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Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement

To learn about the festival of Yom Kippur and to think about its themes of wrongdoing and forgiveness.

by Manon Ceridwen Parry

Suitable for Whole School (Pri)


To learn about the festival of Yom Kippur and to think about its themes of wrongdoing and forgiveness.

Preparation and materials

  • Background  Yom Kippur is the most holy of all Jewish days and festivals. It is held ten days after Rosh Hashanah, and marks the anniversary of Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai with the second set of the Ten Commandments.

    During the ten-day period before Yom Kippur people try to make amends for all they have done wrong during the previous year. This is revealed when God opens the Book of Life on New Year’s Day (Rosh Hashanah), which is a day of judgement by God. At the end of Yom Kippur (literally ‘day of atonement’), God forgives all those who have repented and changed their ways.

    The day, which starts at sunset and ends at sunset on the following day, is marked by fasting (abstaining from all food and drink) for all adults except the sick and elderly, and by five services in the synagogue. Even Jews who are not especially religious tend to observe Yom Kippur.
  • Make a ‘Good Book’ (a notebook with ‘Good Book’ written on it or typed in big letters and stuck on the cover).
  • Find out about the school’s practices in encouraging good behaviour so that you can incorporate them into the assembly, if they are similar to the Good Book principle.


  1. Talk about the different ways schools encourage good behaviour, for example, some schools have ‘traffic lights’ (red and yellow cards are given to those who misbehave).

    Get the children to tell you about ways in which their clubs, societies and homes encourage good behaviour.
  2. Talk about the ‘Good Book’. In some schools, any member of a school, both teachers and pupils, can write in the ‘Good Book’ names of anyone who is being really good, working hard, or showing care and concern for others in the school.
  3. Refer to Rosh Hashanah, especially if you have done an assembly on it. Ten days before Yom Kippur is the start of the Jewish New Year. On New Year’s Day (Rosh Hashanah) traditionally God judges behaviour over the past year, and for these ten days Jews try to be good and make friends with people they’ve fallen out with.

    Yom Kippur is a special day at the end of the ten days. On this day people think especially about what they’ve done wrong, and ask God for his forgiveness. They do this at home, and at special services (five altogether) in the synagogue.
  4. To help them concentrate on their prayers, adults and older children (though not younger children, older people and those who are ill) fast: they don’t eat or drink anything at all.
  5. Explain that the reason why you have brought the Good Book with you is that it is a similar idea to a special book that appears in stories about Yom Kippur. This special book is called the Book of Life, and according to Jews this is where God writes down all the good and bad things a person has done in the past year.

    On Rosh Hashanah, New Year’s Day, God makes a judgement about how each person’s good and bad actions balance out (has someone done more good deeds than bad deeds?). The Book of Life is a bit like the Good Book, with one big difference – only especially good things get written in the Good Book.
  6. According to Jewish tradition, at the end of Yom Kippur the Book of Life is closed and sealed, and God makes a decision, based on how each person has been in the past year, about what the year will be like for that person.
  7. To celebrate the conclusion of Yom Kippur and God’s forgiveness, Jews end their fast with a special party.

Time for reflection

Open your Good Book, and get the children to sit quietly and reflectively. 

What would they like to be written about them in the Good Book?

Maybe they would like to think about the wrong things they have done, and think about ways of putting them right.


Lord God,

help us to be kind, respectful and loving in all that we think, do and say.

Help us to be sorry when we hurt others,

and to try to put things right.



(If you gave the assembly for Rosh Hashanah (see this month’s assemblies), then to help the children make the connection between the festivals you may like to use the following prayer taken from the end of that assembly.)

Prayer for Rosh Hashanah
Lord God,
help us to respect others, and respect ourselves.
Help us to care for others, and care for ourselves.
Help us to be sorry when we hurt others, and try to put things right.
And may this year be filled with sweetness
for ourselves, our friends and families.


Play some typical Jewish folk music for the children – you might like to teach them a simple circle dance to express their joy.

Publication date: September 2012   (Vol.14 No.9)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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