Why Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year

This day of atonement marks the end of the Jewish high holy days—and offers a chance for people to change their fate through prayer, repentance, and charity.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 15 Sept 2021, 17:30 BST
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year and marks a time for atonement through fasting and prayer. In this image, ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray at the Western Wall during Yom Kippur in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Photograph by Xinhua, Li Rui, Getty

From guilt to mourning and self-abnegation to resolve, Yom Kippur is the emotional climax of the Jewish faith’s high holy days—a holiday period that kicks off with Rosh Hashanah, the observance of the Jewish New Year.

The holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur means “day of atonement.” It takes place on the tenth day of Tishri, the first month of the civil year and the seventh month of the religious year in the lunisolar Hebrew calendar. This year, Yom Kippur will be celebrated on 10 Tishri, 5782—September 15 and 16, 2021, on the Gregorian calendar.

Origins and meaning of Yom Kippur

Tradition has it that the holiday originated with the prophet Moses. After God gave Moses the Ten Commandments atop Mount Sinai, Moses returned to the Israelites. During his prolonged absence, they began worshiping a golden calf, considered a false idol. In anger, he smashed the commandments, set in stone, then headed back up the mountain to pray for God’s forgiveness for himself and his people. Moses returned with a second set of the Ten Commandments—and God’s forgiveness for Israel.

Yom Kippur marks the end of the Days of Awe, or Days of Repentance, that begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. During the 10-day period, a person is thought to be able to influence God’s plans for the coming year. In the Mishnah, the legal text that dictates Jewish daily life, God is portrayed as inscribing people’s names in one of three books on Rosh Hashanah: a book that records the names of good people, a book of evil people, and a book of people who are neither totally wicked nor righteous.

Jews believe that they can perform acts of prayer, repentance, and charity during the Days of Awe to influence God, changing how they are categorised before the books are sealed on Yom Kippur.

How Yom Kippur is celebrated

The holiday begins at sundown and lasts until sundown the following day. Work is forbidden, and atonement for sins of the previous year is expressed through “afflictions,” including fasting and refraining from washing or bathing, sexual relations, wearing leather shoes, and applying lotions or creams. Though not all Jews observe all aspects of the holiday, it’s known as the one holiday on which many nonobservant Jews attend synagogue. 

Synagogue is a critical part of Yom Kippur, offering five prayer services. During each one, the congregation confesses its sins collectively. Some attendees wear white clothing or a kittel, a white garment that symbolises a burial shroud, the clothing of angels, and the purity of forgiveness.

The first service, which takes place at sundown, includes the Kol Nidrei declaration, in which the congregation prays that any vows to God that cannot be fulfilled during the coming year be declared null and void. The declaration is thought to have become part of the ceremony as a way of allowing Jews who had endured forced conversions to return to their faith on the day of atonement. Historically, it has served as a pretext for anti-Semitism among those who claim it offers Jewish people a blanket permission to ignore their promises (it does not).

Since Jewish tradition dictates that God judges both the dead and the living, the first daytime service includes the Yizkor, a mourning service in which people recite a prayer on the behalf of a lost parent or loved one. Survivors also promise to perform acts of charity in the hopes of ensuring God’s positive judgment for their loved ones.

During the final service, which represents the “closing” of the gates of Heaven and the sealing of God’s book, those who can remain standing do so, and the entire congregation rededicates itself to the spiritual tenets of Judaism through prayer. 

As the last prayers of Yom Kippur fade, the shofar, or ram’s horn, is sounded, an indication that God’s forgiveness has been granted and that the 25-hour fast is over. Hungry congregants head home to break their fast with family and friends. In the United States, a classic Yom Kippur meal to end the fast is brunch-like, with bagels, smoked fish, and sweet and savoury delights.

For a community that has been marking its day of atonement since biblical times, the age of coronavirus won’t derail the holiest of days. While some congregations in the United States will worship “together apart” on Zoom, the unprecedented speed of COVID-19 vaccine development means many will be able to hold in-person services this year with masks or proof of vaccination.

Editor's note: This story was originally published on September 25, 2020. It has been updated.


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