What is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur’ means the ‘Day of Atonement’. That is, the day when Jewish people try to make up for any wrong things they might  have done. It is a day of fasting which starts at sunset on the 10th of Tishrei and finishes when night falls on the 11th Tishrei. This year Yom Kippur begins at sundown next Wednesday, Sept. 15 and ends at sundown the following day.

Yom Kippur is also called ‘The Sabbath of Sabbaths’. It is the most holy day in the Jewish year. It is the day when God decides what will happen to every Jewish person in the year ahead.

Yom Kippur is not like other special Jewish days. It does not remember people and events from Jewish history but instead it reflects on each person’s behavior during the year.

According to the famous Jewish writer Maimonides (the Rambam), everyone has a choice about the kind of person they want to be.  Judaism teaches that everyone has the power to decide which choice to make.

Every person makes mistakes. Some may even commit sins from time to time. Yom Kippur gives them the chance to ask forgiveness and make up for their sins. On the days leading up to Yom Kippur people can ask forgiveness from other people for anything they have done that has caused others sadness or harm. On Yom Kippur itself they can confess their sins to God and pray for His forgiveness.

During the morning before Yom Kippur, some people do kapparot, which is a custom that reminds them of the sacrifices made in the Temple in ancient times before a holy day. The traditional way for someone to do kaparot is to take a chicken and wave it around their head three times while saying a prayer so as to ‘transfer’ their sins to the chicken. In modern times, many people prefer to use money instead of a chicken, and the money is then given to charity.


It is considered a mitzvah (commandment) to eat well on the day before Yom Kippur. The reason for Jewish adults fasting is not to make them suffer, but rather remind them that Yom Kippur is not about physical activities like eating but rather about spiritual activities like praying. The final meal before Yom Kippur should be a joyful one. At the end of the meal, children are blessed by their father with a special blessing.

Memorial candle (Yahrzeit candle)

Before leaving home to go to the Kol Nidre service at synagogue they light a memorial (yahrzeit) candle at home. This candle burns for 24 hours. It reminds them of all those people who have died, in their own families and in the world. After Yom Kippur finishes, they will use the yahrzeit candle to light the havdalah candle used as part of the havdalah ceremony to mark the end of the day.

Girls and their mothers light candles 18 minutes before sunset Each girl lights one candle and says three blessings.

What to do

Clothing – It is a custom to wear white clothing on Yom Kippur. This is because white is the colour of purity and  wanting to be close to God.  White clothing also reminds them of the white robes worn by angels. Women wear white clothes and men may wear a kittel (long white garment).

They do not wear leather shoes and women do not wear makeup on Yom Kippur. Make up is not worn because they believe they should not be concerned with physical appearance on Yom Kippur, only with spiritual welfare.

The reason for not wearing leather shoes (or shoes which contain any leather at all) is slightly different. It used to be that the only truly comfortable shoes available were leather shoes, so they became associated with the idea of physical comfort. As this is not the priority on Yom Kippur, they avoid wearing leather shoes to symbolise that Yom Kippur is a spiritual day.

Not allowed

There are five things forbidden on Yom Kippur:

• eating and drinking
• washing yourself
• putting on oil, perfume or makeup
• wearing leather shoes
• kissing, hugging, etc between adults


On Yom Kippur Jewish adults fast, which means that they do not eat or drink. Anyone over the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah (13 years for boys and 12 years for girls) is considered an adult and expected to fast for the whole day.

Young children are not allowed to fast because it may be bad for their health, but children aged 9 and above should fast for part of the day as practice for when they are older. Anyone who is sick is excused from fasting, but should eat only basic foods and not fancy or rich foods. Medicine needed to maintain good health may be taken on Yom Kippur, but this does not include things like vitamins.

NSW Board of Jewish Education


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