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What is Yom Kippur? (Grade 9)

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What is Yom Kippur?

Instructions: Read this passage and then answer the questions that follow.

What is Yom Kippur, and why is it considered by Jews to be the most important day of the year?

Before understanding the significance of Yom Kippur, it’s helpful to review how holidays appear on the Jewish calendar. Although Jews use the same secular calendar as non-Jews, they have an additional calendar used for marking special days that are holy in Judaism.

The secular calendar we are all familiar with is based on the movement of the earth around the sun. It’s a solar calendar which starts on January 1 and ends on December 31. The Jewish calendar is lunar – in other words, it’s tied to the cycles of the moon. Since a lunar calendar and a solar calendar are different, there is no exact date for Yom Kippur, but the date varies from year to year. The holy day usually happens in late September or early October.

It should also be noted that a Jewish "day" is a 24-hour period which starts at sunset, therefore if a secular calendar happens to also include religious holidays as a helpful reference, the Jewish holiday listed on a particular date actually starts the evening before. For example, if your secular calendar says that the Jewish holiday of Passover is April 24, families will be getting together for Passover dinner on the night of April 23. (However, it has become more common in recent years for secular calendars to make note that a Jewish holiday starts the evening before.)

So, back to Yom Kippur, also called the “Day of Atonement”. It is the most important day in the Jewish calendar. In biblical times, this was the one day of the year when the top religious official of the Jews (the high priest) was allowed to enter into the most sacred room of the Jewish temple – the “Holy of Holies”. In this room was a big golden chest called the Ark of the Covenant. Jews believed this was the place where God lived in this world.

Atonement means making amends for wrongdoing. In other words, when someone does something wrong, they are said to “atone” for it by somehow making up for it. For instance, if you and a friend where tossing a baseball around in the back yard and you accidentally overthrew your friend and broke a neighbor’s window, you would atone for that mistake by paying for a new window.

The Jewish Day of Atonement was the one day of the year when the wrongdoing (or sins) of everyone in the entire nation of Israel was atoned for. To do this, the high priest would bring two goats into the temple. On one goat he would symbolically place the sins of Israel and then send it into the wilderness to die. This was the “scapegoat”. The other goat was sacrificed on the altar and its blood was brought into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant.

Since the ancient temple of the Jews no longer exists (it was destroyed almost two thousand years ago when an army of the Roman Empire conquered Jerusalem, the city where the temple stood), the Jews don’t offer animal sacrifices to atone for their sins anymore. Instead, Jews do acts of goodness and charity leading up to Yom Kippur in the hope that these good works will make up for the wrongdoing of the previous year.

Yom Kippur occurs on the ninth day after the Jewish New Year (called Rosh Hashanah). Most Jews take off from work or school on this day, even ones who are not religious at other times. Yom Kippur is the busiest day of the year for synagogues (the Jewish place of worship). Yom Kippur is a 25-hour fast, not just from food, but also from work that is prohibited on the Sabbath, the Jews' weekly day of rest. In addition, Jews also refrain from bathing, anointing the body with oil, wearing leather shoes, and sexual relations. Much of that time is spent attending worship services.

You might be wondering about the correct pronunciation of Yom Kippur. "Yom" rhymes with "home", and "Kippur" sounds like "key-poor" with the second syllable stressed. Never pronounce Kippur like the fish “kipper.”

Finally, it is very appropriate to wish a Jewish person “G'mar Hatima Tova” during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s a Hebrew greeting which loosely means “may you be sealed for good in God’s book of life”.

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