It is often said that Yom Kippur is the most important event in the Jewish calendar. Yet, the traditions around Yom Kippur vary between communities, and its “celebration” has greatly adapted since Mount Sinai – traditionally considered to be the first Yom Kippur.
At its core, Yom Kippur is a day of atonement. It is often depicted as the day where we are closest to God’s open gates, and therefore, make amends for sins committed over the last year. Yom Kippur takes place on the 10th day of Tishrei, bringing to a close the ten days of Awe, which commenced on Rosh Hashanah – Jewish New Year.
The participation in Yom Kippur centres around a day and a half long fast, where abstention from additional activities, such as the use of electricity and limitation of movement, is observed as well as the fast itself. This is meant to induce a state of self-reflection, separating the spirit from physical possession.
The afternoon before Yom Kippur is often marked by a large feast, surrounded by friends and family, helping in preparation for the 25 hour fast. And the fast is often broken collectively, bringing to a close the fast often with the same people with which it started.
While these elements form the foundation of Yom Kippur, the personal reality which I have of the “holiday” is somewhat varied. Yom Kippur signifies a large part of Jewish identity for me. In my family, similar to other Jewish families which don’t strongly adhere to all religious traditions in Judaism, Yom Kippur is nonetheless strongly observed. It is often referred to as the “Sabbath of Sabbaths”, and rightfully so, many Jewish families which do not regularly celebrate the Sabbath will keep Yom Kippur. It is quite difficult to place into words the place which Yom Kippur holds within the Jewish Faith. Experiences of the day are so greatly varied, yet remain close to the family unit, and even when the fast is not observed, the day will often be used for self-reflection.
I have always had a strange relationship with Yom Kippur, I was born on the day in 1998, and continue to celebrate my birthday on Yom Kippur with my extended family – despite the misalignment with the Gregorian calendar. This has meant that I often celebrate two birthdays in September, despite the fact that one evolves fast. This has led to my favourite, albeit religiously ambiguous, Jewish law – originally created by my grandma – which allows me to break the fast for the purpose of eating my birthday cake.
The experience of Yom Kippur thus greatly varies, yet, is universally similar. The day creates a platform for self-reflection and atonement. Many use it as an opportunity to not only ask God for forgiveness, but also those around them. Yet, the close links which Yom Kippur has to familial relationships make observing a “proper” Yom Kippur difficult when away from the family. I have often found that when away from my family, Yom Kippur can also take place among friends, sitting around and reflecting upon the previous year, and all that has taken place.
It is difficult to explain the reason for which Yom Kippur holds such an important place within Judaism, while historical and religious factors can offer an explanation to its position within Judaism’s structure. I’m reluctant to attribute its importance to such factors, as for me it has come to symbolise something far greater. 25 hours surrounded by family, accompanied by a period of self-reflection and retrospective atonement.
Leehoo Pansky is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and second year LLB Law student. His interests include Environmental Law, Human Rights and clowning. He also claims to be the only person on the planet with the first name Leehoo.