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Yom Kippur and the three books

Yom Kippur is called one of the most important and solemn Jewish holidays. It is celebrated on the 10th day of the first month of the civil calendar (Tishri), and its name translates as Day of Atonement, Day of Repentance or Day of Propitiation (also erroneously referred to as Judgment Day). Due to its exceptionally solemn nature, it is also referred to as the Saturday of Saturdays and the Shabbat of Shabbats. Yom Kippur concludes the period of the Ten Days of Repentance, which begins on Rosh ha-Shanah.

Its origins seem interesting, since according to biblical tradition, Yom Kippur is one of the holidays included in the cycle established by Moses himself, with it being the only fast which is commanded to be observed directly in the Torah (Leviticus  16, 1-34).

According to tradition, on this day Moses descended from Mount Sinai, and as a sign of forgiveness to the Israelites for the sin of idolatry they had committed by worshipping the golden calf, he gave them stone tablets. On the other hand, in the days of the Jerusalem Temple, on the tenth day of Tishri, the high priest symbolically transferred the guilt of the Israelites to a chosen scapegoat, after which he pushed it down from a high rock or drove it into the desert “to Azazel,” thus performing a ritual cleansing of the entire people of Israel from their sins. We will return a bit later to the belief that sin can be transferred.

In Księga świąt i obyczajów żydowskich [The Book of Jewish Festivals and Customs] we read: On that day, the Lord decided the fate of all those about whom He still had some doubt on Rosh ha-Shanah and recorded them in the books of life or death”[1]Mieczysław Siemieński, Księga świąt i obyczajów żydowskich [The Book of Jewish Festivals and Customs], Warsaw 1993, p. 63.This passage is related to Jewish tradition, according to which on the first day of the New Year three books are opened in heaven: “The Book of Life,” “The Book of Death,” and a third book, for people whose behavior on earth, towards God and their neighbors, cannot be clearly described as bad or good. The verdict on a person and his or her future comes precisely on Yom Kippur, when these books are closed. At the heart of Yom Kippur is the opportunity to make an examination of conscience, cleanse oneself of sins, atone for them, resolve to improve and forgive the transgressions of one's neighbors.

Maurycy Gottlieb, Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur, 1878, oil on canvas, Tel Aviv Museum of Art

A set of regulations for celebrating Yom Kippur is contained in the “Yoma” and includes instructions for celebrating not only in homes, but also in the Jerusalem Temple.

It is customary, on the eve of the holiday, to ask forgiveness from all those with whom we have not lived in harmony in the past year, and to compensate them for the wrongs we have done. The faithful begin the liturgy in the synagogue by singing the Kol nidre‎‎‎ㅤprayer three times. It nullifies all oaths and vows made in the passing year to God under duress, too hastily or unknowingly. One of the hallmarks of Yom Kippur is the confession of sins, addressed directly to God, in alphabetical order.

The expression of joining in the celebration of the holiday is abstinence from food and ceremonial. From sundown on the first day until sundown the following day (25 hours), work is forbidden and there is strict fasting. On the eve of the holiday, the faithful distribute alms to the poor and make offerings to charity. The following are forbidden: eating, drinking, bathing and washing the body, sexual intercourse, wearing leather shoes and using perfume. The celebration of Yom Kippur is preceded by the customary ritual of kapparot, which involves the belief that sin, guilt or disease can be transferred to another person, living being or object. Such a substitute being may be a rooster or a hen. The ceremony involves spinning the animal overhead and saying the words: “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This rooster (hen) will go to its death, while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace.” Such an animal is then killed and, after appropriate preparation, eaten or given to the poor. In modern times, the rooster or hen is replaced with coins, which are then donated to charity.

Yom Kippur ends with the appearance of the first star in the sky. Then one can return home and eat the first meal after the 25-hour fast, which consists of cakes (usually gingerbread on honey), fruit and sweet fish with nuts.

Julita Semrau

Translated by Kasia Smialkowski


  1.  Jom Kipur [Yom Kippur], [in:] Polski słownik judaistyczny [Polish Dictionary of Judaism]. Dzieje, kultura, religia, ludzie, t. 1 [Culture, Religion, People, Vol.1], Warsaw 2003, p. 699-700.
  2.  Kaparot [Kapparot] [in:] Polski słownik... [Polish Dictionary of Judaism…],p. 756
  3.  Redakcja Wirtualnego Sztetla, Jom Kipur [Editors of Virtual Shtetl, Yom Kippur], Jom Kipur [Yom Kippur], [online:], [Access: September 26, 2022].
  4.  Batorski P., Jom kipur - Dzień Pojednania [Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement], [online:],4193, [Access: September 25, 2022].
  5.  Jom Kipur [Yom Kippur], [online:], [Access: September 25, 2022].
  6.  Siemieński M., Księga świąt i obyczajów żydowskich [The Book of Jewish Festivals and Customs], Warsaw 1993, p. 63.
  7.  Bendowska M., Jom Kipur [Yom Kippur], [online:], [Access: September 26, 2022].


1 Mieczysław Siemieński, Księga świąt i obyczajów żydowskich [The Book of Jewish Festivals and Customs], Warsaw 1993, p. 63.
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