch.21.


(20.) Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 605. (21.) Book 3, 131, 1


Far more important than Kapparot above is the practice of making up all personal differences with people. Rabbi Eleazer ben Azariah said: "For transgressions between man and God the Day of Atonement effects atonement; but for transgressions between a man and his fellow the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if he has appeased his fellow."22. So the period just before Yom Kippur is an ideal time to end any internal family quarrel or broigus before it drags on into another year.

In the home on the eve of Yom Kippur candles are lit; but there is no Kiddush. Because the day is solemn and serious, we do not use wine, which is the symbol of joy.

(22.) Yoma 8, 9.


The service for the eve of Yom Kippur is often called (Kol Nidrei), meaning All vows. This name is taken from the opening words of a passage which is sung to a moving melody at the start of the service. The service begins with the Ark being opened and two scrolls are taken out to mark the solemnity of the occasion and then two legal declarations are made. The first is to declare that it is permitted for us to pray together with sinners. This passage was introduced by Meir of Rothenburg in the 13th century and is commonly supposed to have been inserted to permit those Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity to return to the community on Yom Kippur. However it may have been introduced because such people were shunned following the interpretation of the verse Depart from the tents of these wicked men, touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away in all their sins.23. As everyone is about to admit to a catalogue of sins, it might have been thought necessary to make a public announcement permitting the people to worship together. A third possible reason is a Talmudic saying: R. Hana b. Bizna in the name of R. Hisda the pious: A fast in which none of the sinners of Israel participate is no fast;24.

Cantor by Marc Chagall

The second legal declaration is the Kol Nidre itself. The oldest form of this declaration said roughly: May all the vows, etc. which we have made from the last Yom Kippur to this Yom Kippur which we have not fulfilled be regarded as null and void. From Biblical times onward vows were regarded as sacred 25. and not fulfilling them was serious sin, because one had been dishonest to God. Before our prayers of repentance can be taken as sincere, it is necessary to clear ourselves of guilt for promises made, which were knowingly or unknowingly left unfulfilled. The words of the Kol Nidre is sung or said three times. This is because when one renounced vows one had to do so three times.26. In the 12th century, Rabenu Tam, the grandson of Rashi, said that vows could not be annulled retrospectively, and so he changed the text to refer to vows to be made in the coming year. This has led some anti-Semites to say that the word of a Jew could not be relied upon. Of course, this declaration is only concerned with vows between man and God, between man and man the Day of Atonement does not pardon, without settling the matter with him first.27.

The earliest surviving prayer book, that of Rav Amram in the 9th century CE, contains a version of the Kol Nidrei; but he also said that it was not said among the Babylonian communities and that it was a foolish habit.28. It's use was opposed by Rabbi Natronai and Hai Gaon. It is, to say the least, incongruous that a formal legal declaration annulling vows should become a highly emotional moment driving some people to tears.

The reason why the two scrolls are taken from the ark is that legal statements, such as the annulment of vows, should be made by a Beth Din (Rabbinical Court). The smallest size of a Beth Din is three Rabbis. Most congregations only have one Rabbi. Therefore the Rabbi is accompanied by two respected elders, holding scrolls to give them added authority, and so they are considered as a Beth Din. This is similar to the custom of allowing a boy under the age of thirteen to make up a Minyan for prayer, provided that he is holding a Chumash.

Kol Nidrei is the only evening service during the whole year, when the Tallit, prayer shawl, is worn. Normally it is only worn in daylight hours.29. The Tallit may be worn because the Kol Nidrei begins before sunset in some congregations, or it may be that the white of the Tallit symbolises the white of purity, and the Tallit was worn by people who did not possess a kittel.

(23.) Numbers 16, 26. (24.) K'ritot 6b. (25.) Numbers ch. 30, Judges 11, 29-35. (26.) S.A. Yoreh De'ah 228, 3. (27.) Yoma 8, 9. (28.) p. 47a. (29.) Berachot 9b.


On Yom Kippur morning the main scroll readings in Orthodox synagogues is from Leviticus chap. 16 describing the ritual concerning the scapegoat and in the afternoon it is from Leviticus chap. 18, which the various forbidden sexual relationships. In Liberal and Reform Synagogues they read from Leviticus chap 19, the Holiness Code, which contains the "Golden Rule" You shall love your neighbour as yourself. The Reform reading this in the morning and the Liberals in the afternoon service.

All Synagogues read the same Haftarah in the morning, which comes from Isaiah chap. 57, 14 to 58, 14. This powerful passage is particularly well chosen for the day, because it describes how a fast should be observed. After the prophet accuses the people of thinking about their business on their fast days and that their fasting only leads to strife and discord, he then asks:

Is this the fast I look for? A day of self-affliction? Bowing your head like a reed, and covering yourself with sackcloth and ashes? Is not this the fast that I look for: to release the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your food with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house? When you see the naked, to clothe them, and never hide yourself from your own kin?30.

