Guide To The High Holidays For Interfaith Families: What To Expect in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur

By InterfaithFamily


If this is your first Yom Kippur, you should be aware that it’s an entire day of prayer, much longer than on Shabbat or any other Jewish holiday. There are five official services on Yom Kippur:

  • Evening service, often called Kol Nidre after its opening ritual
  • Morning service (Shacharit)
  • Additional service (Musaf)
  • Afternoon service (Minchah)
  • Closing service (Neilah) which is only done on Yom Kippur


An ordinary sabbath or holiday only has four services, and none are as long and complex as those on Yom Kippur, which has many added poems and readings. Most synagogues have a break between the additional morning service and the afternoon service. Many people who fast find that they are tired and need a nap. Not everyone has the staying power to pray all the services, and many Jews just choose to go to their favorites. Kol Nidre, with its solemn tune, is probably most popular, and the memorial service, usually done after the Torah reading in the morning service, but sometimes moved to the afternoon, is also well-attended.

 Ideas of Sin and Repentance in Judaism–Collective Responsibility and Fallibility

A key feature of Yom Kippur is that the congregation confesses to long preset lists of sins as a group. In this way individuals fulfill the Jewish legal requirement of confessing their sins in front of at least two witnesses without enduring embarrassment. The collective confession also brings to attention that we have collective responsibility for the actions of the community as a whole. At the end of each long catalog of all the various types of sin a person might commit, the authors of the prayer book have added the disclaimer that the worshippers are confessing all sins, even those they didn’t know they were committing, even those they forgot.

It can seem a little funny to confess to everything, whether you know you did it or not. After all, doesn’t sin depend on intentionality? Don’t Jews believe that each person possesses Good Inclination and the Evil Inclination, a choice about whether to do right or wrong? This is all true, but the collective confession of Yom Kippur provides a chance to reflect on the community’s collective responsibility to provide an atmosphere that encourages good behavior. It is also, to some extent, a reflection of the general Jewish cultural sense that Judaism is full of mysterious knowledge and that the worshippers might believe themselves to have violated principles they didn’t know existed.

As the congregation goes at a breakneck rate through the list of sins in the prayer book, the person who is new to Jewish services and Judaism has an opportunity to learn a lot about Jewish ideas of morality and sin. Yom Kippur is the day when Jews atone for sins against God, but there are many sins in this list that are transgressions of principles of how people should behave toward other people. There are a few reasons for this. It’s not very easy to feel guilty for transgressing some ritual rule that is only a symbol of the Jewish attachment to God. The ancient and medieval rabbis who created Jewish liturgy, like modern people today, thought that the rules of behavior for Jews in relation to God were much harder to understand and somehow less important than how Jews dealt with other people. Furthermore, people may have transgressed moral principles of how to behave toward other people to whom they can’t apologize, especially if the other person has died. Yom Kippur is also a day to ask God for help with doing better in human relationships. Though Jews are obligated to attempt to repair their relationships, it’s not easy to implement every resolution.

The very first service of Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre, acknowledges the difficulty we face in keeping promises to ourselves. This service opens with the legal formula for absolving people from unkept vows. Caught up in the enthusiasm for self-improvement, one might vow to do something that one cannot. This ritual also reminds the congregation of all the resolutions that they failed to implement in the previous year.

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InterfaithFamily is the premier resource supporting interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and inclusive Jewish communities. We offer educational content; connections to welcoming organizations, professionals and programs; resources and trainings for organizations, clergy and other program providers; and our new Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship will provide offerings for couples in cities nationwide. If you have suggestions, please contact