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Yom Kippur, the Holy Day of Repentance and Reconciliation for Jewish People, Begins Tuesday at Sundown

For Jews who observe, this day of atonement is the holiest day of the Jewish year.
Yom Kippur 2019
“Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur” An 1878 painting by Maurycy Gottlieb depicting Ashkenazi Jews praying in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. Painting by Maurycy Gottlieb. Photo: Flickr.

Tuesday is Yom Kippur, when many Jewish people gather to honor the day of atonement and what is considered the holiest day of the year.

In the Torah it states, following the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses pleaded with God to forgive the people. Finally, on Yom Kippur, atonement was achieved and Moses brought the second set of Tablets down from Mount Sinai.

From that day forward, every Yom Kippur carries with it a special power to cleanse mistakes, both individually and collectively, and to wipe the slate clean.

On every Yom Kippur, there are four steps to reconciliation:

  • Displaying regret: acknowledging that a mistake was made, and feeling regret at having squandered some potential.
  • Ending the bad deed: stopping the harmful action shows a true commitment to change.
  • Confession: admitting the mistake out loud, and then asking forgiveness from anyone we may have harmed.
  • Resolution: making a firm commitment not to repeat the harmful action in the future.

In many faiths, a verbal confession to a religious cleric is all that is needed to be forgiven. But with Yom Kippur, there's also the arduous work of having to go back to the person or entity to which you've done harm and apologize, seek forgiveness and make amends.

Throughout the year, many people spend their days focusing on food, work, material possessions and superficial pleasures. So, on Yom Kippur, Jews use the day to reset their priorities by abstaining from eating and drinking, washing, applying oils or lotions to the skin, marital relations and wearing leather (symbolizing materialism). It's also traditional to go to the Mikvah—a ritual bath—before Yom Kippur.

For the week before Yom Kippur (known as the 10 Days of Repentance), special additions are made to prayers, and people are particularly careful with their mitzvah observance.

The Yom Kippur fast begins before sundown today and extends 25 hours until the following evening.

Before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur, the congregation gathers in the synagogue for Kol Nidre night. The Kol Nidre is like a prayer, but not exactly: It is more a citation or formula that revokes any personal or religious oaths or prohibitions made upon oneself to God for the next year, so as to preemptively avoid the sin of breaking vows made to God which cannot be or are not upheld.

When greeting someone during this time, it's not appropriate to say, "Happy Yom Kippur," since it is not about celebration but serious and meditative atonement. An appropriate greeting would be, "Wishing you a meaningful Yom Kippur!"