What Is Yom Kippur?

The Fellowship  |  August 14, 2022

Jewish men covering their eyes in prayer at the Western Wall.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish year and is the culmination of the High Holy Days, which begins at sundown on September 24 after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It marks the final opportunity to repent before God before the Book of Life is sealed for another year. Use our resources below to learn more about this biblically mandated observance.

What is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is observed on the tenth day of the month of Tishrei on the Hebrew calendar, which falls in September or October on the Gregorian calendar (the calendar in common use throughout the world).

This day marks the culmination of the High Holy Days or Ten Days of Repentance, which began ten days earlier with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur offers Jews the final opportunity of the holy season to repent of their sins. It is the holiest day of the Jewish year or, as the Bible describes it, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths.” The Bible states,

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work—whether native-born or an alien living among you—because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. It is a sabbath of rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance” (Leviticus 16:29–32).

Yael Eckstein praying at the Western Wall

During the 24-hour period of Yom Kippur, Jews fulfill this biblical commandment to deny themselves by fasting from food and water, engaging in intense soul-searching, and praying for forgiveness.

From the evening of the holiday until sundown the following day (except for the few hours when they go home to sleep), Jews are in the synagogue beseeching God for forgiveness and reflecting upon the course of their lives. An entirely different synagogue liturgy is used every year only on this day.

Learn more about the meaning of Yom Kippur with our downloadable Bible Study. Atonement: At One with God.

A Day of Purification

Yom Kippur is a day of inner purification and of reconciliation with God and fellow human beings. Judaism insists, however, that repenting, fasting, and praying atone only for those sins between man and God. Those sins committed against their fellow man require that Jews seek forgiveness personally from those they have offended as well as from God.

Men praying at the Western Wall.

Fasting on Yom Kippur is a physical act meant to prod Jews on to spiritual matters. It is a reminder of the frailty of human existence and of the duty to act charitably toward the less fortunate. The inspiring, yet sobering, words of the Isaiah 58 are read publicly in the synagogue on Yom Kippur to reveal the true meaning of the Yom Kippur fast:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen,” says the prophet, “to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6–7).

Evening services commence with the recitation of the Kol Nidrei prayer, one of the most powerful and emotionally evocative in all of Jewish liturgy. Kol Nidrei is a plea for absolution from any and all unfulfilled vows a person may have made in the course of the year.

Learn more about the Book of Jonah, which is traditionally read in synagogue on Yom Kippur and how its message of repentance, forgiveness, and second chances relate to this holy observance.

The Yom Kippur Goats

“Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats — one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat.” — Leviticus 16:7–8

Yom Kippur is a shadow of what it once was. Today, the holiday is marked with a day of fasting and worship in the synagogue. However, when the Temple stood, the people observed an elaborate service, culminating when a red thread representing the sins of Israel would miraculously turn white when they were forgiven. The service was so uplifting that the Jewish sages describe Yom Kippur as one of the two most joyful days on the Jewish calendar.

Two brown and black goats put their noses up to each other.

The service that once took place in the Temple was based on the commandments regarding two goats. Today, we only read about that service; however, it is imperative that we understand the meaning behind this ritual. Once we do, we can still benefit from the message of the goats even in their absence.

The Bible instructed the High Priest to select two goats and then cast lots to determine each one’s fate. By way of the lots, God would determine which goat would be consecrated to Him and which would become the scapegoat sent into the desert to die. The commandment required that the two goats be identical in appearance, size, and value. These goats would look like twins – the same on the outside – but their destinies would be completely different.

Like Jacob and Esau

Esau meet Jacob

The idea of twins that are opposite in nature is familiar in the Bible. Although twins, Jacob and Esau could not be more different. Ultimately, as adults, they took very different paths in life, and Jacob became the father of God’s people while Esau became the father of Amalek – the nation designated by the Bible as God’s archenemy. The twin goats on Yom Kippur are meant to remind us of Esau and Jacob.

The message of the twin goats is that while their appearance may fool men, there is no fooling God. He only determines their appropriate fate. “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1Y Samuel 16:7).

On Yom Kippur, we have an incredible opportunity for forgiveness. But in order for that to happen, we must admit our errors and resolve to be better. We can only do that if we are willing to uncover our greatest shortcomings and confront our hidden vices. We can fool others and even ourselves, but there is no deceiving God.

Yom Kippur is a time to come clean. We need to take an honest look inside the places that only we can see. We have to determine where we have gone wrong and make amends. Only then can God cleanse us of our sins.

Learn more about Jacob with our downloadable Bible Study, Jacob: Our Patriarch of Truth.