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Yom Kippur: The Day Of Atonement

By: Bruce Scott

For the sin which we have committed before Thee by unclean lips, and for the sin which we have committed before Thee by impure speech; for the sin which we have committed before Thee by the evil inclination, and for the sin which we have committed before Thee wittingly or unwittingly; for all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. In the book of life, blessing, peace and good sustenance, may we be remembered and inscribed before thee.

These are but a few of the words recited by penitent worshipers on the most important day of the Jewish calendar. Sometimes called “The Great Day” or, even more reverentially, “The Day,” it is the solemn occasion on which a Jewish person’s fate is determined for the coming year. It is Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement.

ORIGINS AND DESCRIPTION OF YOM KIPPUR
The Day of Atonement is a holy day established by God for the people of Israel (Lev. 16). Biblically, Yom Kippur was to provide an atonement (lit., a covering) for sin, for the holy of holies in the Tabernacle, for the Tabernacle itself, for the altar of incense in the holy place, for the priests (including the high priest), and for the sins committed in ignorance by the people of Israel. Yom Kippur was divinely ordained “because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions in all their sins” (Lev. 16:16). An everlasting statute, it was the once-a-year, awe-inspiring zero hour for an impure nation, a nation that was required to stand clean before its holy God.

The most consequential facet attributed to the Day of Atonement in rabbinical teaching, however, is that it is the day on which God’s judgment of an individual is sealed. Ten days before, on Rosh Hashanah (the civil New Year), it is believed that God decides whether or not a person’s name is inscribed in the Book of Life. From Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur inclusively, the Ten Days of Penitence, a person is admonished to sincerely repent. On Rosh Hashanah the greeting is, “May you be inscribed [in the Book of Life],” while on Yom Kippur the greeting is “May you be sealed [in the Book of Life].”

OBSERVANCE OF YOM KIPPUR
God instructed the children of Israel to observe the Day of Atonement on the tenth day of the seventh month. Today it is observed on the tenth day of the first month, Tishri (September-October). There is no discrepancy, however, because Tishri is the seventh month of the Jewish religious calendar; it is also the first month of the Jewish civil calendar. Unlike the other major Jewish festivals, Yom Kippur is observed for only one day, both inside and outside of Israel. Rabbinical authorities believed fasting for two days would be too great a physical hardship to impose, and they thus restricted the observance to one day.

The mood of Yom Kippur has changed over the years. Although solemn in modern practice, the day originally was characterized by joyful celebration. First, there was joy over the forgiveness of sins. Second, there was joy, at least among the eligible bachelors, over an interesting custom. On Yom Kippur all the Jewish maidens dressed in white garments and went to the vineyards, where they danced together. The young, single men looked on and chose the maidens they liked for future betrothals. Finally, Yom Kippur was a day of joy because every fifty years Israel celebrated the year of jubilee, during which all Jewish slaves were set free and the land itself enjoyed rest from cultivation. The blowing of the trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month—Yom Kippur—proclaimed the year of jubilee (Lev. 25:8–12).

Along with performing various required sacrifices and offerings, all labor was forbidden on this day. God promised to destroy those who disobeyed this command. This warning was taken so seriously that, according to rabbinical law, if a person is injured by a falling building on Yom Kippur, the rescuers must be sure that the victim is still alive before he or she is removed. If the person is dead, the body is left until after Yom Kippur, so that the prohibition against work is not broken.

Another primary obligation of the people of Israel on Yom Kippur was to “afflict” their souls (Lev. 16:29). Mentioned six times in Scripture, this divine decree literally means that the people were to humble themselves. The idea is for people to put themselves in proper perspective, recognize their absolute spiritual bankruptcy, and acknowledge their total dependence on Almighty God. Thus, the Jewish people were expected to approach Yom Kippur, the day on which their sins were covered for another year by the awesome and exalted God of the universe, with humility of mind and soul. The children of Israel understood this command to afflict their souls in terms of abstinence, particularly abstinence from food. Thus, by the Second Temple days, fasting on Yom Kippur had become a common practice as the primary means of afflicting the soul, a custom that continues to this day and is fulfilled by a full 24 hours of fasting.

