Today is Yom Kippur, also known as the ‘Day of Atonement’. This ‘Sabbath of Sabbaths’ is the holiest day of the Jewish year.
Yom Kippur is the 10th of the 10 ‘High Holy Days’ which began on Rosh Hashanah. It commemorates an event detailed in the book of Exodus, the second book of the Torah. (Torah means “the Law” in Hebrew, and is a title used for the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible. These are also the first 5 books of the Christian Bible.)
Exodus tells that after the Israelites had committed the sin of worshipping a golden calf, Moses returned to Mount Sinai twice to ask for God’s forgiveness. Yom Kippur marks the day when he finally returned to his people with God’s favour restored. Later in history, Yom Kippur also became the day dedicated to the ritual purification of the Temple in Jerusalem. It became a more sombre occasion after the temple was destroyed in AD70.
Yom Kippur is a day of repentance and atonement. Following the commandment in the Book of Leviticus to “inflict your souls” on Yom Kippur, Jewish people spend the day fasting, praying, and resting. During a total fast of just over 25 hours, it’s also customary to refrain from using perfume, lotions, or creams, from washing, and from wearing leather shoes. This period of abstinence and prayer lasts from sundown on the day before Yom Kippur until nightfall on the day itself.
During this time, some choose to wear white clothes as a symbol of ritual purity. There are 5 prayer services in synagogues during the day, instead of the usual 3 services. The focus of the prayers is asking for forgiveness for past wrongs and resolving to improve in the future.
Two special meals are prepared for Yom Kippur. First is the Seudat Mafseket or ‘Meal of Cessation’ which is served just before the beginning of the fast. The second is the festive after-fast meal, which almost makes the evening after Yom Kippur a festival in its own right.
Amidst the solemnity and celebration, Yom Kippur is also a time to give to charity and visit people to seek or give forgiveness
There is a custom that after Yom Kippur, Jewish people immediately begin planning for the joyous holiday of Sukkot, which follows in just 5 days.
As one of the most culturally significant Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is observed by many secular Jews who may not observe other holidays. Although Yom Kippur is not a bank holiday in the United Kingdom, many Jewish businesses, organizations, and schools may be closed.
The UK is said to have the 5th largest Jewish population in the world, with just under 300,000 people. The largest Jewish communities are in London, Manchester and Leeds.