6 Little-Known Rules For Observing Yom Kippur

This year Yom Kippur, the day of atonement in the Jewish calendar, begins at sunset on Sunday, September 27. 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 detail the specific customs of this day.

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It's a time of self-reflection.

It's a time of self-reflection.

Yom Kippur is an introspective holiday. In the days leading up to Yom Kippur, many people choose to meditate on their relationships, and make an effort to right any wrongs they've committed. Many of the Yom Kippur prayers also center around asking for forgiveness.

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The fast has a time limit.

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.

Also, there are people who shouldn't fast, including the sick, and people who may be harmed by the fast. Check with your doctor and your rabbi if you're unsure if it's safe for you to fast.

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It's about more than food.

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 bathing, too (hand-washing is allowed, thank goodness), and to forgo perfumes and lotions. 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.

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Sex is discouraged.

Sex is discouraged, too.

People are also encouraged to abstain from sexual activities, another worldly pleasure that may distract from the introspective day.

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No leather shoes, within reason.

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.

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Color matters.

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.

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