Yom Kippur, with its scriptural provision as "a statute forever" (Lev. 23:31), is the holiest day in the Jewish year. Following time-honored tradition, it provides an opportunity to express humility and gratitude for God's mercy.

Specific laws ensure that observance of this day of atonement has continuity for succeeding generations. Worshippers repent and make amends before the day of Yom Kippur in order to benefit from God's forgiveness. They observe regulations involving fasting, work, dress, and other personal behaviors both before and on the day of Yom Kippur. The Kol Nidrei and Torah reading, the blessing of children, and the sounding of the Shofar (ram's horn) each play a significant role in the celebration.

To Name This Day:


Here is an excerpt from the Viddui ("confession") prayer recited right before Yom Kippur and many times during the holiday:

"You know the secrets of the universe,
And the hidden mysteries of all the living.
You probe all the innermost chambers,
and test thoughts and emotions.

"Nothing is hidden from You
And nothing is concealed from Your eyes.

"And so may it be Your will
God of our ancestors,
That You forgive us for all our errors,
And you pardon us for all our iniquities,
And You atone for us
For all our willful sins."

Spiritual Practices

  • In Jewish Dharma, Brenda Shoshanna describes a forgiveness practice which you can try during Yom Kippur or on a regular basis:
    "Forgiveness is such a huge topic and mitzvah in Judaism and in the practice of making peace that an entire holiday, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is devoted to it. In preparation for Yom Kippur, you are to call each person you have interacted with over the past year and say, 'If I have done anything this year to offend you, please forgive me.' And if the person has done anything to offend you, you are to forgive that person as well. If the person refuses to forgive you, you are told to ask three times. If your third attempt is rejected, you are considered to be forgiven by God."
  • Sometimes forgiveness is not a matter of longstanding hurt but of momentary aggravation with someone. In the following practice from Out of Darkness Into Light, Kathleen Schmitt Elias suggests silent recall of a line from the Torah to free yourself -- and the culprit -- from the burden of such an encounter:
    "[This] practice is most useful for those brief moments of aggravation when someone cuts me off on the freeway, jumps a line, makes a hurtful comment — the little things that raise the blood pressure much higher than warranted. The moment I catch myself thinking what a jerk that person is, I sing silently (or aloud, if the situation permits) the first line of the priestly blessing in the Torah: Y'varekh'kha Adonai v'yish'm'rekha — May the Eternal One bless you and protect you! (Num. 6:24). Though it is called a "priestly" blessing, there is nothing that says we ordinary folk can't wish the same goodness for each other. The magic is not in priesthood or even in the words. The magic is in the effect it has on my own being the moment I say the words: I have let go of my anger and my mind is back in synagogue on Yom Kippur, savoring the moment when we have confessed our shortcomings and shared the peace of that beautiful blessing. While my mind is thus occupied, the culprit has time to make a clean getaway, and I am free to get on with the day without giving the encounter another thought.
  • See also Repentance and Forgiveness, a Spiritual Practice Feature for the High Holy Days by Michael Lerner. It includes a beautiful meditation/prayer for forgiveness which can be adopted by people of any religious persuasion.

Teaching Story

In Yom Kippur Readings, edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkin, Rachel Naomi Remen's offers this story about forgiving others as children of God:

"We can do violence to life in many ways, Many years ago, I was invited to hear a well-known rabbi speak about forgiveness at a Yom Kippur service. Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, when Jews everywhere reflect on the year just past, repent their shortcomings and unkindness, and hope for the forgiveness of God. But the rabbi did not speak about God's forgiveness.

"Instead, he walked out into the congregation, took his infant daughter from his wife, and, carrying her in his arms, stepped up to the bimah or podium. The little girl was perhaps a year old and she was adorable. From her father's arms she smiled at the congregation. Every heart melted. Turning toward her daddy, she patted him on the cheek with her tiny hands. He smiled fondly at her and with his customary dignity began a rather traditional Yom Kippur sermon, talking about the meaning of the holiday.

"The baby girl, feeling his attention shift away from her, reached forward and grabbed his nose. Gently he freed himself and continued the sermon. After a few minutes, she took his tie and put it in her mouth. The entire congregation chuckled. The rabbi rescued his tie and smiled at his child. She put her tiny arms around his neck. Looking at it over the top of her head, he said, 'Think about it. Is there anything she can do that you could not forgive her for?' Throughout the room people began to nod in recognition, thinking perhaps of their own children and grandchildren. Just then, she reached up and grabbed his eyeglasses. Everyone laughed out loud.

"Retrieving his eyeglasses and settling them on his nose, the rabbi laughed as well. Still smiling, he waited for silence. When it came, he asked, 'And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of God?'

"Back then, God's forgiveness was something easily understandable to me, but personally I found forgiveness difficult. I had thought of it as a lowering of standards rather than a family relationship."