Prayer Services for Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement contains more services than any other observance in Judaism

Print this page Print this page

Daytime Services

The daytime services of Yom Kippur are characterized by their emphasis on the two major themes of forgiveness from sin and teshuvah, or repentance. According to the traditional Jewish prayers, God immediately forgives us for the sins that affect no one else other than our relationship with God. For sins that affect and harm others, we must first apologize and seek forgiveness from those whom we have hurt. Only then are the prayers of Yom Kippur considered effective in absolving our sins. Teshuvah is the process by which we recognize our sins, feel regret for having committed them, and then resolve not to do them again and make restitution for any harm we may have caused. All of the major prayers of the Yom Kippur liturgy focus on these themes.

Because Yom Kippur is a day on which we strive to achieve spiritual purity, there is a tradition to wear white clothes to synagogue services. In addition, due to the fact that Yom Kippur is a fast day, there need not be any breaks for lunch or other meals. Therefore, Yom Kippur has evolved over the centuries into a full day of communal worship services, although many communities still do break for a short period before Mincha, the afternoon service. Beginning with Shaharit, the morning service, the prayers occupy themselves with the above-mentioned themes of seeking forgiveness for sin and engaging in the process of Teshuvah or repentance.

Torah Service

The Torah portion read on Yom Kippur morning is taken from Leviticus 16, which details the ancient biblical Yom Kippur rituals in which two goats would be selected as symbolic sacrifices. One would be sacrificed to God in the ancient belief that animal sacrifice could achieve divine ablution from sin, and the other goat literally became the "scapegoat" upon which the High Priest would symbolically place all the sins of the Jewish people. This scapegoat would then be sent off into the desert to a demon known as Azazel (presumably to die there), thus carrying away the sins of the people. (Reform Jews read selections from Deuteronomy 29 and 30, as a reaffirmation of  accepting covenantal responsibility.)

The Haftarah, or additional biblical reading, is taken from the book of Isaiah, Chapters 57 and 58, in which the prophet criticizes the empty, superficial religious rituals of the ancient Israelites when the rites are not accompanied by acts of righteousness, charity, and morality.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Daniel Kohn

Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.