The Jewish High Holy Day season begins with Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – and now continues with Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur began at sundown on Sunday, September 27, and ended the following day at sundown. Yom Kippur is observed through fast and is a time of repentance and reconciliation. Yom Kippur can loosely be compared to the Christian tradition of Lent.
What is Yom Kippur?
Generally, on a Jewish holiday, those in the Jewish community might wish each other “Chag Sameach,” which translates from Hebrew to “happy holiday.” However, Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is not intended to be a day for happiness or celebration. Instead, Yom Kippur is seen as a day dedicated to repentance, prayer, and fasting. As such, It is appropriate to wish someone observing Yom Kippur “G’mar chatima tova,” which means “May you be sealed in the Book of Life.”
Yom Noramin, or the Days of Awe, begin on Rosh Hashanah and culminate on Yom Kippur. In Judaism, both the books of life and death are opened during the Days of Awe. During the Days of Awe, religious Jews will spend this time repenting of the past year’s sins so that their names remain written in the Book of Life.
Rabbi Andrea London notes of the season, “The fully righteous are inscribed (in the Book of Life) for the year, the wholly evil are not inscribed and the rest of us need to work to make amends and make sure we have more good deeds than bad, if we want to be sealed for another year of life.”
How is Yom Kippur Observed?
Yom Kippur is centered around Synagogue attendance and liturgies of repentance. Religious Jews will attend an evening service (bear in mind Yom Kippur begins at sundown). The following day (it is the same day on the Jewish calendar), religious Jews will attend a morning service and an afternoon service. Jews traditionally wear white on Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur often features the following liturgy:
Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kid’ shanu b’ mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik neir shel (shabbat v’ shel) you hakippurim.
Blessed are you, our G-d, Creator of time and space, who enriches our lives with holiness, commanding us to kindle the (shabbat and*) Yom Kippur lights.
The evening service also includes the Kol Nidre, which is a prayer meant to free all Jews from any vows made in a time of duress. Vows of any kind are taken very seriously in the Jewish community. Though anti-Semites may suggest this is why Jews should not be trusted, it shows the opposite in that Jews take vows so seriously that they seek G-d’s absolution of vows unfairly placed upon them. Kol Nidre was also for Jews who were forcefully converted to Christianity. It allowed them to return to Judaism rather than remain under a vow of forced conversion.
Jews will also fast on Yom Kippur. This fast will begin at sundown at the beginning of Yom Kippur and end 24 hours later at the next sundown. Jews will usually then have a “break-fast” meal together in a family setting.
Yom Kippur in Ancient Israel
The historical origins of Yom Kippur are disputed. Jewish tradition holds that Yom Kippur was first observed at Sinai during Israel’s trek from Egypt to the Promised Land. In this tradition, Yom Kippur finds its origin after the following events in Leviticus,
“Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2a)
Because Nadab and Abihu offered G-d “strange fire,” He gave Moses and Aaron instructions (Leviticus 10) for a yearly ritual – observed every year on the 10th of Tishrei of the Hebrew calendar – regarding how the tabernacle could be cleansed.
Due to Yom Kippur not being mentioned at several critical points in the Hebrew Bible, other researchers have suggested that the Holy Day did not come about until the Second Temple Period. This theory can be read here.
How Christians Can Participate in Yom Kippur
In the Western mindset, holidays are meant to be times of celebration. Intentionally entering times of melancholy and repentance likely do not come naturally. This reason is why Christians should embrace this Jewish Holy Day. No emotion is inherently good or bad but are all morally neutral. Yom Kippur is an invitation for all Christians to spend time in self-reflection about how we have wronged G-d and other people over the past year and how we can pursue reconciliation.
The New Testament reads,
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need (Hebrew 4:14-16).
In Christian theology, Yom Kippur finds its culmination in Jesus the Messiah, who died for the remission of sins. Any Christian looking for reconciliation with God and others can look to Jesus, the Great High Priest, who can grant full and final forgiveness of sin.
*This part in parenthesis is only added if Yom Kippur lands on Friday night and Saturday, which is the Jewish sabbath or “shabbat.”