What is Yom Kippur? Meaning, Significance & Traditions

Yom Kippur is considered as the “Day of Atonement” and the holiest day of the Jewish Year. Healthy adults are commanded to refrain from eating and drinking from sunset to sunset to remind us of the frailty of the human body and our own mortality. Yom Kippur also encourages families to have complete focus on the holiday. Here are the dates for Yom Kippur.

It’s customary to wear white on Yom Kippur—though not mandatory—and some choose to wear sneakers or other rubber-soled shoes out of deference to the ancient practice of avoiding leather shoes, which were a symbol of luxury.

How Do We Celebrate Yom Kippur at Home?

The holiday is meant to remind us of the frailty of the human body, our own mortality and encourage a complete focus on the holiday. Yom Kippur can be a heavy holiday to observe for both people who are and are not Jewish. Try to be sensitive knowing this can be an especially difficult first-holiday experience for partners from other faith backgrounds. If it’s your first time, go easy on yourself. Participate in what feels comfortable.

Yom Kippur is a somber holiday of reflection and contemplation. We think of those who came before us and those who have influenced our lives and we take the time to remember family and/or friends who have died. You can light a special Yahrzeit candle (available in Judaica shops and online), if you choose.

How Do We Celebrate Yom Kippur Outside the Home?

Many choose to spend Yom Kippur at a synagogue, but there are lots of ways to connect with the holiday. There are alternative local and online offerings through various organizations, including the events we provide here at 18Doors. Think about the themes of Yom Kippur: forgiveness, the possibility for change, the past, and the future.

You can meditate, spend time in nature, visit a space you find calming, or visit with family and friends. However, you mark this important holiday, do it in a way that feels authentic and meaningful to you.

If you plan on celebrating Yom Kippur at synagogue, there are a few services you need to know about. Kol Nidre is the evening service that begins on Yom Kippur. It is also the opening prayer for the service and is a declaration that nullifies all the vows and promises that we will make to God and to ourselves in the coming year if, after our best attempts, we are unable to fulfill them.

There are also services on the day of Yom Kippur. Services are a full-day affair, beginning in the morning and running through sunset when the fast ends. There are several services that run back-to-back beginning with a morning service and an afternoon service.

In the late afternoon, observers can attend Yizkor (“memory”), a memorial service that takes place between the morning services and Ne’ilah. Names of loved ones who have died in the past year are remembered and read aloud.

The final service of the day is Ne’ilah, which means “closing.” Many people stand throughout this short emotional service, which ends with a final long shofar blast as the days of awe and our fast come to an end, and the year truly begins.

There are many ways to observe Yom Kippur in an interfaith family, and some aspects of the holiday are more approachable for someone who is not Jewish than others. But how you choose to honor the beginning of the Jewish New Year is completely up to you.

What Happens at Synagogue?

Kol Nidre

Kol Nidre is the name for the evening service that begins Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre is also the opening prayer for the service and is a declaration, in Aramaic, that nullifies all the vows and promises that each person will make to God and to him/herself in the coming year if, after our best attempts, we are unable to fulfill them. It serves as an acknowledgment of the weakness of human resolution.

Yom Kippur Day

Yom Kippur services are a full-day affair, beginning in the morning and running through sunset when the fast ends. There are several services that run back-to-back beginning with a morning service, an afternoon service, a memorial service, and finally a closing service.

Synagogues have a variety of practices even on the High Holy Days and some may not include a formal afternoon service but might offer a Torah study or alternative ritual in its place. There is no obligation to stay for the whole day, but it can certainly be a powerful communal experience.

Yizkor Service

Yizkor (“memory”) is a memorial service that takes place late on Yom Kippur afternoon.  Names of loved ones who have died in the past year are remembered and read aloud.  Anyone can attend this service, but often those who have not lost a loved one in their lives will not attend.  It is a somber yet beautiful service reminding us of those people who have come before us and hopefully reminding us to keep their memories alive as we move into the next year.

blowing a shofar

Ne’ilah Service

The concluding service is called Ne’ilah and means “closing.” Many people stand throughout this short emotionally powerful service, which ends with a final long shofar blast as the days of awe come to an end, our fast comes to an end and the year, filled with hope and promise, truly begins.

Break-the-Fast

Yom Kippur ends with a break-the-fast celebration. Family and friends join together with food they have prepared in advance. It is traditional to invite newcomers, visitors from out of town and anyone who might be alone during the holiday to share the break-the-fast meal. Many synagogue families also contribute both money and non-perishable food at this time, to help feed the hungry in their communities.

Glossary of Jewish Terms

High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

L’shanah Tovah Tikatayvu: “May you be inscribed for a good year.” A greeting that expresses the hope that you will be written in the Book of Life and granted happiness and fulfillment in the year ahead.

Machzor: High Holy Day prayerbook, literally means “cycle” in Hebrew

Shofar: Made from the horn of a ram, the shofar is a basic instrument that is blown daily in the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, on Rosh Hashanah and at the conclusion of Yom Kippur.

Shanah tovah: Literally, “a good year.” This is another greeting you might hear during this season, which is equivalent to “Happy New Year.”

Tallit: A prayer shawl traditionally used during any prayer service that includes a Torah reading. It is worn for the Yom Kippur evening service, Kol Nidre, even though the Torah is not read at that time, as all of the Yom Kippur services are meant to be a continuation.

Teshuvah: Literally means “returning,” a Hebrew term for repentance. Think of it as “turning a new leaf” or “turning over.”

Tzom Kal: “An easy fast.”  Another greeting you may hear right before Yom Kippur as many begin their fast.

Yahrzeit candle: Memorial candle lit on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, on Yom Kippur, and whenever Yizkor is observed.

Yom Tov: Literally “a good day” in Hebrew, it is often pronounced Yuntiff (the Yiddish pronunciation) and is used as a synonym for “holiday.” A standard holiday greeting is “Gut Yuntiff” (Yiddish for “good good day”).


Rabbi Jillian Cameron

Rabbi Jillian Cameron is the former director of 18Doors/Boston. She was ordained at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in 2012 after receiving a Master’s Degree in Jewish Education in 2008.