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What is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement?

And how to break the fast after Yom Kippur — with bagels and beyond.
Bagels and lox platter
For many American Jews, Yom Kippur break fast involves a spread of bagels and lox.VeselovaElena / Getty Images

There is nothing more quintessential to a Jewish celebration than food. It is a religion and culture with eating and drinking baked in — there are even specific prayers, recited weekly on Shabbat, individually for wine and bread.

So it would have to be the most solemn of holidays to take food away — and that dichotomy is the essence of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur is known as the Day of Atonement. It is the holiest day of the year for Jews because it is believed that this is the day when God decides whether each individual will be written into the Book of Life for the following year. It comes 10 days after the new year celebrations of Rosh Hashana — this year, it starts the evening of Sept. 15 and ends in the evening of Sept. 16 — and it is typically spent in prayer atoning for that year’s sins at synagogue in the hope of wiping the slate clean. And in order to truly repent, the whole day is spent fasting. No food or drink is permitted — even water.

But, true to form, when Yom Kippur ends at sundown, there is something to look forward to. The break fast is different across Jewish cultures, but it is a chance to come together, eat together and enjoy the end of the year’s most emotional and difficult day.

New York-Style Bagels

It hasn’t always been a huge celebration, but especially in the U.S., it has turned into a major meal for many. Because of its association with such a somber holiday, there aren’t specific special traditional items, like latkes at Hanukkah or matzoh at Passover, yet often it is thematically similar.

Since there is no preparation or cooking allowed during the day of Yom Kippur — and because everyone will be so ready to eat when the sun goes down — the options usually include the most simple but special items around. For the majority of American Jews, that usually means turning break fast into a Jewish breakfast with the typical spread of bagels and lox. And desserts are essential: From babkas to cookies to cakes, there are always sweets.

There is no historical precedent for this — in fact, unlike most Jewish holidays, there isn’t really much literature specifically on breaking the fast up until the last 20 or 30 years. But as other holidays have waned in significance to more secular Jews (like the harvest festival of Sukkot, which comes a few days after Yom Kippur and requires building an elaborate structure), Yom Kippur’s significance as the holiest day in the calendar has endured. And so the need to celebrate and gather has grown in recent years. Instead of a light meal of tea and cake to ease into eating again, the break fast has become an excuse to have an extra celebration and enjoy each other after a long day of prayer, repentance and growling stomachs.

So, how does one set up a break fast? First, make sure you’re giving the holiday its due by sourcing good bagels and lox — we recommend one of New York’s classic appetizing spots like Russ & Daughters, which now ships across the country. Make sure to get all of the items that go with the spread — toppings like sliced onions, tomatoes, pickles and greens or sides like whitefish salad, pickled herring, liver, egg salad or gefilte fish. Pile the Jewish desserts high — babka is essential, rugelach is another favorite and honey cake is a great holdover from Rosh Hashana. Black-and-white cookies and halvah are other beloved dessert options.

Quince and Walnut Rugelach

Whatever you do, make sure to have everything prepped and ready to go before the day begins so that when it is time to eat, all you have to do is put everything out and start eating — unless you have a non-Jewish friend who wants to set everything up for you.

When it is time to atone and think about your year, make sure you can really focus on it by having the best possible food setup for when it is over. After all, there is nothing more Jewish than ensuring a great meal.