The Holiest Day of the Year: What is Yom Kippur and How is it Celebrated?

son drizzling honey over a pomegranate in celebration of yom kippur

Yom Kippur, translated from Hebrew as “Day of Atonement” is the holiest day of the year. On this day, Jewish people ask for forgiveness from each other and receive forgiveness from God for sins committed during the previous year. 

To be worthy of this absolution, a person needs to devote this day to repentance and promise to begin the new year with a clean slate. The pillar of Yom Kippur is God’s willingness to forgive every person who regrets their wrongdoings. Read on to learn more about the traditions, symbolism and foods associated with the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.

The History of Yom Kippur

The origins of Yom Kippur go back to biblical times. A few months after the Jews left Egypt with Moses, they sinned by mistakenly worshiping a golden calf. After that, Moses climbed Mount Sinai to receive a new set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments. While there, he pleaded with God for forgiveness on behalf of the people.

Moses spent forty days and forty nights on the mountain, fasting and seeking atonement. When he descended with the new tablets, Moses announced that God had forgiven the people for their sins. This day became known as Yom Kippur, the day of atonement and forgiveness.

Throughout its history, Yom Kippur has served as a powerful reminder of the importance of repentance and reconciliation in Jewish tradition. It is a day of spiritual renewal and a time for everyone to reflect on their actions.

When Is Yom Kippur Celebrated?

Yom Kippur starts in the evening before the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. The month of Tishrei begins with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). So, Yom Kippur is celebrated on the 10th day after the New Year. 

Since the Jewish calendar is based on a lunar cycle, the exact date of this holiday varies every year. Usually, it falls in September or October of the Gregorian calendar. Yom Kippur lasts 25 hours and ends at the nightfall of the 10th day of Tishrei.  

How Is Yom Kippur Celebrated?

In biblical times, the celebration of Yom Kippur included a complex set of rituals performed by the High Priest in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The High Priest would enter the inner sanctum of the Temple, known as the Holy of Holies, and offer sacrifices and prayers on behalf of the entire Jewish community. The goal of these rituals was to cleanse Jews of their sins.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the central focus of Yom Kippur shifted from the Temple to the synagogue and individual observance. Today, the celebration of Yom Kippur includes:


According to Torah, during Yom Kippur, the Jewish people (except for children, the sick, the elderly, and women who have just given birth) have to abstain from:

  • Eating
  • Drinking
  • Bathing
  • Having sex
  • Wearing leather shoes (in the old days, only the rich could afford leather shoes, so wearing them meant showing off)
  • Using cosmetics

The fast begins when the sun sets on the day before Yom Kippur and ends at nightfall on the day itself. The goal of this fast is not to punish the person but to encourage the cleansing of body and spirit.


During Yom Kippur, there are five services in the synagogue:

  • Kol Nidrei – evening service at the sundown on the evening before Yom Kippur
  • Shacharit, Musaf, Mincha – daytime services on the day of Yom Kippur
  • Neilah – closing service before sundown on the day of Yom Kippur

While some Jews go to synagogue to pray, others may choose to do so at home.

Wearing White

The tradition dictates that to celebrate Yom Kippur people should wear white clothes. While it’s not mandatory, some Jews prefer to do so both at home and at the synagogue. The idea behind wearing white is purification. By putting on white clothes, you are demonstrating the newly purified mind, soul, and spirit as well as the overall purity of the day.

In a synagogue, you are likely to see the rabbi wearing a white linen robe called a kittel.

Blowing the Horn

Shofar, a ram’s horn, is part of the Jewish holiday tradition. It sounds during the month leading up to the New Year (to set the mood for the celebration) and 100 times during the Rosh Hashanah services. The final sound of shofar takes place at the closing of Yom Kippur.


Some religious Jews believe that during Yom Kippur, God reviews their sins and decides who has the right to belong in the Book of Life (which means living for another year) and who dies.

Many take the opportunity to reflect on what they’ve done in the past year and decide what can be done differently the next.

Food and Yom Kippur

While fasting is an integral part of the Yom Kippur celebration for religious Jews, so is eating. Two meals associated with this holiday are pre-fast and break-fast.

Pre-Fast Meal

Before starting the fast, Jewish families prepare a meaty lunch meal that’s packed with proteins and carbs. The menu can include:

  • Vegetable soup
  • Kosher meat, chicken, and fish
  • Potatoes
  • Dessert
  • Wheat bagels
  • Fruits
  • Challah (delicious braided bread)

It’s important to use as little salt while preparing the pre-fast meal as possible. Otherwise, you could feel dehydrated during the fast.

Break-Fast Meal

The break-fast meal that takes place after sunset on Yom Kippur often includes a wide variety of dairy foods, eggs, cheese, bagels, and soup.  

While meat dishes are allowed after Yom Kippur, some people tend to replace them with dairy because it’s easier on the stomach after the fast.

Celebrating Yom Kippur Your Way

Every Jewish person can have their own approach to celebrating Yom Kippur. Some observe all the traditions that include fasting, wearing white, and praying. Others focus on self-reflection and asking for forgiveness.

Whatever road you choose, a hearty Yom Kippur meal is a must-have. At Sarah’s Tent, we have all the ingredients you need to prepare tasty and vitamin-packed pre-fast and break-fast meals. Getting ready for Yom Kippur has never been easier and more convenient. Start shopping today! 


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