How to Observe Yom Kippur With Your Family

Yom Kippur

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Yom Kippur is often thought of as one of the more serious Jewish holidays. It’s a day of atonement and prayer and involves fasting (refraining from eating). As such, many people don’t think of it as a very festive, or child-friendly holiday. But Yom Kippur is a deeply sacred, spiritual holiday, and there are many ways to involve your children, even if they are not participating in all aspects of the holiday, such as fasting. 

Let’s take a look at what Yom Kippur is, how and why it’s celebrated, and some new and refreshing ways to get children involved in observing the holiday and understanding its meanings.

What Is Yom Kippur?

In Judaism, Yom Kippur is considered the holiest day of the year. The phrase “Yom Kippur” means “Day of Atonement” in Hebrew, and in the Jewish religion, this is a day of abstaining from worldly activities in order to repent for sins and gain closeness to God. Yom Kippur is best known as a day of fasting, but people who observe it are also asked to abstain from other things, such as sexual activity, bathing, and wearing leather.

According to tradition, Yom Kippur goes all the way back to the time of Moses, approximately the 14th century BCE. The Torah teaches that a Day of Atonement was established when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai after praying for God to forgive the Israelites for worshiping a golden idol.

When Is It Observed?

Yom Kippur is observed on the 10th day of Tishrei on the Jewish calendar. It can fall in September or October and lasts about one day—or almost 26 hours. The observance begins at sunset and ends after sundown the following night.

Yom Kippur always takes place on the tenth day after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish celebration of the new year. The period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is commonly known as the Ten Days of Awe (“Yamim Nora’im”) or High Holidays.

Why Is It Observed?

As its name suggests, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting and prayer to atone for sins and achieve spiritual purification. Fasting can be challenging, but it’s not about self-denial. Instead, Yom Kippur is meant to be a time for reflecting on the themes of the holiday, including personal growth, goals for change, and forgiveness. The purpose of fasting is often thought of as an opportunity to leave aside physical pleasures and focus on the spiritual.

Family-Friendly Ways to Observe Yom Kippur

For observant Jews, fasting is an essential component of Yom Kippur. But Judaism recognizes that fasting is not for everyone. Children under 13 are automatically exempt from fasting. People who are pregnant, or who have a medical condition that precludes fasting, are also not expected to fast. Whether or not you participate in the ritual of fasting, you and your family can devote the day to reflection and atonement. Here are some ideas for how to observe the holiday with your kids.

Write a Letter to Yourself

Think about the past year: what you got right, and what you wish you had done better. Write down some goals or resolutions. This can be done as a communal activity for the family. You can hand out pencils and paper, discuss, and then write your letters. You can save your letters and look at them again at next year’s Yom Kippur to consider what you wrote and reflect on the changes of the past year.

Reflect on World Hunger

Whether you abstain from food for the entire day, or for some smaller portion of the day, Yom Kippur is an opportunity to experience hunger, and potentially empathize with people who are hungry every day because of shortages and poverty. Your family can discuss the problem of world hunger, and what we can do about it. Some people choose to donate to a local food bank in the spirit of compassion and personal growth.

Ride a Bike

Although there is no rule against driving a car on Yom Kippur, observant Jews don’t spend a lot of time driving that day—whether because they’re busy attending services, or because they don’t want to operate a vehicle while they’re fasting. In Israel, the roads are usually nearly empty on Yom Kippur, to the point where the holiday is nicknamed “Yom Ha’Ofanaim” or “Bicycle Day.”

Your family can celebrate Bicycle Day by going for a ride together, and by considering the environmental impact of riding bikes versus putting more cars on the road.

Have a Fragrance Party

On a day when you’re forbidden to taste, there is no rule saying you can't smell! In fact, some people notice that their sense of smell seems especially heightened on a day like Yom Kippur when they are refraining from eating. Some people choose to make it a day for appreciating the scents of flowers, plants, and fragrant spices.

If you are fasting, that means you will not be using the blessings observant Jews traditionally recite over meals. For some, this is an opportunity to say a blessing over fragrant scents instead.

Break the Fast

Most observant Jews would agree that the most enjoyable part of fasting is when it’s over! The Yom Kippur prayer service ends with the blowing of the Shofar, a ram’s horn that makes a loud, festive noise. This signals that it’s time to eat. At this point, the holiday turns into a proper celebration as you and your family enjoy the “break-fast” meal.

Of course, it is important to prepare the “break-fast” in advance: nobody wants to start cooking after refraining from meals for 26 hours. As for what to eat, it’s up to you and your family. You might choose a meal that is a special family favorite, or a rare treat.

However, it’s advisable to avoid eating too much or too quickly. While you might be inclined to stuff yourself after all that fasting, this could lead to indigestion and discomfort.

Although it will be time for the evening meal (Yom Kippur ends at nightfall), many families prefer lighter fare such as challah, bagels, blintzes, and kugel (a traditional noodle casserole).

A Word From Verywell

For many observant Jews, Yom Kippur is all about fasting. Whether or not you choose to fast, devoting the day to contemplation and self-reflection is something everyone can benefit from. Taking a day to pause from your everyday activities, and spending the day focused on personal change, is a great lesson for your whole family and a special opportunity for togetherness.

10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a lactation consultant and writer covering maternal/child health, parenting, general health and wellness, and mental health. She has worked with breastfeeding parents for over a decade, and is a mom to two boys.