What Do You Say on Yom Kippur? Greetings, Prayers, Kol Nidrei for Jewish Day of Atonement

Following Rosh Hashanah, a festive celebration of the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur strikes a more sober tone.

Yom Kippur is the most significant of all the Jewish holidays and marks the end of a 10-day period of repentance that starts with Rosh Hashanah. Those who observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and holiest day of the year, mark it by abstaining from food and drink during a one-day fasting period.

"This isn't a day of raucousness and partying," Becky Sobelman-Stern, the chief program officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, told USA Today. "Yom Kippur is not about being happy. It's about thinking. It's about self-examination."

Instead of wishing someone a "happy" or "merry" Yom Kippur, which would be inappropriate, it's customary to express sentiments that someone has a good, easy or meaningful fast. A person can also wish someone a tzom kal, which translates to "easy fast"—or g'mar chatima tovah, which means "good final sealing" and references the belief that God seals their fate for the year on the Day of Atonement according to their behavior between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

While people will likely appreciate the sentiment at any time, it's best to send well-wishes early because many will spend the day in temple. Some will also abstain from using technology, which includes cellphones.

yom kippur greetings prayers what to say
Yom Kippur begins at sunset on Wednesday and while it's good to send well wishes to friends and family who celebrate, it's not appropriate to wish someone a "happy Yom Kippur." Above, student Cantor Kalix Jacobson, wearing traditional white cantorial attire, sings to an iPad for the High Holidays services at Hebrew Tabernacle of Washington Heights on September 17, 2020, in New York City. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Those who observe Yom Kippur spend the bulk of the day, which will start at sundown on Wednesday and go through sundown on Thursday, in synagogue, where they engage in five different prayer services.

The first service, Kol Nidrei, occurs on the eve of Yom Kippur. During the service, Torah scrolls are taken out of the Ark, and the Kol Nidrei is recited. Although said in the form of a prayer, its words are more of a statement that forgives and nullifies all future vows and promises.

An English text of the Kol Nidrei, per Chabad, is as follows:

All vows, prohibitions, oaths, consecrations, restrictions, interdictions or equivalent expressions of vows, which I may vow, swear, dedicate, or which I may proscribe for myself or for others, from this Yom Kippur until the next Yom Kippur which comes to us for good, we regret them all; all shall be hereby absolved, remitted, cancelled, declared null and void, not in force or in effect. Let our vows not be considered vows; let our prohibitions not be considered prohibitions; and let our oaths not be considered oaths.

And may the entire congregation of the children of Israel, as well as the proselyte who dwells among them, be forgiven, for all the people acted unwittingly.

Pardon, I beseech You, the wrongdoing of this people, in keeping with the greatness of Your kindness and as You have forgiven this people from Egypt until now. And there it is stated:

And the lord said: I have pardoned in accordance with your words.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach the occasion.

The morning of Yom Kippur starts with the Shacharit, which includes a reading from Leviticus and the Yizkor, a memorial prayer for those who died, according to Chabad. It's followed by Musaf, which describes the Yom Kippur Temple service, and then the Minchah, which involves reading the Book of Jonah. Services come to a close with the Neilah at sunset, and they officially end with the blowing of the shofar.

During breaks in the service, people may pray individually to ask God for forgiveness—as it's how the holiday came to be marked annually.

According to tradition, Yom Kippur can be traced to when Moses received the Ten Commandments from God while atop Mount Sinai. When he returned, Moses found the Israelites worshipping a golden calf.

After shattering in anger the tablets that contained the Ten Commandments, according to History.com, Moses again ascended Mount Sinai and prayed to God to forgive them. After his second stint on the mountain, God forgave them and Moses came back with the Ten Commandments. The day of his return is known as the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur, according to Chabad.org.

Haaretz.com offers a different origin, from careful Bible reading, possibly 1,000 years later, having to do with God punishing "two of Aaron's sons for using unsanctioned fire during a ritual by burning them alive in the Tabernacle."