What is Yom Kippur? When is it? What to know about holiest day of Jewish calendar

Jews recognize Yom Kippur as the Day of Repentance.

This year, it will be observed for more than 24 hours, beginning at sunset on Sept. 24 to when the stars are visible in the sky on Sept. 25. A solemn day marked by fasting and introspection, Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, said Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer of Temple B'nai Shalom, a Reform Judaism congregation in East Brunswick.

The holiday is a solemn one, dedicated to asking for forgiveness, introspection and how one can do better.

"This is the day when we really think about teshuvah or repentance, and that repentance is where we seek to go in a new direction in our lives for the new year," Eisenkramer said. "And we seek to repair the mistakes and the misdeeds that we've committed. And those mistakes the rabbis have taught fall into two categories. For mistakes and misdeeds and wrongs that were committed against God, we fast and pray on Yom Kippur, and we atone for them through our prayer and fasting. But for misdeeds we commit against other people, Yom Kippur does not atone. We have to go out and approach them, apologize and seek forgiveness."

What is Yom Kippur, the Jewish high holidays?

Yom Kippur comes 10 days after the two-day holiday of Rosh Hashanah, commonly known as the Jewish New Year. Together, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the High Holy Days and the 10-day period between is meant to be a period of reflection when the Gates of Repentance are opened.

"These days are very important days to correct, to perform repentance and to seek to repair those relationships," Eisenkramer said. "We do it all year long, but this is an especially good time of self-reflection and seeking to apologize. And the rabbis also taught that if someone comes to you and asks you for forgiveness three times and you do not grant it to them, now the mistake is yours. The sin is yours."

Eisenkramer said the first step in repentance is to feel a sense of regret for actions. That will then motivate a person to take action.

"So you approach someone, you apologize with sincerity and you seek forgiveness," he said. "And you make compensation and reparation if it's possible, depending on what the nature of the misdeed was."

The Hebrew word for sin has a different kind of meaning to it, Eisenkramer said. It really refers to kind of "missing the mark."

"Like as if you were shooting a slingshot or bow and arrow and you missed the mark. You went off target," he said. "So the idea is not that when we make mistakes, it's not that we're bad people. It's that we are human beings, and it is sometimes our nature to do the things wrong. But when we miss the target, we can readjust and start again and try to repair what was done. And that's why this idea of misdeed is a missed deed − a deed that missed. It didn't do what it should have done. We had a deed that was wrong and now we're going to try to do better."

The rabbis also taught that a true test of repentance is when you are put in the same situation where you erred previously, and you don't repeat the mistake, Eisenkramer added.

Also, in the 10-day time period, the Book of Life is opened, and the names of every person are written in for a new year of blessing and peace. It is common for people to say "May you be written into the Book of Life" as a salutation.

"I think that just speaks to the fragility of the human condition − there was another rabbinic teaching where the Rabbi said, 'You should repent' and he said, 'When should I repent?' And the rabbi said to the person, 'Well, you should repent now because you don't know if this is your last day.' So this − today − is the day when we have to prepare. We can't delay."

How do Jews observe Yom Kippur?

Many Jews attend services, of which there are several, at their synagogue or temple.

The first is Kol Nidrei, an evening service meaning "All Vows." During Kol Nidrei, the focus becomes the cantor's confessional prayer on behalf of the community. A formal declaration, the prayer is sung in Aramaic, and it is a plaintive proclamation of repentance for all unfulfilled vows, oaths and promises made to God during the year.

"This prayer has a beautiful and haunting melody that really stirs up a lot of emotion and helps people feel the weight of Yom Kippur and begin the process of self-reflection," Eisenkramer said. "So it is a real spiritual highlight of the evening service."

Depending on the congregation, other services during Yom Kippur include a morning service, an afternoon service and a closing service. Jews also recite Yizkor or memorial prayers for loved ones who have died. In some congregations, this is a separate service that typically takes place between the afternoon and evening service on the day of Yom Kippur.

Many congregations read from The Book of Jonah during the afternoon service. The story of Jonah connects to the meaning of Yom Kippur, Eisenkramer said.

"Jonah was the prophet who fled from God and was swallowed by a whale. While he was in the whale – which I'm sure was highly uncomfortable − he prayed and he repented and realize the error of his ways," Eisenkramer said. "And the whale spit him out on dry land. Jonah went and followed God's commands there. One of the reasons we read that book, is because with Jonah's time in the whale, that time of fasting and reflection is similar to the idea of what we do during Yom Kippur."

At sunset, Yom Kippur concludes with the blowing of the shofar.

Why do Jews fast on Yom Kippur?

The main ritual of Yom Kippur is the fast, Eisenkramer said.

Jews traditionally began to fast when they turn 13. That is the age of Bar or Bat Mitzvah and when a child becomes an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community.

"It's a sundown-to-sundown fast, over 24 hours, and Jews do not consume any food or drink any water during this fast as a form of repentance and an expression of humility," Eisenkramer said.

Like Shabbat, no work is done on Yom Kippur. On this day, Jews also do not wear leather, bathe or shower, "anoint the body with oil", which now includes moisturizers or creams, or have sexual relations.

After services are completed, there is an after fasting meal often referred to as "break-the-fast." A celebratory meal, this makes the evening a "Yom Tov" or festival on its own. Typically consisting of dairy items, break-the-fast often features bagels, salads, fish, challah, blintzes, quiches, noodle kugel and honey cakes on the menu.

"Food plays a big part in Judaism,' Eisenkramer said. "So, we have a meal before Yom Kippur. And then, of course, we're fasting without food and water during Yom Kippur. And then at the end of Yom Kippur or when the sun is setting, we hear the sound of the shofar, a final shofar call. Then, we gather for a break fast where we sustain our bodies again, but hopefully with a feeling that we are going to have some improvement in our lives and go forward in a good direction."

Eisenkramer cautions that those who fast should "not eat too much because your stomach shrank" for more than 24 hours and "lots of hydration" after fasting is very important.

There is a custom that after Yom Kippur, Jews immediately begin construction of a sukkah, a temporary booth which is used for the week-long holiday of Sukkot. This joyous holiday celebrates the fall harvest and comes five days after Yom Kippur. It commemorates the 40 years the Jews spent in the wilderness after they were freed from slavery in Egypt. Jews are supposed to eat meals and sleep in the sukkah for the duration of the holiday.

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Cheryl Makin is an award-winning features and education reporter for MyCentralJersey.com, part of the USA Today Network. Contact: Cmakin@gannettnj.com or @CherylMakin. To get unlimited access, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: What is Yom Kippur? When is it? Jewish Day of Repentance explained