What is Yom Kippur: 6 Reasons Even Atheists Can Love the Holiday


On Friday evening, many Jews will begin an intense, ritual-laden 25-hour period known as Yom Kippur, or “day of atonement.” On this holiday, Jews have their fates decided by God after a period of repentance (“teshuvah”). The rituals end with the Ne’ilah (i.e. the “shutting” of the gates), at which time God makes His final decision. While it is considered to be the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and is specifically decreed by God in the Torah (Leviticus 16:29-34), the principles that underlie Yom Kippur are not uniquely Jewish. Instead, the elements of Yom Kippur speak to broader themes such as humility, community, and contemplation. Below are six reasons why Yom Kippur is a holiday that even an atheist can love. 

1. Human Forgiveness = Spiritual Forgiveness

While Yom Kippur is generally a day to ask forgiveness for sins against God, much of the “teshuvah” process involves setting things right between two individuals. Simply put, Jews must set things right between God’s creatures before they can appeal for forgiveness to the Creator. A period of breaking down the walls caused by careless or intentional offenses among individuals would be beneficial to virtually any modern society. In an age of “me,” Yom Kippur is a breath of fresh air that reminds everyone about “us.”

2. Ritual is still relevant.

As much as modern society professes to eschew the ultra-formality involved in holidays such as Yom Kippur, we are wired to appreciate something so “timeless” and “bigger than ourselves.” While non-Jews may view many aspects of Jewish ritual as staid and irrelevant, we non-Jews fill our time with other forms of ritual that serve similar purposes (i.e. graduation ceremonies, devotion to sports teams, career-related formalities). Instead of blowing a shofar to start a holiday, for example, we sing the National Anthem before every sporting event. As A. J. Jacobs addressed in a recent TED talk about his year of living biblically (which, by the way, has nothing to do with actually being an observant Christian or Jew), sacredness speaks to some innately human part of our existence.  While we may not sacrifice goats or blow shofars, ritual is as much a part of modern life as the Jewish Torah.

3. A humble heart is the greatest teacher.

In Leviticus 23:27, God decrees Yom Kippur to be a day to “afflict your souls.” Throughout the centuries, great writers have loosed vats of ink regarding the type of sober self-reflection contemplated on Yom Kippur. Regardless of personal religious preference, a period of critical soul-searching forces us to face the person we have become and change our course for the destination we desire. Such a thorough look in the mirror requires us to set aside the trappings of modern society that so often serve to hide our flaws. A jerk with a BMW becomes nothing more than a jerk when going through such scrutiny. On the other side of this period of reflection, one will likely emerge refocused and humbled in light of all of his or her personal shortcomings.

4. No person is above the need for repentance and forgiveness.

While Jewish religious observances appear to be structured around a definite hierarchy of believers, holidays such as Yom Kippur make clear that no person is above the need for forgiveness. Every Jew must adhere to the same set of observances. While the obvious lesson in this (i.e. no one is above the law) is appealing to modern democratic sensibilities, we often bristle at this principle in practice. Wealth and power too often insulate “leaders” from the impacts of their moral failures and misbehavior that would land a person of lesser status in prison. The Torah might have something to teach all of us on this count.

5. Self-denial separates the animal desires from the spiritual good.

As a quick look at the “self-help” section of any bookstore will demonstrate, humans hunger for more than food, sleep, sex, and shelter. As Yom Kippur demonstrates, humans experience a unique awareness for the need to master these base desires by periods in which the “soul” directs the “animal.” For 25 hours, Jews deny the basic need of food or drink in the search for spiritual forgiveness. While non-Jews may not fast for the same reason, the concept of mastering base desires is an essential element of human development. Entire industries have grown around the modern fast, the diet. While dieters have the express purpose of losing weight, abstaining from a certain amount of sugar and fat means that we are simply worshipping at a different altar.

6. The value of a community

As with other Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur is about all Jews from all walks of life coming together as one body with a common purpose. While the spiritual bonds that hold these individuals to their faith are undoubtedly strengthened by the ritual prayer and fasting, there are also social benefits to each individual. “Belonging” or “fitting in” is a need that feels uniquely human. Individuals need the type of community that Yom Kippur provides to reinforce their faith as well as their connections to the support system that is their community of believers. While individuals outside of the Jewish tradition fulfill this need for community in multiple ways, the need is always present. After all, an individual can be an island until he or she must move a couch.