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Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement

"The tenth of the seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement for you. It is a holy holiday when you must fast and bring a fire offering to G-d. Do not do any work on this day; it is a day of atonement, when you gain atonement before G-d your God."
VaYikra 23:27-28

The Torah instructs us to fast on the tenth day of the month of Tishrei and to refrain from work on that day like on Shabbat. Yom Kippur is one day long even outside of the land of Israel.

Yom Kippur is one of the holiest days of the year. It is a time for introspection, self-correction, prayer, and teshuva. Frivolous activities are inappropriate for this time.

Kaparot

It is an ancient custom to perform Kaparot before Yom Kippur. Kaparot can be performed any time between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur but the preferred time is just after dawn on the day before Yom Kippur.

The Kaparot ritual involves taking a chicken (a rooster for a man and a hen for a woman) or money in your right hand and revolving it over your head while reciting a prayer. The prayer finishes with the following declaration:

"This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken will go to it's death (or, if using money, "this money will go to charity") while I will enter and proceed to a good long life, and peace."

The chicken is then slaughtered and it (or its cash value) is given to the poor.

This ritual is meant to symbolically express our recognition that we have sinned and are no longer deserving of life. By killing the chicken we are stating that, in truth, this should be our fate but that G-d has given us the opportunity to return to Him through teshuva and Yom Kippur.

It is important to realize that Kaparot is not a magical means of removing your sins. Only teshuva can do this. Kaparot is a way of inspiring and expressing teshuva.

Erev Yom Kippur - The Day Before Yom Kippur

There is a mitzvah to eat on the day before Yom Kippur. It is customary to have two festive meals, one at midday and one in the afternoon in preparation for the fast. You should be careful not to overeat and to bear in mind the importance of the coming day.

Forgiveness

Teshuva can only help for sins between man and G-d. If, however, you have wronged another person then teshuva cannot function until one has received forgiveness from that person. It is therefore customary to seek out the forgiveness of anyone whom you may have sinned against before Yom Kippur begins. It is also customary to recite the Tefila Zaka prayer in which you state that you forgive anyone who may have sinned against you in any way.

The Fast

The Yom Kippur fast is the strictest of the entire year. The fast lasts for the entirety of the day, from sundown on the eve of Yom Kippur till nightfall the following night, over twenty four hours. The fast involves five prohibitions:

  1. Eating and drinking.

  2. Washing one's body. This includes even washing a minute part of the body or even simply dipping one's finger into water. However, you may wash your hand's upon rising in the morning and after using the bathroom but only the absolute minimum, the fingers only. (One is also permitted to wash off actual dirt from one's hands.)

  3. Anointing oneself.

  4. Wearing leather shoes.

  5. Marital relations.

Prayer

The day of Yom Kippur is devoted entirely to prayer. While concentration on one's prayers and their meaning is important throughout the year, on Yom Kippur it carries even more significance.

White Garments

It is customary for men to wear a white tunic-like garment called a kittel during the prayers of Yom Kippur. The white kittel is reminiscent of the angels and symbolizes purity. Furthermore, the kittel resembles burial shrouds and thus reminds us that we will die someday and thus humbles us to do teshuva. For these reasons, it is also customary to wear white garments on Yom Kippur.

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