Yom Kippur 2021: date of the Jewish holy day this year, why people fast - and greetings explained

There are a number of traditions that take place during Yom Kippur, including fasting and prayer

Yom Kippur is considered one of the most sacred dates in the Jewish calendar, and is described as the holiest day of the year for Jewish people.

This is everything you need to know.

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What is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year for Jewish people, and it means “Day of Atonement”.

My Jewish Learning states: “This is the day at the conclusion of which, according to tradition, God seals the Books of Life and Death for the coming year.

“The day is devoted to communal repentance for sins committed over the course of the previous year.

“Because of the nature of Yom Kippur and its associated rituals, it is the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar.”

It is a day where Jewish people reflect on the previous year, and ask for God’s forgiveness for any sins committed.

The origins of Yom Kippur trace back to the story of Moses. After Moses ascended Mount Sinai and God gave him the Ten Commandments, he found the Israelites worshipping a golden calf in his absence, which is considered a false idol.

Moses smashed the stone commandments in anger, and climbed Mount Sinai to pray for God’s forgiveness, for himself and his people.

“After two 40 day stints on the mountain, full divine favour was obtained,” Chabad explains. Moses returned to his people with a second set of commandments, and the day that Moses descended the mountain was then known as the Day of Atonement - Yom Kippur.

What date is it this year?

The Jewish calendar is a “luni-solar” calendar which is established by the cycles of the moon and the sun.

Yom Kippur falls on the 10th day of the Jewish month of Tishrei, which is the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. It generally occurs around September or October of the Gregorian calendar.

Yom Kippur lasts for two days, and in 2021, it begins a few minutes before sunset on Wednesday 15 September and ends after nightfall on Thursday 16 September.

It comes after Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year. Yom Kippur ends the “10 days of repentance” which begins with Rosh Hashanah.

How is it celebrated?

The best known custom of Yom Kippur is fasting. Jewish people abstain from eating and drinking on Yom Kippur because of two Torah commandments:

  • Leviticus 16:29 - “You shall afflict your souls
  • Leviticus 23:29 - “For a soul which is not afflicted on that day will be cut off”

Rabbis connected fasting and affliction from additional verses in the Bible (Leviticus 23:30 and Deuteronomy 8:3).

Females over the age of 12 and males over the age of 13 are instructed to fast for the duration of Yom Kippur. Children under the age of nine are not allowed to fast, and from the age of nine until the age of religiously recognised maturity should gradually learn to fast.

There are a few other exceptions for fasting, including if a doctor says it will endanger your health, and pregnant women are also allowed to forgo fasting.

On Yom Kippur, no work is permitted either, from the time the sun sets on the ninth of Tishrei until the stars appear in the evening of the following day.

Many Jewish people also mark the day by avoiding washing or bathing, applying any lotions or creams, wearing leather shoes and engaging in sexual relations.

It is also customary to wear white on Yom Kippur.

The day is largely spent in the synagogue, where five prayer services are held:

  • Maariv, a solemn Kol Nidrei service held on the eve of Yom Kippur
  • Shacharit, which is the morning prayer and includes a reading from Leviticus, followed by the Yizkor memorial service
  • Musaf, which includes a detailed account of the Yom Kippur Temple service
  • Minchah, which includes the reading of the Book of Jonah
  • Neilah, which is the “closing of the gates” service at sunset, and is following by the shofar blast marking the end of the fast 

How do I greet someone during Yom Kippur?

The most common Jewish greeting on Yom Kippur is “g’mar chatima tova”, which means “a good final sealing” and is often shortened to just g’mar tov.

Another is “tzom kal” which literally means “easy fast”. The English equivalent of the greeting, “have an easy fast” is also not uncommon.

Other common Jewish holiday greets that are also used on Yom Kippur include “chag sameach” which means “happy holiday”, and “yom tov” which means “good day”.

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