Yom Kippur FAQ: All About the Day of Atonement

Your Yom Kippur questions answered.

When is Yom Kippur 2017? Click here to find out.

What’s Yom Kippur about exactly?

How long does Yom Kippur last?

Why do people fast on Yom Kippur?

Do children have to fast? Is anyone exempt from fasting? Can I at least drink water?

I heard it’s OK to wear sneakers to services. Is that really true?

What prayers are unique to Yom Kippur?

What parts of the Torah are read on Yom Kippur?

What’s this I keep hearing about the Yom Kippur breakfast? I thought people skipped breakfast on Yom Kippur.

Are there any special words or phrases I need to know for Yom Kippur?


What’s Yom Kippur about exactly?
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, when we ask forgiveness for the wrongs we have committed over the past year. Jewish tradition believes that on this day God places a seal upon the Divine decrees affecting each person for the coming year. Traditionally, Jews fast on this somber day and also refrain from other bodily pleasures.


How long does Yom Kippur last?
Yom Kippur, which falls 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, lasts one day. This year it begins at sunset on Tuesday, Oct. 11 and lasts through Wednesday, Oct. 12. The fast itself lasts 25 hours, from just before sunset on Oct. 11 until just after sundown on Oct. 12.


Why do people fast on Yom Kippur?
Yom Kippur is the day on which we are instructed to divorce ourselves as completely as humanly possible from the mundane world in which we live, in order to devote ourselves with all our hearts and minds to our relationship with the Divine. Fasting is the most widespread manifestation of this devotion. Other examples include: refraining from washing, sexual relations, and the wearing of leather (a sign of luxury in earlier times).


Do children have to fast? Is anyone exempt from fasting? Can I at least drink water?
Traditionally, Jews are not required to fast until they reach bar/bat mitzvah age (12 or 13), and children under the age of 9 are not allowed to fast. People for whom fasting is a health risk, along with pregnant and nursing women, are also exempt. The fast includes abstaining from water, but, again, only if doing so does not pose health risk. For tips on fasting without jeopardizing your health, click here.


I heard it’s OK to wear sneakers to services. Is that really true?
Yes, many Jews wear sneakers, or white athletic shoes, on Yom Kippur. That’s because of a desire to avoid leather (a sign of luxury in early times) and the tradition of wearing white, as a symbol of purity.


What prayers are unique to Yom Kippur?
The evening of Yom Kippur begins with Kol Nidre, a prayer that is repeated three times and asks that all vows and oaths that we have made throughout the year will be forgiven, so we can start the new year with a clean slate. Another major prayer is the Vidui, or confession, which includes Ashamnu and Al-Chet, prayers which list all the sins individuals in the community have committed.


What parts of the Torah are read on Yom Kippur?
On Yom Kippur, congregations traditionally read a passage from Leviticus about the sacrificing of a goat (the origin of the term scapegoat). The Reform movement has replaced that reading with one from Deuteronomy on human freedom to make moral choices. In addition to these readings from the Torah (the five books of Moses) on the afternoon of Yom Kippur it is customary to read the Book of Jonah, from the Prophets section of the Bible.


What’s this I keep hearing about the Yom Kippur breakfast? I thought people skipped breakfast on Yom Kippur.
A break-fast is an informal meal in the evening, after the Yom Kippur fast has ended. In the United States break-fasts tend to resemble morning breakfast (or at least brunch) in that they tend to be dairy (rather than meat) and to include bagels, cream cheese, smoked fish, salads and sandwich fillings like cheese, tuna salad and egg salad. Here are some recommended recipes.


How do I greet people on and before Yom Kippur? Since it’s such a somber holiday, saying “Have a good holiday,” or “Happy Yom Kippur” seems awkward. And are there any other special words or phrases I need to know?
You can say, “Have an easy fast” or “gmar hatima tova” (may you be inscribed for a good year.) It’s also acceptable to say “shana tova” (happy new year). As for other words and phrases for the holiday, check out our glossary for Yom Kippur. (We also have ones for Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot.)

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