4 Little-Known Rules For Observing Yom Kippur

Photo: Nathan Benn/Corbis/Getty Images.
Yom Kippur, the day of atonement in the Jewish calendar, begins at sunset tonight, September 29. Jewish people are encouraged to spend the following day reflecting on their actions of the past year and repenting for any wrongs they may have committed.
Since Yom Kippur takes place 10 days after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, it's often viewed as an opportunity to start the year on a centered and renewed note. This pursuit of spiritual purity in the new year is seen most clearly in the customary fasting associated with Yom Kippur, says Rabbi Yonah Hain of Columbia/Barnard Hillel.
The specific rules to the fast cover a wide range, he says, but all of them point toward a common goal: to emulate a kind of morality in the hopes of transcending your earthly form (at least for a day). Ahead, we spoke with Rabbi Hain about the specific customs of this day.
1 of 4
The fast has a time limit for a reason.
Adults begin fasting at sundown the night before Yom Kippur and continue until one hour after sunset on Yom Kippur. So, this year, the fast will go from tonight until Saturday evening, lasting 25 hours in total. "Yom Kippur can only be one day. You’re not looking to extend Yom Kippur," Rabbi Hain says. "It’s specifically once a year, so that the rest of the year is balanced." In other words, expecting people to make asceticism part of their everyday lives would be unfair, but adopting a lifestyle of abstinence for a single day can help them feel closer to God.
2 of 4
There's more to the fast than skipping meals.
In addition to forgoing food and drink for the day, people are encouraged to abstain from sexual activities and bathing, too. Though skipping a shower may seem different from going without breakfast and lunch, these gestures demonstrate the same desire to avoid all forms of indulgence and worldly pleasures while atoning.
3 of 4
Avoid leather shoes, but don't go overboard.
This rule "is a function of the time in which it was created," Rabbi Hain says, explaining that leather goods used to be a sign of luxury and comfort — especially leather shoes. Choosing to wear plainer and less comfortable footwear was yet another way to adopt a lifestyle of simplicity on Yom Kippur.

People still follow this custom today, but now it's purely symbolic. "[Some] people who refrain from wearing leather shoes will still wear a leather belt," Rabbi Hain says.
4 of 4
Try to wear white.
This is the clearest and most visible nod toward the idea of purity. By wearing white on Yom Kippur, you're trying to appear truly "angelic," Rabbi Hain says — simple (and transcendent) as that.

More from Spirit


R29 Original Series