Yom Kippur – the Jewish Fast


Mehri Niknam is the founder and Executive Director of the Joseph Interfaith Foundation. She has worked as a consultant in Jewish-Muslim relations since 1995. Her academic field is comparative Judaism and Islam in the Middle Ages.

In 2005, she received the MBE for her contributions to Muslim-Jewish relations. In the same year she was made Honorary Fellow at Leo Baeck College (rabbinic seminary) for her achievements in Jewish-Muslim interfaith relations.

She is a member of the Imams and Rabbis Committee and The Roundtable of Academics and Theologians, two governmental think tanks at the Department of Communities in the UK.

In 2008 she was the Fulbright scholar, representing Britain in Interfaith and Community Action.

The great fast of Judaism is called Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and is probably the most important and awesome day of the Jewish year. It is observed on the first day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. It is a day set aside to “afflict the soul,” to atone for the iniquities of the past year and to “Return to our Creator”. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast and/or attend synagogue services on this day.

There are several minor fasts in Judaism, but Yom Kippur is the only fast day decreed in the Bible.

The Torah (The first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible revealed by God to Prophet Moses) calls the day Yom HaKippurim in the Book of Leviticus and decrees:

‘And the Lord spoke to Moses saying: On the tenth day of the seventh month, there shall be a day of atonement [for the children of Israel], it shall be a holy convocation unto you, and you shall afflict your soul. And you shall do no work in that same day for it is a day of atonement to make atonement for you before your God.’ (Leviticus 23:23-28)

The rites for Yom Kippur are set forth in the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus (cf. Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 23:27–31, 25:9 and Numbers 29:7–11). It is described as a solemn fast, on which no food or drink can be consumed, and on which all work is forbidden.

Abstaining from the pleasure of food is meant to improve one’s ability to focus on repentance. The Yom Kippur fast is a 25-hour fast that begins before sunset on the evening before Yom Kippur and ends after nightfall on the day of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath; no manner of work (such as driving, lighting of fire, carrying of items in public, cooking, shopping, buying or selling, etc.) can be performed on that day. It is well known that you are supposed to refrain from eating and drinking, even water. However, spiritual elevation is a pre-requisite for true repentance. One way to achieve spiritual elevation is to abstain from the physical luxuries. Therefore, the Talmud (the Book of Jewish Oral Law written by great Sages and Rabbis) also specifies additional restrictions based on interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. Bathing, anointing one’s body (with cosmetics, etc.), wearing leather shoes (one should not wear something which is made as the result of the death of a living animal) and engaging in sexual relations are all prohibited on Yom Kippur.

The fast of Yom Kippur is incumbent upon men and women. Boys and girls from the time they reach the age of majority, 13, are obligated to fast. However, there are exemptions. As always in Jewish law, the preservation of life overrules all other laws.

Therefore, any of the Yom Kippur restrictions can be lifted where a threat to life or health is involved. In fact, children under the age of nine and women in childbirth (from the time labour begins until three days after birth) are not permitted to fast, even if they want to. Older children and women from the third to the seventh day after childbirth may fast, but are permitted to break the fast if they feel the need to do so. These rules are Talmudic, based on and interpreted from verses in the Torah.

Yom Kippur has a highly spiritual aspect called Teshuvah (Returning to the Creator in repentance) which is its highest aim and achievement. It is an opportunity granted by God in His Mercy, so that we may become aware of our iniquities and by admitting them before God, correcting our wrongs and asking forgiveness with a contrite heart, we may return once more to “Our Father, Our King, the Creator”. Traditionally the spiritual preparation for Yom Kippur starts 40 days before, when the custom of waking up in the early morning hours to recite Selihot (prayers of asking for forgiveness) starts. Although this traditions may not be strictly observed nowadays in the West, it is nevertheless, observed on a special evening called Selihot, when Jews attend a special all night service at the synagogue in preparation for Yom Kippur.

Forgiveness in Judaism, however, cannot be taken for granted. There are two kinds of forgiveness: from the wrongs we have committed against God and the wrongs we have committed against our fellow human beings. Therefore, Yom Kippur atones only for iniquities between us and God, not for the wrongs committed against another person. These rules are based on the Torah as explained by the Talmudic rabbis. To atone for the wrongs against another person, we must first seek reconciliation with that person, righting the wrongs we had committed against them if possible. That must all be done before Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur occurs on the tenth day after the Jewish New Year called Rosh Hashanah. The ten days in between the New Year and Yom Kippur are known as the Days of Awe. Traditionally, we believe that on Rosh Hashanah God makes judgement for each one of us, putting before us the possibility of whether we live or die –and the manor of the death – in the year to come. “On Rosh Hashanah judgement is made, on Yom Kippur judgement is sealed” (Talmudic). Those, whose time has come to die, will die, but for the rest of us, we are granted ten days – Days of Awe – to recognise our iniquities, correct those committed against our fellow human beings and, ask God to forgive us for iniquities committed against God. At the end of Yom Kippur God’s judgement is “sealed”.

This year Rosh Hashanah is on Saturday 19th of September starting at sunset on Friday 18th.. Yom Kippur starts on Sunday 27th September at sunset and ends Monday 29th, one hour after sunset.

After 25 hours of afflicting our soul, of fasting and standing most of the time during the all-day synagogue service, after long hours of praying and leaving one’s soul bare before

“Sovereign of existence”, after shamefully admitting one’s short-comings, mistakes, wrongdoings and iniquities before “The Merciful One who is Slow to anger and Forgives”, as the shadows lengthen and the day draws to an end we read:
‘When you call Me and come to pray to Me, I will hear you
When you seek Me, you will find Me
When you search for Me in your heart
I shall let you find Me.’
(Jeremiah 29:12-14)

And the service ends with the blast of the Shfar (Ram’s horn) blown in remembrance of the ram which was provided by the Merciful God to replace the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, and all the Jewish people in the world declare the chief Jewish prayer and belief, “with all our heart and all our soul and all our might” Deuteronomy 6:5:

“Hear O Israel [Bani Esra’il], the Lord is our God, the Lord is ONE” Deuteronomy 6:4

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