What is Yom Kippur and why do people fast on the Jewish holiday?

Worshippers will head to synagogues around the world for a day of prayer and fasting on Wednesday

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Life in Israel comes to a standstill on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

Schools, restaurants and shops close for the day, the roads are free from cars or public transport, border crossings shut, flights are grounded and TV and radio falls silent.

Yom Kippur 2021 is on Wednesday, September 15.

But what is Yom Kippur, where did it come from and how will it be affected by the pandemic this year?

What is Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur, which means day of atonement in Hebrew, is observed on the 10th day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar.

A sacred and solemn time of reflection and repentance, Yom Kippur marks the last day that Moses spent on Mount Sinai after leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

Moses is believed to have received the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments from God on the mountain.

The first commandment forbade the worship of anything other than God, but when Moses came down from the mountain he found the Israelites worshipping a golden calf.

Angered by this, Moses threw the tablets to the ground, breaking them. The Israelites then atoned for their sin, prompting God to forgive them and give Moses a second pair of tablets.

Yom Kippur comes 10 days after the first day of the month, known as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

Prayers and efforts to seek atonement fill the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which are known as the days of repentance or the days of awe.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and children in the coastal city of Netanya on September 14. AFP

According to the Jewish faith, God dictates every person's fate for the coming year on the day of Rosh Hashanah, before it is sealed on Yom Kippur.

Although Israel does not have a law prohibiting driving on this day, the streets are typically empty as Jewish law requires that no "work" should be done on Yom Kippur – which includes operating a motor vehicle or running a business.

The ensuing reduction in pollution has been welcomed by environmentalists and people are often seen roller-skating or cycling along streets usually overrun with traffic.

This custom means that air and land travel stops and life in the country seemingly comes to a standstill.

Observant Jews wear white and do not wear make-up, perfume, leather shoes or gold jewellery for the day, abstaining from physical pleasures to devote themselves to God and demonstrate regret at having sinned.

Worshippers make their way to synagogues throughout the first 10 days of Tishrei but attendance is usually at its peak on Yom Kippur itself, which is also observed with a day-long fast. Worshippers spend the entire day and the night before in prayer and meditation.

The services on Yom Kippur itself include readings from the Torah. The day ends with final prayers and the blowing of the ritual horn known as the shofar as a call for repentance.

Another less commonly practised ritual is the act of Kaparot, in which a white chicken is swung above the head as a prayer is recited, before being slaughtered in accordance with Jewish religious laws. Some people replace the chicken with a bag of money.

The sacrifices on the eve of the day of atonement are charitable contributions, which a person can donate to the needy for consumption or use on Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur and coronavirus

With coronavirus-related social restrictions in place and levels of new infections in Israel relatively high, religious gatherings are unlikely to be as large as they normally would.

But coronavirus testing centres have been busy with worshippers rushing to get PCR tests needed to enter synagogues.

All Covid-19 testing activity will halt for at least 24 hours during Yom Kippur. Israel has expanded its testing capacity to accommodate the extra demand and reduce waiting times.

Worshippers must present their Green Passes at synagogue entrances where more than 50 people are attending, even if the service is being held outdoors.

The Israeli government has also extended the validity of PCR tests from 72 hours to 96 hours to enable people to attend synagogues during the holiday.

The pandemic has affected plans for the sacred day in Jewish communities around the world.

In Australia, where coronavirus cases have been on the rise since July, religious leaders appealed unsuccessfully to health authorities for permission to conduct prayers and gatherings at local synagogues in the state of Victoria.

The Department of Health said gatherings were only permitted for "end of life" services and denied the Jewish community's request.

“Yom Kippur is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. For Orthodox Jews, this is the one day in the year that almost every Jew in the world would attend Synagogue without fail,” the Rabbis wrote in their letter to Victoria's premier Daniel Andrews on Monday.

“Our members could not fathom the idea of not praying together on this day."

This comes after dozens of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Australia breached restrictions in Victoria, which has been in lockdown since August 21, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

In the United States, Chicago's Temple Shalom is hosting several events for Yom Kippur including in-person and online sessions. It is anticipating more than 750 attendees and is making arrangements to accommodate the high turnout while reducing unnecessary contact by switching entry tickets to wristbands, setting up socially distanced seating and mandating that attendees wear masks.

Brooklyn's Congregation Beth Elohim, which has a capacity of 1,500 people, will allow indoor services to be performed at 50 per cent capacity and will be streaming the events live. It will also host several outdoor services for worshippers.

However, proof of vaccination is required for people aged over 12 and social distancing will be observed during the ceremonies.

Updated: September 15, 2021, 8:51 AM