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Writing Jewish Characters: Yom Kippur

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

So I bet you all weren’t expecting to see me back so soon! Well, you’re in luck, since we’re in the three week period I like to call “all the Jewish holidays.”

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, sometimes referred to as Shabbat Shabbatot (the Shabbat of Shabbats) is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It is a one day holiday which falls on the 10th of Tishrei, which is between September 13th and October 13th. The no work rules (see this post) definitely apply. In fact, this is the one day where (unless I’m ill or the weather makes it impossible) I always walk to and from synagogue, despite fasting.

If your Jewish character is going to go to synagogue one day a year, it’s this one. If they’re going to fast one day a year, it’s definitely going to be this one.

Greetings on Yom Kippur are “an easy fast” and “G’mar Chatima Tova” or “G’Mar Tov”, which means “may you be sealed in the book of good [i.e. the book of life]”.


Yom Kippur is the most synagogue-oriented holiday in the Jewish calendar (as opposed to home-oriented holidays like Passover). Synagogues won’t do anything overnight, but that’s about the only time they’ll be empty.

While there aren’t specific rules for what to wear to synagogue on Yom Kippur, there are traditions. More religious Jews refrain from wearing leather shoes (I’ve heard various reasons why, ranging from avoiding comfort to stories about Joseph’s brothers selling him for shoes). A lot of people wear white, particularly at Kol Nidre (the very first service of the holiday). This is for atonement, purity, and, oddly, to remind us of death. For men, this is most often accomplished by wearing the kittel, but many women specifically buy white clothing for Yom Kippur. Neither of these is a requirement, and you won’t be kicked out of synagogue for not following them. However, they’re both very common, particularly among the Orthodox.

Yom Kippur starts at the beginning of sunset (which is based on your synagogue’s location and the exact date) with candle-lighting, both of holiday candles (which double as Shabbat candles if Yom Kippur happens to fall on Friday/Saturday like it does this year) and of Yizkor (memorial) candles.

While I’ll be discussing Yizkor in more depth when I get around to writing a post about death in Judaism, for now it’s enough to know that it’s a prayer you say on specific holidays (Yom Kippur, Sh’mini Atzeret, the last day of Passover, and the last day of Shavuot) for close relatives who have died. Close relatives is defined as a parent, child, spouse, or sibling.

A long-lasting candle is lit at sundown before each of these days and is allowed to burn until it naturally dies.

Immediately after candle-lighting, there’s the Kol Nidre (all vows) service. This is a one to two hour service in which we start the full Yom Kippur repentance (we’ve already done some in the ten days leading up to this - see my Rosh Hashanah post for details - but this is the full ramping up).

The Torahs are dressed in white (much like the humans!) and paraded around the entire sanctuary, until everyone has a chance to touch one. Then there’s a bunch of prayer, including the first appearance of the Viddui (confession), the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, and the Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King). All of these prayers are repeated multiple times throughout the holiday.

As Kol Nidre is one of the most-attended services in Judaism, and charity is one way to atone for sins, this is often when synagogues do their yearly appeal for donations. Rabbis will speak of all the good the synagogue has done over the past year and how, with your money, they can do more. As you can’t actually use money or electronics or even write on Yom Kippur, this often involves committing but not actually giving the money until after - but it still counts in terms of atonement.

My synagogue gives out personalized cards which state how much money you gave last year, with flaps to fold down for different amounts so you can choose how much money to give this year. The synagogue also gives a second card, with good deeds (such as donating to the homeless shelter, driving the elderly around, or providing meals for people in mourning) that you can also commit to.

After this, everyone goes home and sleeps.

The morning starts with yet more prayer - at my synagogue, services will run from about 9 am to 2 pm. There’s all the usual parts of a Shabbat service, just moreso, with the addition of repentance and confession. This is also when the actual Yizkor service takes place. It’s a very solemn moment.

During the afternoon, people tend to do one of two things: nap or study. I usually go for option a, but many Jews won’t leave synagogue at all, either napping as they can or spending the time between services studying, another form of showing your devotion to God. Honestly, by this point, you usually want the nap - which has to do with the lack of food/water, as I’ll be discussing farther down.

After the rest, there’s more synagogue - we start back up at about 4:30 or 5 and run all the way until the sun has set. This service is called Ne’ilah, or closing, because it’s when God closes the gates of Heaven, having decided who will live and who will die in the next year. The last part of this service is particularly difficult, as the Ark is open and you can see the Torahs, which, in Judaism, means you’re supposed to stand. After fasting, that’s not easy! So a lot of people sit.

The holiday ends with the recitation of a few specific lines and a shofar blast, in which the community reaffirms its commitment to God.

And then we all go home and eat.

For writing purposes, think about how your character is going to be feeling. Do they miss loved ones during Yizkor? Do they like all the ceremony or hate it? Do they feel guilty about things they’ve done wrong or not? And if they do, will they actually try to make an apology? Do they give to charity? And do they focus on it now?

