How Yom Kippur Works

By: Katherine Neer  | 

Yom Kippur Services

cantor ranm's horn
Student Cantor Kalix Jacobson, wearing traditional white cantorial attire, practices blowing the shofar (rams horn) during rehearsal for the High Holidays services at Hebrew Tabernacle of Washington Heights, NYC. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

A departure from the "standard" weekly Shabbat services held on Friday night and Saturday morning, the High Holiday services are unique in many ways. High Holiday services are longer than Shabbat services, often starting earlier in the morning (as early as 7:00 or 8:00 a.m.) and lasting well into the afternoon. For Yom Kippur, a short break is generally taken before the afternoon and evening services begin. A special prayer book -- called the Machzor -- is used for Yom Kippur (and Rosh Hashanah) services. The Machzor contains the specific prayers of the high holidays and further sets this time apart as especially important.

During the 24-hour period during which Yom Kippur is observed, there are five services:


  1. Kol Nidrei - Evening service that marks the beginning of Yom Kippur
  2. Shacharit - Early morning service with Torah reading
  3. Musaf - A second morning service with Torah reading
  4. Mincha - Afternoon service with Torah reading and a reading from the Book of Jonah
  5. Neilah - Final service

The first service, Kol Nidrei, begins just prior to sunset, when the sun is still on the horizon. Men don woolen prayer shawls, known as tallit, for Kol Nidrei services. This is significant in that tallit are not customarily worn for evening services. Translated as "all vows," the Kol Nidrei service begins with the cantor and the congregation stating the Kol Nidrei prayer three times. It relieves you of any vows or promises you have made to God during the previous year that you may not be able to keep in the coming year.

To repent, one must confess — Viduy, or confession, is an integral part of Yom Kippur services. The two types of confession, Al chet and Ashamnu, help Jews consider their transgressions. The sins are recited and expressed in plural form ("We are guilty of 'X'...") so that the individual and the community can repent and seek forgiveness at once. Slichot (penitential prayers) are also recited at the first service and throughout the observance of Yom Kippur.

The morning service, Shacharit, starts early, and prayer continues throughout the day. Following Shacharit and prior to Musaf, mourners recite a special memorial prayer, the Yizkor ("May God Remember"), and vow to make a charitable donation (tzedekah) in memory of their departed loved ones. Usually, Jews light a Yarzheit candle before Kol Nidrei services to remember those who have died, and let it burn until the following evening, when sunset signifies the end of the Yom Kippur holiday.

The gates (of heaven) are "opened" at the onset of Rosh Hashanah, opening the communication of man's sins to God. The celebration of Yom Kippur ends with Neilah, which means "closing the gate." The Ark remains open during this entire service, indicating that the gates of heaven are open to these final prayers. Because the Ark stays open, it is customary for the congregation to remain standing throughout Neilah. It is at this time that Jews make their final plea for forgiveness, asking that God seal their names in the "Book of Life" and so bring them the promise of a good new year.

Neilah concludes with a lengthy, loud blast of the shofar as the congregation exclaims "L'shanah habaah bi'Yerushalayim" -- "Next year in Jerusalem!"

Yom Kippur FAQ

What does Yom Kippur celebrate?
Yom Kippur is the "Day of Atonement" in the Jewish religion, believed to be the holiest day of the year. This day recalls the story of when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai to find the Israelites sinning by worshipping the golden calf instead of praising God. Moses goes back to Mt. Sinai seeking God's forgiveness for the Israelites' and God forgives the sins of the people.
What are the dates of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2021?
Rosh Hashanah or the Day of Judgement begins Sept. 6 at sundown and concludes at nightfall on Sept. 8, 2021. Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement begins at sunset on Sept. 15 and ends at nightfall on Sept. 16, 2021.
What is the main purpose of Yom Kippur?
A Jew's life depends on whether or not he or she makes the decision to make amends during the High Holiday period through the means of teshuvah (repentance), tzedakah (charity), and tfiloh (prayer). The main purpose of Yom Kippur is individual and collective purification from God.
Can you drink water while fasting for Yom Kippur?
No, during a traditional 25-hour fasting period, all forms of sustenance are prohibited, including water.
What do you wish someone during Yom Kippur?
It's customary to wish someone a good or meaningful fast. People may also wish each other "Shana Tova" or "good year" in Hebrew. Additionally, the final service during Yom Kippur traditionally ends in the congregation exclaiming, "L'Shana Haba'ah bi'Yerushalayim" or "Next year in Jerusalem!"
What are the traditions for Yom Kippur?
Yom Kippur is marked by five services including Kol Nidrei, Shacharit, Musaf, Mincha, and the final service, Neilah. Jewish people also fast and refrain from working for 25 hours and make amends with both people and God through apology, reconciliation, and prayer. The fast traditionally includes refraining from having sex, bathing, anointing one's body with lotion or perfume, and wearing leather shoes. Many people also practice "Kapparot", which is a custom followed by giving money to charity. Though these are a few, there are many other details that are practiced during Yom Kippur.

Originally Published: Oct 1, 2003

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