Yom Kippur: a history



Yom Kippur, or Yom HaKippurim, is the holiest day in Judaism and Samaritanism. In English, “Yom Kippur” translates to the “Day of Atonement.” Along with Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur is one of the two High Holidays. 

Yom Kippur is observed on the tenth of Tishrei, ten days after the start of Rosh Hashanah. 

According to the Talmud, God opens three books of destiny during Rosh Hashanah: the Book of Life, the Book of Death, and a third book, which is reserved for those who have done both good and bad deeds. During the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we ask for forgiveness from God and from those we have wronged. On Yom Kippur, the books are sealed, and God has made His final judgement. 

Yom Kippur is observed with long prayer services and a 25-hour fast, when Jews over bar or bat mitzvah age abstain from drinking or eating. An exception is made for “Pikuach Nefesh,” a principle in Judaism that asserts that the preservation of life overrides all other rules in Judaism; for example, if fasting will harm someone with physical or mental health conditions, they are commanded not to fast. 

Beyond fasting, there are a number of other Yom Kippur traditions, such as (1) wearing no leather shoes, (2) no bathing or washing, (3) no using perfumes or lotions, and (4) no sexual relations. Other traditions include the kapparot ritual, when either money or a chicken is donated to charity. 

At the end of the Yom Kippur service, the shofar is blown. 



Unlike Rosh Hashanah, which was a minor Jewish holiday in antiquity, Yom Kippur has always been the holiest day in the Hebrew calendar. 

While the Temple in Jerusalem stood, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) would perform a special sacrificial service, through which the sins of the Nation of Israel were atoned (in fact, this is actually the origin of the term “scapegoat”).  

Most significantly, Yom Kippur was the only time of year when anyone was ever allowed inside the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place within the Temple (in other words: the Temple is the holiest site in Judaism, and the Holy of Holies is the holiest site in the Temple). According to the Tanakh, the Holy of Holies is where God’s presence appeared, and according to tradition, it’s where King Solomon placed the Ark of the Covenant. Jews believe that the Holy of Holies is the spiritual junction where Heaven and Earth meet.

Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest of Israel would enter the Holy of Holies and offer sacrificial blood and incense. 

As we do today, Israelites in antiquity fasted on Yom Kippur, refrained from working, and blew the shofar to signify the end of the fast, at least during the Jubilee year. 



Kol Nidre, translating to “all vows,” is a Hebrew and Aramaic recitation (not technically a “prayer”) that is said right before the beginning of Yom Kippur evening services. Kol Nidre preemptively annuls all vows made in the upcoming year, so as not to commit the sin of breaking vows. 

The exact origins of Kol Nidre are unknown, but we know that it existed as early as the sixth century, and historians theorize that it was written because Jews were heavily persecuted at this time and were often forced to convert to Christianity or Islam at the sword. Thus, Kol Nidre was meant to preemptively “nullify” these conversions in the eyes of God and the Jewish community.

In ancient Israel, it was common for people to make vows to God, so much so that the Torah warns against making vows to God which cannot be fulfilled. For this reason, Halacha (Jewish rabbinical law) allows Jews to be released from their vows if they can only be performed by a scholar, an expert, or a board of three Jewish laymen. 

Jewish communities around the world began adopting Kol Nidre as part of the Yom Kippur liturgy around the fourteenth century, though it’s important to note that Kol Nidre is technically not a part of the Yom Kippur service, but rather, must be recited right before Yom Kippur officially begins. 



Officially known as the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478 as part of the Reconquista, the campaign during which Spain recovered the territories in the Iberian Peninsula colonized by Muslims. The purpose of the Inquisition was to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in Spanish territories.

In the beginning, the Inquisition was supposed to merely identify heretics among those who’d converted from Judaism or Islam to Catholicism. In 1492, Jews and Muslims were faced with the choice of expulsion, conversion to Catholicism, or death. Some 200,000 Jews converted to Catholicism under duress, though many continued practicing Judaism in secret. These Jews were known as Conversos, Crypto-Jews, or, pejoratively, “Marranos.”

