Basic Background on Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha

Photo taken from:

Celebrating Yom Kippur Photo taken from:

This past week, several billion Jews and Muslims celebrated two incredibly important religious holidays, Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha  However, because this country doesn’t recognize non-Christian holidays like it should, many of my fellow Americans might not know much about Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha (-raises hand guiltily-).  While it’s too late to wish your friendly neighborhood Jews and Muslims a joyous day, you can still learn about these two holidays and perhaps prepare a bit better in the future.  With that in mind, I present you with Basic Background on Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha.

Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year in Judaism and its most important religious holiday.  It’s often the only holiday that more secular Jews observe.  On this day, people are closest to God and “to the quintessence of our own souls.”  It is part of the High Holidays, and occurs on the tenth day of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah (Rosh Hashanah is when the new year starts.).  On this day, people participate in fasting and other forms of self-denial such as not washing, having sex, or wearing clothes made of animal skin.   The purpose of this self-denial is to dedicate your mind, body, and soul to God, your fellow human beings, and yourself.  It is also a means of preparing yourself to have your sins forgiven by God, hence the “atonement.”

This year, Yom Kippur started at sundown on Tuesday, September 22 and ended at nightfall on Wednesday, September 23 and was just over 25 hours long.  Before Yom Kippur begins, families have a meal called seudat mafseket that starts with the blessing of the challah, which is braided bread eaten on Shabbat and other holidays.  The meal concludes with the lighting of candles, which begins the official fast.

During the day, Jews try to go to as many worship sessions as possible as congregational worship is at the heart of the holiday and it is a mitzvah (a religious duty/commandment) to go to all the services.  These services are the Kol Nidre on the first evening, Yizkor, N’ilah, and Havdalah at the end of Yom Kippur.  The Kol Nidre, or “all vows,” is the recitation of a special liturgical formulation that goes back centuries.  Its purpose is to annul all unintended vows made in the previous year and allow you to start fresh.  Yizkor is a memorial service that remembers those who have died in the past year.  N’liah is the concluding services, and Havdalah is a separation chant used to mark the end or beginnings of holidays.  It marks the end of Yom Kippur and is recited after the shofar (a special horn) is sounded.  Then there is a meal either with the congregation or at home.

There are many more aspects to Yom Kippur, including traditional clothes, colors, and food, but this is a very brief overview.  So if you know someone that is observing Yom Kippur, remember to be respectful of their fast and religious observance.  As for next year, Yom Kippur will be on October 11 and 12.  For more information, click here and here.

Eid al-Adha, The Festival of Sacrifice

Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice, is one of two religious holidays that Muslims celebrate and the most important one.  It is often called Greater Eid to differentiate it from Eid al-Fitr, which takes place earlier in the year immediately after Ramadan.

While Eid al-Adha is called the Festival of Sacrifice, it is actually a joyous celebration.  It marks the end of Hajj, the pilgrimage all Muslims (who have the means) must take to Mecca.  It also commemorates God’s (Allah’s) commandment to Abraham (Ibrahim) to sacrifice his son Ishmael (Ismail) to show his devotion to Him.  However, before Abraham could commit the deed, God stopped him, now convinced that he had shown his spiritual resolve.  Accordingly, Muslims around the world will sacrifice an animal such as a goat or cow to commemorate the event, eating one third of the animal, giving one third to friends and family, and giving the final third to the needy.  In countries like the UK and US where people cannot personally slaughter an animal, they will either get the animal from a slaughterhouse or give food and money to the needy instead.

Eid al-Adha began on sundown on September 24 and lasted four days, which is typical.  On the morning of the first day, people will dress in their finest and visit the mosque for religious services.  Afterwards, they will visit friends, family, and the needy, eating, celebrating, and giving gifts.  People will tell each other, “Eid Mubarak! (Blessed Eid!)”

This is a very short summary of Eid al-Adha and one that I hope to expand upon more in the future.  While Muslims are not fasting or abstaining on these days, it’s still important to be respectful of them and their traditions and try to be mindful of how you’re asking them questions.  Remember that it is a joyous celebration.

While sources vary, Eid al-Adha in 2016 will be September 13 — September 16.  To learn a little bit more, click here and here.


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