Very few Jews will work this day - so how does that impact them? Are their jobs understanding or not? (That will depend partly on the organization/area you’re writing in. In NYC, it’s almost a given that Jews will be out. Elsewhere in the country, it may not be. But even here it often counts as a vacation/sick/personal leave day, depending on how a job categorizes it. Does having to take a lot of “extra” vacation days impact your character’s vacation schedule the rest of the year?)

Fasting (and Feasting)

Yom Kippur is the most major fast day in the Jewish calendar by far. While I discussed this some at both Passover and Tisha B’Av, it bears repeating.

In Judaism, there are two types of fast days: major and minor. Major fast days last from sunset to sunset while minor fast days last from sunrise to sunset. In both cases, nothing can be consumed, including food and drink. That includes water. Which means Yom Kippur is 25 to 25 ½ hours with no food or water.

Adult Jews who are healthy are expected to fast for the entire day. You are technically an adult at the age of 12 or 13 (we’ll get to that when I hit up life cycles, at Bar/Bat Mitzvah) but teens don’t always fast immediately. No one gets angry if a 13-year-old can’t make it the whole day, at least not in any sane community.

Young children are not expected to fast at all, while older children will be slowly weaned into the day. The steps are generally: give up sweets, skip breakfast, push lunch back farther and farther until it’s essentially dinner, give up water. These steps will take years to get through.

If you are not healthy and need to eat or drink for medical reasons, you are expected to eat or drink as needed, but no more than needed (so skip that piece of cake). This includes anyone who takes medication that requires food, pregnant women, and women who are nursing. As a personal example, in 2011 neither I nor my stepsister-in-law fasted, as she was one week from her scheduled c-section to give birth to her twins and I was just two weeks past surgery to take care of a ruptured ovarian cyst, during which I spent three nights in the hospital. But in 2012, when we were both back to normal, we both fasted.

While not everyone fasts, a lot of Jews do - and like I said at the beginning, if you’re going to fast one holiday per year, it’s this one. If you do two, it’s this and Tisha B’Av - very few Jews other than the Orthodox do the five minor fast days as well.

Food/drink isn’t the only thing Jews give up on Yom Kippur. A lot of religious Jews won’t bathe either (though many go to a mikveh for a ritual cleansing right before the holiday, so it’s not like they’re gross), and sex is definitely a no-go. Basically, you keep yourself alive, but uncomfortable, to focus on the spirituality of the day rather than bodily needs.

Now let’s talk food!

Because of the fast day, there’s really only two meals eaten at Yom Kippur - one right before the holiday starts, and one right after it ends. The only required food is challah, because bread is always required to make a full meal and that’s the Jewish ritual bread (though gluten-free and paleo Jews have found ways around that). Everything else is a matter of tradition - and generally family tradition at that. There is no universal meal.

In my family, we go for protein and carbs right before the holiday: generally, my mother makes simple baked chicken, egg noodles, and steamed broccoli. She also serves challah with honey. Everyone drinks water. Lots of water. Lots and lots and lots of water. (Seriously, you’re prepping for 25 ½ hours without water, you want extra.)

The meal after Yom Kippur has a specific name: break fast. No, not breakfast. Break fast is pronounced like the word “break” and the word “fast” - you’re breaking the fast. (It has the same roots as breakfast, obviously, but the pronunciation is different.)

Orthodox/Conservative Jews will not break the fast until after the sun has fully set, but Reform Jews will often move it earlier, making the holiday and the fast shorter.

Every family will have its own traditions, but it’s often foods that can be prepped before the holiday and left in the fridge (so you don’t have to cook after Yom Kippur but can go straight to the eating). I often see bagels with various toppings (lox, cream cheese, butter, other spreads), coffee cakes, fruit, cheese, and donuts. Orange juice is popular, though I’ve also seen lemonade, and there’s obviously water. Eggs are one of the more common cooked foods, but I’ve also seen pre-made tuna and egg salad.

Food - both the lifeblood of Judaism and something we intentionally deny ourselves at times.

So think about your characters and how they’ll feel - and in this case, it’s as much physical as mental! Do they find it easy to go without food? Difficult? Are they like me - I can manage it, but around 20 hours in, my body stops being able to regulate temperature properly and I keep going from too hot to freezing and back. Do they get shakes from going cold turkey on caffeine for one day? My stepfather always spends the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur cutting down his coffee intake to avoid that specific problem.

How do they feel if they do have to eat? Guilty? Does it bother them at all? Or maybe it doesn’t - maybe they don’t fully observe the fast.

In addition, if you’re writing a character with kids or pets, the kids or pets still have to eat. How does this impact the parent?

And what if your character isn’t Jewish, but is dating a Jew? Do they try to give up food/water? Do they feel guilty if they don’t? Is trying to fast harder when you’ve never done it before?

Ultimately, think about how the lack of food and the day of atoning in synagogue impact your character, and use those to create a richer, fuller, Jewish world for your characters.

(And if you have questions, always always always feel free to ask!)

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