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Yom Kippur 2021: What Is It and How Is It Celebrated

Yom Kippur is the holiest, most important day of the year in Judaism, known as the “Day of Atonement.” It begins at sundown Wednesday, September 15, 2021, and ends Thursday evening, September 16th—the last of the ten days of penitence that began with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). Yom Kippur commemorates the day Moses came down from Mount Sinai after seeking God’s divine forgiveness for the Israelites who sinned against him by worshipping a golden calf idol.

Yom Kippur Dates

YearBeginsEnds
Jewish Year 5782Sunset September 15, 2021Nightfall September 16, 2021
Jewish Year 5783Sunset October 4, 2022Nightfall October 5, 2022

Day of Atonement

Yom means “day” in Hebrew, and Kippur means to atone (Day of Atonement).

Throughout the 10 Days of Awe (Repentance) leading up to Yom Kippur, those practicing Judaism have been reflecting on the personal aspects of the past year, deciding how to improve, seeking forgiveness and showing compassion to others. Traditionally, the belief is that after judging a person by their deeds over the last year, God decides who will be sealed in the Book of Life (to live for another year) and who will die.

Yom Kippur Traditions

There are many traditions associated with Yom Kippur.

Day of Fasting from Food and Work

Feasts are replaced with fasting on this holiest of religious days. However, two traditional meals are enjoyed the day before the fast begins at sundown. Both meals begin by dipping round challah bread into honey, as is customary on Rosh Hashanah. At sundown, the “soul is afflicted” by 25 hours of fasting—no drinking or eating. Fasting enables followers to stop their normal routine to refocus their attention to prayer and connecting spiritually with God.

Attend Synagogue Services

There are several synagogue services throughout Yom Kippur. Songs, religious customs, as well as prayers and readings from the Machzor, the special prayerbook are recited. Portions of Deuteronomy are read in the morning service, and a selection from Leviticus and Genesis are read in the afternoon. The readings encourage those in attendance to live holy lives and draw closer to God. They are also reminded to love others. The single, long blowing of the Shofar (ram’s horn) ends the Holy Day service and fasting. Livestream Yom Kippur services and programs for those unable to attend are available this year.

It’s Customary to Wear White

It is tradition for everyone to wear white clothing on Yom Kippur. The men often wear a Kittel—a white, robe-like garment—on Yom Kippur. It is said to resemble angels, the high priest’s garment, and burial shroud. White reminds those attending services that they are to be like the angels, praising God. White also symbolizes the forgiveness and spiritual cleansing they’re praying for, and that life on earth is temporal. White is worn with a humble awareness of one’s need to repent sins and pray to God for forgiveness. They pray in hope, remembering how God forgave the children of Israel for their sin of idolatry during the days of Moses.

Breaking the Fast

Bagel spread with cream-cheese on rustic breakfast table with ingredients: salmon, avocado, hummus and quail eggs.

At the conclusion of the last Yom Kippur service, many enjoy a festive meal at home with family and friends. The foods that are traditionally eaten vary, but are often baked breakfast goods.

We asked friends to tell us what they traditionally eat to break the Yom Kippur fast:

Typically we break [the fast] with a lighter meal—tuna fish, whitefish salad, blintzes, egg soufflé, or bagels with cream cheese and lox.

Dr. Eric Mintz of West Bloomfield Township, Michigan

We always break the fast with bagels and Nova (lox). Always! When the kids were younger we went to a friend’s home. They invited a ton of people and had the most amazing dairy spread. We’ve taken the tradition with us wherever we moved.

Robin Zorn, a native of New York, New York

Before Yom Kippur

Just as Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, the day before Yom Kippur is set aside for eating and preparing for this holy day. There are many activities done before the fast, including eating a pre-fast meal, known as the seudah ha-mafaseket (“meal of separation” or “concluding meal”), lighting of candles, donating to charity, and requesting and receiving honey cake, which provides blessings for a sweet year.

What Is The Proper Greeting at Yom Kippur?

The greeting for Yom Kippur is G’mar Hatima Tova, or G’mar Tov. (meaning, “May you be sealed in the Book of Life”). It is also customary to say, “have a meaningful fast” before the holiday begins.

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