*Just like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur is based on the Jewish calendar (the 10th day of Tishrei) and occurs on a different day each year in the Gregorian calendar. In addition, the Jewish day goes from sundown to sundown, not midnight to midnight. Thus, in 2012, Yom Kippur begins at sunset September 25 and ends the next day at the same time.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. Also known as the Day of Atonement, the Torah gives instructions for its celebration in Leviticus 16.
In Ancient Israel
On this day, and this day alone, the high priest would purify the temple and enter the Holy of Holies. (This is what Zechariah was doing when the angel told him that he and Elizabeth would have a child – John the Baptist.)
Many sacrifices were made on this day in ancient Israel, but there are two that stand out. First, one goat would be sacrificed for the sins of the people. Then a second goat would be prayed over and then driven into the wilderness, taking the sins of the people with it (the original scapegoat).
In addition to many sacrifices, the Day of Atonement calls for fasting and a complete Sabbath, where the faithful do no work (unless there is a severe emergency).
For Modern Jews:
After the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, many of the old observances were no longer possible. In fact, only one type of animal sacrifice is still observed, and not everyone participates. (If you’re interested, look up Kapparot. It’s fascinating!)
Nevertheless, Yom Kippur is still celebrated with a complete Sabbath rest, fasting, prayer, and multiple synagogue services. In Israel, it’s a state holiday where all businesses are closed and even the radio and television stations stop broadcasting.
I know this is one of my longest posts ever, but I got fascinated by this. If you want more information, you might check out these sites:
Yom Kippur on Chabad.org – lots of articles on different aspects from a Jewish perspective
Yom Kippur on Hebrew4Christians.com – a very detailed explanation of both ancient and modern observances, written for those of us who didn’t grow up celebrating it and don’t recognize all the terms
“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.”