Isaiah sees the outward show of fasting as far less important than its inner effect. He looks to see what actions the fast and the prayers inspire the worshipper to do, once the fast is over.

(See also THE BOOK OF JONAH. )

(30.) Isaiah 58, 5 - 7.


(Musaf), the Additional service has two elements which are different from the other services. The readings describe in detail the ritual of the Temple sacrifices on Yom Kippur and in Reform and Liberal Machzorim (prayer books) they also include modern interpretations showing its links with the present day. Secondly there is the martyrology, when we remember those persecuted for remaining loyal to Judaism. There is a special mention of the names of ten scholars who were put to death by the Romans around 135 CE. . Some modern machzorim also mention the Holocaust at this point of the service. These recollections of our past history are read as a reminder of our heritage and our duty to preserve it for future generations.


Jonah in 15th Cent.
Bible from Spain.

The haftarah on the afternoon of Yom Kippur is the whole book of Jonah. The book is not read because it tells the story of Jonah being swallowed by a big fish, usually described as a whale. The reason for it being chosen is because the book has as its theme the subject of repentance.

  1. While inside the fish Jonah says a prayer admitting his wrongs31. and God forgives him and the fish releases him on dry land.
  2. When in Nineveh the people heed his warning. They, fast, pray and change their way of life. And God relented of the evil He said He would do to them, and did it not.32.
  3. Later Jonah sits in the shadow of a gourd; but a worm eats it and Jonah gets angry that the gourd had been destroyed and had not survived. God pointed out that Jonah should not persist with his anger, and that He (God) was right to forgive the city and all it's inhabitants.33.

1,800 years ago Rabbis drew similar lessons from the book of Jonah on fast days. The Mishnah say: The elders among them uttered before them words of admonition: Bretheren it is not written of the people of Nineveh that "God saw their sackcloth and their fasting", but "God saw their works that they turned from their evil way."34.

(31.) chap.2, 2 - 10. (32.) chap 3, 10. (33.) chap. 4, 9 - 11. (34.) Ta'anit 2, 1. Quoting Jonah 3, 10.


On Yom Kippur there is a special Yizkor Remembrance Service for those who have died. The name (Yizkor) comes from the first word of the prayer said by the mourner in remembering. In most Orthodox Synagogues this service comes before Musaf, Additional service while in Reform and Liberal congregations it comes before N'ilah, Closing service.

In most Orthodox Synagogues those congregants whose parents are both living do not participate in the service and leave the synagogue35. Their machzor, prayer book. explains: This is done to avoid the 'evil eye' (resentment) that might be felt by those without parents.. R.. Elie Munk said it was to prevent people with two living parents from joining in the prayers by mistake.36.

There is a difference of opinion among Orthodox authorities on this. There are some who feel that this practice is either unnecessary or disruptive to the services. Maharil (Jacob ben Moses Moellin) said He whose two parents are alive should have no fear about reciting the orphan's Kaddish.37. Others said that grandchildren could say Kaddish for grandparents provided the parents did not object38. or that it permitted to say kaddish for scholars.

(35.) Rubric in Art Scroll Machzor for Yom Kippur, p.471. (36.) Note on the same page. (37.) Responsum 64. (38.) Joseph Colon: Maharik 30.


(N'ilah), the Closing Service, takes place at the time when the Temple gates were closed at the end of the day and is the last opportunity for repentance. In our prayers, instead of asking God to write us in the book of life, as we do on the rest of the day, we ask him to seal us in the book. The service concludes with a dramatic ending. The whole congregation join together to pledge their allegiance to God and show their intention to live according to His teachings by saying: Hear O Israel The Lord our God, the Lord is one.39. and then 7 times they say: The Lord He is God.40. The Shofar is then sounded to mark the end of the day and the end of the penitential period. The former verse states the basic belief in Judaism, and the latter was the people's statement of belief in God, and reminds us of the occasion when Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.

(39.) Deuteronomy 6, 4. (40.) 1 Kings 18, 39.


A mere sixteen days after the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, the citizens of Eilat were startled to see a strange aircraft circling round above them. No one knew where it came from, and the Israeli forces were put on alert. Before they could intercept it, the plane landed at the local airport. Out stepped a rabbi holding a rooster and a hen. He explained that far from being alarmed, the inhabitants should be grateful, because he had just been carrying out the ceremony of KAPPAROT for all the inhabitants of Eilat.41. The rooster was for the males and the hen for females.

This raises the interesting question: If the roof of a Sukkah should not be more than twenty cubits (30 feet) high for it to be a valid Sukkah,42. and if a Chanukkah lamp should not be placed more than 20 cubits above the ground,43. what is the maximum height that a chicken may be waved to relieve a person of their sins? If no authoritative answer has yet been given to this important question, it seems that it is now time that this question should be answered.

(41.) The Jewish Chronicle, September 28th, 2001, p. 64. (42.) Sukkah 1, 1. (43.) Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, 671, 6.