How Yom Kippur Works

After wearing their tallit for the duration of Kol Nidrei services, men leave their shawls at the synagogue, unfolded and ready to wear the next morning.
After wearing their tallit for the duration of Kol Nidrei services, men leave their shawls at the synagogue, unfolded and ready to wear the next morning.

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.

The shofar is blown in the synagogue to signify the conclusion of the Neilah service and the end of the Yom Kippur holiday.

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

For more information on Yom Kippur and related topics, check out the links below.

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