This week, Jewish families observe the holiday Yom Kippur. In Hebrew, Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.” People apologize for things they did wrong during the past year and ask forgiveness from others and from God.
On the night before Yom Kippur, Jews light a memorial candle to remember people who have died. Before the sun sets, families eat a large meal together. Then they go to the synagogue to chant a prayer called Kol Nidre. The prayer asks God to forgive each individual for promises they may break during the coming year. Everyone is still expected to try hard to do good things, but the prayer recognizes that humans make mistakes and will fall short of perfection.
After sunset, adults fast, meaning that they do not eat or drink anything until the following night. Young children don’t have to fast, but they usually give up a favorite food, such as chocolate. The Bible mentions in Leviticus 16:29 that God’s followers should “observe a day of sacred occasion when you shall practice self-denial. You shall do no work.” Jews practice self-denial by giving up food for a day. The act of fasting reminds them of their blessings and the needs of others who don’t have enough to eat throughout the year.
The following day is spent at the synagogue. Everyone prays for the sins of the community and also asks forgiveness for their own sins. The confessional prayer recited during the service mentions sins committed against God and against other people. Some people beat their fists gently against their hearts as they remember the mistakes they made. Beating one’s fist is a way of showing contrition for sins.
Another important part of the service is the reciting of the Great Aleinu, a prayer that asks God to forgive everyone. During the prayer, members of the congregation lie down. Lying down shows that the people are humble to and dependent upon God. Just after sunset, the shofar or ram’s horn is blown once to wish people a good new year and to mark the end of Yom Kippur.
When the service ends, families go home to a large meal because they haven’t eaten for a day. Traditional foods such as challah bread and matzah ball soup are often served.