Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the most important Jewish religious holiday. Yom Kippur occurs ten days after Rosh Hashanah in the lunar month of Tishrei (either September or October). The holiday is an opportunity for Jews to ask God and their neighbors for forgiveness. Yom Kippur’s importance in the Jewish faith is exemplified by the many rituals that are observed on the day. These rituals include a variety of religious services, beginning with one the evening before Yom Kippur and ending with another called Nei’la (neh-ee-LAH).
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The Kol Nidre is a legal formula sung on the eve of Yom Kippur. The purpose of the Kol Nidre is to proactively annul any oaths an individual makes between this Yom Kippur and the next. The Kol Nidre does not absolve individuals of responsibilities to each other. Its purpose is to remind the faithful of careless promises they made in the previous year that they did not fulfil. The Kol Nidre is sung in Aramaic, not Hebrew, emphasizing that it is as much a legalistic declaration as a religious one, and is traditionally sung by the chazzan, or cantor, of the congregation.
ASHAMNU AND THE AL-CHET
The Ashamnu and the Al-Chet are two parts of the Jewish confessional prayer, the Vidui. The Ashamnu is an alphabetic acrostic detailing the ways in which the congregation has sinned. The Ashamnu is not exclusively recited on Yom Kippur, and may be prayed daily. The Al-Chet is longer, however, and is only said on Yom Kippur. Both prayers are repeated throughout the day.
Kapparot is a ritual observed by a small number of Orthodox Jewish communities on the eve of Yom Kippur. Participants in kapparot swing a chicken above their head three times while reciting a prayer. The purpose of the ritual is to transfer one’s sins to the fowl. Typically, the chicken is donated to the poor for food after the ritual is completed.
The ritual of the scapegoat was performed on Yom Kippur in the distant past. The ritual’s origins can be found in a passage from the Book of Leviticus. In the scapegoat ritual the high priest would sacrifice one goat in the Holiest of Holies—the center of the great Temple in Jerusalem. Another goat, the titular scapegoat, would be sent into the desolate wilderness (called Azazel) bearing the sins of the community with it.
THE BOOK OF JONAH
The entirety of the Book of Jonah is read during the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This reading is called the haftarah for Yom Kippur. (There is a haftarah associated with each part of the Torah, and it is usually read on Shabbat immediately following the Torah reading.) The Book of Jonah emphasizes the importance of teshuva, or repentance, a common theme of Yom Kippur.
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The scapegoat ritual has parallels in many different cultures.
Yom Kippur’s special status has earned it the name “The Sabbath of Sabbaths.” The prohibitions against work on this day are widely observed by the Jewish faithful.
Read this article to learn more about specific rituals of Yom Kippur.
German Romantic composer Max Bruch composed a beautiful violin concerto based on the melody of the Kol Nidre.
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