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Opening the Gates: Observing Yom Kippur

Seasons Greetings

Several greetings are commonly used on Yom Kippur. You can say “Gemar Hatimah tovah,” or “May you be sealed for goodness [in the Book of Life].” You can also say “Tzom Kal” or “Have an easy fast.” Some people say “Shanah Tovah,” meaning “Happy New Year,” in honor of this season of renewal.


Yom Kippur is the pinnacle of our introspective season. Throughout Yom Kippur, you will encounter prayer services that have some familiar elements and others that are unique to this particular holiday. The liturgy brings us on a heart-opening journey of confronting our failures while reassuring ourselves that we are capable of change.

Here’s some of what to expect at each service:

Erev Yom Kippur: We begin Yom Kippur at sundown with the iconic Kol Nidre prayer. While this service includes a variety of prayers, because of its significance, we sometimes refer to this entire service simply as “Kol Nidre.” The yearning and aspirational melody of the Kol Nidre prayer itself sets the tone for the next 25 hours and is played, sung, or recited three times, each time increasing in intensity.

Shaharit: During the morning prayer service, there is a mix of private and communal prayers as well as Torah reading. The powerful Haftarah portion from Isaiah compels us to examine whether we are truly fulfilling our sacred obligations to care for each other or merely performing the public ritual requirements without also prioritizing our social justice responsibilities.

Musaf: This service immediately follows Shaharit and includes Seder Ha-Avodah, a gripping description of the original Yom Kippur ritual in the Temple in Jerusalem, and Eleh Ezkerah, a devastating account of Jewish martyrs who suffered simply because they were Jewish. At BJ, we perform Seder Ha-Avodah separately as its own service during Yom Kippur afternoon.

Yizkor: The Yizkor section of Shaharit is a memorial service, where we lovingly honor the memories of those who have passed away and allow ourselves to acknowledge our grief from those losses. Yizkor is also performed on the 8th day of Passover, the 2nd day of Shavuot, and Shemini Atzeret.

Minha: The highlight of the afternoon service is the reading of the book of Jonah, a reluctant prophet, who is tasked with warning the Ninevites to repent. Jonah spends three days trapped in the belly of a big fish after a failed attempt to escape his responsibilities. The fish eventually spits him out onto the shore and Jonah finally completes his mission. Jonah, in spite of his initial refusal to deliver God’s message, successfully convinces the Ninevites to repent and they are saved.

Ne’ilah: During this final service, we are keenly aware of the approaching sunset and feel an urgency to offer up our sincerest prayers before Yom Kippur comes to a close. Many people choose to stand for the entire Ne’ilah service, persevering through fatigue and hunger as we earnestly utter our last confession. One final great shofar blast marks the end of Yom Kippur before we perform Havdalah and break the fast, ready to embrace a new year.

What to Wear

There is a tradition to wear white clothing, a symbol of purity, on Yom Kippur. Because we don’t wear leather, many people opt for canvas shoes or other footwear made of synthetic material.