Yom Kippur is one of the most widely observed holidays on the Jewish calendar.
It marks the highest synagogue attendance rate of any other day in the year. Despite its widespread observance and long hours spent in synagogue, Yom Kippur is a difficult day to understand.
The major theme of Yom Kippur, as its name implies, is atonement. The source for much of our observance of Yom Kippur is Leviticus 23:26-28 – “God spoke to Moses, saying: Mark, the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be a sacred occasion for you: you shall practice self-denial, and you shall do no work throughout that day for it is a Day of Atonement, on which expiation is made on your behalf before the Lord your God.”
The requirement to “practice self-denial” is interpreted in the Talmud to mean the following five prohibitions: eating, drinking, bathing, sexual relations, using bath oils and lotions, etc., and wearing leather shoes.
In Biblical and Rabbinic times, Temple rituals and sacrifices were the focus of the holiday. Among the highlights of the day was the scapegoat ceremony during which lots would be placed on two goats. One goat would be offered as a sacrifice in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies; and the second would be thrown into the wilderness. Once the Temples were destroyed, prayer and return, i.e. repentance, are the focus while the Temple ritual is recounted as part of the Yom Kippur liturgy.
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