Yom Kippur and the workplace


In keeping with previous posts on festivals for world religions, here’s another for you in relation to Yom Kippur for those clients who have Jewish employees. Even if you are not interested in Judaism, please note the workplace consequences which arise as a result of this festival. There are several cases where Jewish employees have brought claims of discrimination in relation to Yom Kippur.

What is Yom Kippur?

In Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the year for followers of the Jewish faith (akin to Good Friday for Christians). It is devoted to intense soul-searching, fasting and praying for forgiveness.

When is Yom Kippur?

The dates of Yom Kippur change each year as it falls 10 days after another major Jewish festival, Rosh Hashanah (New Year). It is usually in September and lasts for 1 day. This year Yom Kippur begins tonight at sunset, Tuesday, 22 September 2015, and ends 25 hours later when three stars can be seen in the sky.

What do people do during Yom Kippur?

Yom Kippur itself is a fast day where Jews are supposed to pray a day of prayer and abstaining from both food and drink for 25 hours. Many Jews will fast for the whole day from sunset to sunset. This includes not eating food, drinking liquids or smoking.

Outside of praying and repenting, Jews are supposed to do very little. The idea is to put aside the physical to focus on the spiritual and atone for our sins to focus on the New Year with a clean slate – which in practice means Jewish people follow the same rules as the Sabbath in which they do not ‘work’. Depending on levels of observance, that can mean anything from not going into the office to not carrying and using electricity such as light-switches, smartphones and TVs. As well as that, Jewish practice forbids wearing leather shoes, washing or having sex. Some very observant Jews stand all day and avoid sleeping.

One of the purposes of Yom Kippur is to bring about reconciliation between people and the strength of their faith. It is believed that forgiveness allows followers of the Jewish faith to better serve and strengthen their faith. Jews believe we can all learn from this practice of forgiveness to improve our lives and the lives of the people around us.

It is customary to give extra charity and light memorial candles in remembrance of departed family members during Yom Kippur. Followers of the Jewish faith believe that tzedakah, or charitable giving as a religious obligation, is a source of merit and protects against harsh decrees.

The most famous – and admittedly peculiar – custom that has developed around Yom Kippur involves swinging a chicken over your head three times to absolve yourself of sin. Known as Kapparot, this is usually done the day before Yom. As well as eccentric and quite possibly pagan in its origin, it’s also controversial and subject to lawsuits.

Key workplace considerations during Yom Kippur

  • Most Jews ask for the day off. Annual leave may be used by employees wishing to observe the Yom Kippur.
  • Those working may be noticeable (for example not eating at lunchtime) and so it is often sensible for employees to inform their managers of the fact they are fasting.
  • Fasting may affect people in different ways (for example some people may understandably become a little irritable or slightly tired at times) and some understanding from managers and colleagues can be helpful.
  • The effects of fasting may be felt most strongly in the afternoon so it can help to use the morning for meetings and intellectually challenging work, and perform routine tasks later.
  • Although breaks should be kept, a shorter lunch may make it easier for an employee to manage their workload if they wish to take time off to carry out additional prayer or worship.
  • Colleagues may want to avoid offer food and drink to those who fast if sharing food with other colleagues, or eating during meetings.
  • It would be helpful to avoid meeting / social events etc that ALL staff must attend during Yom Kippur as it may people would still be fasting.
  • Awareness and understanding of Yom Kippur and other religious festivals can be aided by posting information on staff notice boards or newsletters etc.
  • Yom Kippur may offer an opportunity for closer team relations and teamwork – for example by avoiding cakes / biscuits during a team meeting.

Some Jewish employers will send messages of support to their staff and their families celebrating this important religious period (as Jersey employers we do at Christmas). Instead of saying “Merry Christmas!” it says “Gemar Chatimah Tovah!” which means “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for Good!”.

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