5 Jewish customs that are unique to Yom Kippur

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - SEPTEMBER 20: An ultra-Orthodox Jew performs the Tashlich prayer while facing the Mediterranean Sea at sunset of the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, on September 20, 2009 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Tashlich, which means 'to cast away', is the practice by which Jews go to a flowing body of water and symbolically 'throw away' their sins during the days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and the upcoming day of atonement, or Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. (Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images)

Yom Kippur is the holiest and most solemn day of the Jewish year and is a fast day. According to tradition, at the end of Yom Kippur, God decides whether we will be inscribed in the Book of Life and “seals” our fates for the coming year.

There are a number of customs and traditions observed by Jewish communities around the world.

Leather-free shoes

Most communities uphold the custom of not wearing leather shoes on Yom Kippur. Leather shoes were historically considered luxury apparel. So, keeping with the humble spirit of Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition recommends avoiding leather shoes to demonstrate a willingness to forego luxury. In order to avoid leather footwear, many wear canvas sneakers, flip flops, Crocs, or wedge sandals.

White clothes

Religious Jews perform tashlikh, a Jewish atonement ritual, at the bank of a lake formed by the Umanka River on the first day of Rosh Hashanah on September10, 2018 in Uman, Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, including many Breslov (also called Bratslav) Hasidim, a specific group of Hasidic Jews, have made the annual journey from all over the world to Uman to visit the tomb of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who founded the Breslov sect in 1802. The pilgrims come for a spiritual experience and religious discussions, but also to celebrate in what one participant describes as a “Jewish Woodstock.” The Breslov sect grew, attracting thousands of followers, until Stalin’s purges and decimation in the Holocaust. Breslov Hasidism has since revived and its followers live mostly in Israel, the United States and Great Britain. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

In many communities around the world, it is traditional to dress in white on Yom Kippur. This symbolizes purity and the opportunity to begin the new year with a clean slate.

Breaking the fast

Photo: Miriam Kresh

“Break fast” (no, not breakfast) is the meal eaten immediately after Yom Kippur to break the fast. 

In many Ashkenazi American homes, it’s common to serve bagels, cream cheese, kugel, fresh fruit and coffee. In Sephardic homes, the menu might include dairy foods, soups and stews, and other dishes that would be served at a lunch or dinner as opposed to brunch. However, each family has their own break fast customs.

Lighting a memorial candle

If one’s parent or parents are deceased, a special memorial candle, often called a Yahrzeit candle or “ner neshama” in Hebrew, is lit prior to beginning the fast in their memory and burns for the entire holiday.

Tashlich

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 29: Jews pray while marking Rosh Hashanah in Prospect Park during a traditional Tashlich ceremony on September 29, 2011 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Jews traditionally go to a flowing body of water and symbolically ‘throw away’ their sins by praying and tossing bread crumbs into the water. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Tashlich is a ceremony in which Jews throw pieces of bread into a body of water to symbolize casting away their sins. Before performing Tashlich, it is customary to reflect on the past year as part of the Teshuvah process, in order to “cast away” your wrongdoings.

Verses from the Book of Micah are recited, such as, “He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities, You will cast (tashlich) all our sins into the depths of the sea” (7:19).

Although Tashlich is typically done on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, it can be performed until the end of Sukkot.