The second of the two Jewish high holidays is right around the corner: At sunset this Friday, September 29, Yom Kippur will begin and continue until sundown the following day. Also known as the Day of Atonement, this holiday is considered the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar — but it isn't necessarily the saddest.
Yom Kippur is the bookend to last week's Rosh Hashanah, explains Rabbi Yonah Hain, of Columbia/Barnard Hillel. Where the former rings in the Jewish new year and encourages reflection on the previous year, the latter focuses on how believers might address or correct any misguided actions they committed in the last year. "The way I look at it is that you assess on Rosh Hashanah, and then you execute on Yom Kippur," Rabbi Hain says.
The most common form of atonement is fasting for the duration of Yom Kippur (specifically until one hour after sundown on Saturday). By avoiding food, drink, and bodily pleasures for an entire 24 hours, it's believed that people can better reflect upon the year to come and how they can make it better for themselves and others. Upon asking themselves these difficult questions, observant Jews are meant to seek forgiveness from both God and those they wronged. As Rabbi Hain puts it, "It's a day of singular focus [on] self-improvement."
In addition to fasting, people may attend special synagogue services the night before and the day of Yom Kippur. Much like the process of fasting, the prayers that are read encourage people to repent for past sins. Rabbi Hain says the service ends with one final blow from the shofar, the ram's horn that's used during the high holidays as a call for reflection.
More than anything, Yom Kippur observances are meant to help Jewish people feel spiritually absolved and ready to be a better, more morally sound member of the community. With that comes some solemnity, but ultimately gives way to a hopeful start to the new year.