During Yom Kippur, Crypto-Jews found ways to secretly honor their roots. When the “Great Day” arrived, they would practice what became known as the “Forgiveness Fast” and gathered for prayer services in secret synagogues, even singing Kol Nidre.

To this day, many of the descendants of these Jews say a prayer before Kol Nidre “for the welfare of our brethren who were imprisoned during the Inquisition.”

In the early years of the Inquisition, the authorities had a habit of investigating and arresting Crypto-Jews who observed “the fast of the Jews.” For example, between 1502 to 1504, a prominent Crypto-Jew from Cordoba was investigated, and ultimately 107 people, including Jews and Muslims, were burnt alive.

A common practice during the Inquisition period was for Jews to “move” the date of Yom Kippur. For example, if Yom Kippur fell on the 12th of the month, Crypto-Jews would observe it on the 11th, to dodge the investigators. 



As soon as Hitler rose to power in 1933, the Nazis began passing antisemitic legislation. Among the earliest laws were the ban on Kosher slaughter and the burnings of Jewish books, which made observing Jewish holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, difficult.

Jewish observance became more and more restricted with the outbreak of World War II. In some Nazi-occupied territories, Jewish culture was heavily controlled or banned altogether. In other areas, while Jewish observance wasn’t explicitly banned, Jews still found it near impossible to keep the holidays. Of course, observing the holidays in ghettos and concentration camps was a near impossibility simply due to lack of resources.

Even so, Jews continued observing Yom Kippur, in the ghettos, deportation trains, and even concentration camps, such as Auschwitz.  At the Saint Cyprien concentration camp, for example, Jewish prisoner Aryehh Zuckerman helped compile a shortened version of the Yom Kippur prayer services on scraps of paper. 

In 1944 in Auschwitz, Jewish prisoner Livia Koralek delivered a speech to her fellow prisoners on the eve of Yom Kippur, stating, “This Yom Kippur be a day of pardon, forgiveness and atonement, and may God forgive us for all our iniquities. We believe that all our families, relatives and loved ones feel as we do here in this cold, depressing and miserable camp. We promise to be righteous and good. True, this is not easy as we are all sad, hungry and cold, but here in this camp, we must try and be tolerant.”

Many even refused their food rations, but when the Nazis found out, they forced them to do push ups, run, and perform other forms of intense exercise. 



On Yom Kippur, 5734 (October 6, 1973 in the Gregoria calendar), a coalition of Arab states, led by Egypt and Syria, launched a surprise attack on Israel. Not only is Yom Kippur the holiest day in the Hebrew calendar, but the attack also took place during Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam. The Arab states know the Yom Kippur War as the “October War” or the “Ramadan War.”

Due to faulty intelligence and the holiday, Israel had been unprepared for the attack. In the first few days of the war, the situation for the Israeli forces looked increasingly dire. On the Syrian front, 3000 Israeli troops, 180 tanks, and 60 artillery pieces were up against 28,000 Syrian troops, 800 tanks and 600 artillery pieces. On the Egyptian front, the situation looked just as dire, with the Egyptian troops overwhelming the Israelis. 

By the end of October, though, Israel had turned things around. After Israel encircled some 30,000 Egyptian soldiers, Egypt agreed to negotiate a ceasefire; Syria did not officially agree to a ceasefire until May of the following year. 

Both Syria and Egypt were guilty of atrocities during the Yom Kippur War. Syria was accused of violating the Geneva Convention in various ways; for example, 28 Israeli POWs were decapitated with an axe. In at least one case, the Syrians ate the flesh of an Israeli POW. The Syrian government awarded one of the perpetrators a Medal of the Republic. Syrian soldiers carried Israeli body parts in bags to “take home as souvenirs.” Israeli POWs reported receiving electroshock torture and having their fingernails torn off. Syria also refused to release the names of Israeli POWs to the Red Cross. The Egyptians also executed hundreds of Israeli soldiers by firing squad even after they had already surrendered; photographic evidence exists, though the photos have not been released to the public. 

Some 3000 Israelis were killed during the war; another 8000-18,500 Arabs were killed. 

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