In preparation for the solemnity of Yom Kippur, weddings are not performed during the Ten Days of Penitence. Restitution between wronged individuals is advocated. Gifts are bestowed on the poor. When the day arrives, it is ushered in with the lighting of the customary holiday candles in the home. In some homes, additional candles are also lit in honor and memory of deceased relatives. It is a belief of some Jewish teachings that if people pray and give to charity on the Day of Atonement, along with lighting memorial candles, deceased parents will merit atonement, and their souls will ascend to a higher level in paradise.

Most of the activity on Yom Kippur occurs in the synagogue. In Orthodox congregations, the worshipers often wear white clothing. The men in particular wear a white garment called a kittel, the same garment worn on Passover. Also, unlike any other evening service, Jewish male worshipers don prayer shawls, or tallitot (plural of tallit).

Before sunset, the Yom Kippur opening synagogue service is introduced by singing the beloved Kol Nidrei (All Vows) prayer. Accompanied by a lovely melody, the lyrics declare null and void any personal vows people may rashly make between themselves and God during the course of the coming year (some say for the past year). A very old prayer dating back to the eighth century, the Kol Nidrei is chanted three times throughout the services on Yom Kippur.

The confession of sins is another significant and often-repeated segment of the Yom Kippur synagogue ritual. Ten times on Yom Kippur worshipers rehearse a long list of sins recorded in the holiday prayer book, called the Machzor. The Machzor names specific sins and asks for forgiveness from them all.

For the sin which we have committed before Thee by denying and lying, and for the sin which we have committed before Thee by bribery; for the sin which we have committed before Thee by scoffing, and for the sin which we have committed before Thee by slander; For the sin which we have committed before Thee in commerce, and for the sin which we have committed before Thee in eating and drinking; For the sin which we have committed before Thee by demanding usurious interest, and for the sin which we have committed before Thee by stretching forth the neck in pride; For the sin which we have committed before Thee by idle gossip, and for the sin which we have committed before Thee with wanton looks; For the sin which we have committed before Thee with haughty eyes, and for the sin which we have committed before Thee by effrontery; For all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

As the worshipers repeat the string of iniquities outlined in their prayer books, they beat their breasts with their hands, as if to say to their hearts, “Your counsel and ruminations caused me to sin.”

Another central part of the liturgy on Yom Kippur is the Avodah, which, along with various prayers and poems, recounts the multifaceted duties of the high priest on the Day of Atonement. These duties, as outlined in Leviticus 16 and expanded on in the Mishnah, comprise the bulk of the activities on Yom Kippur in biblical times. They also serve as additional brush strokes in the messianic portrait God painted through Israel and its festivals. An examination of the high priestly duties shows how atonement was procured under the law of Moses.
 

PREPARING FOR THE ATONING WORK
Seven days before Yom Kippur, the high priest was taken aside and drilled on his assignments for that all-important day. As the evening of the tenth of Tishri approached, with its accompanying fast, the elders of the Sanhedrin started to deprive the high priest of food. The fast was started early because food induces sleep, and they wanted the high priest to stay awake all that night. The elders of the Sanhedrin then transferred the responsibility of watching the high priest that night to the elders of the priesthood. To insure that the high priest did not sleep, the other priests read to him from Scripture, snapped their fingers, or walked him on cold pavement.

By dawn, the Temple Court was filled to capacity with Jewish worshipers. As on all of the festivals, Roman soldiers were stationed around the Temple area, ready for action in the event of rioting by the multitude of worshipers. A linen sheet was hung on the roof of a chamber on the north side of the Temple Court, behind which the high priest changed his clothes and immersed himself in water five times. The high priest was keenly aware that, according to Jewish law, if he performed any of the Yom Kippur procedures out of the prescribed order, he would have to begin again from the point at which he erred.

Before the Day of Atonement sacrifices commenced, the high priest was required to fulfill the daily Temple obligations. In doing this, he removed his own personal clothing, immersed himself, and put on the gold garments made especially for his office. He then washed his hands and feet with water from a golden jug, sanctifying these extremities for service (an act he performed a total of ten times on that day). Next he sacrificed and offered the daily whole offering (Num. 28:1–8). He then burned the morning incense and trimmed the Temple lamps (Ex. 30:7), after which he again washed his hands and feet. Finally, he removed the gold garments, immersed himself, dressed in the required white linen garments for that day, and washed his hands and feet once more.


ATONING FOR THE PRIESTHOOD
Now the high priest was ready to begin the special duties assigned for Yom Kippur. He placed his hands on the head of a bull that had been set aside as a sin offering for himself and his family, identifying the animal with his sins. He then recited this confession:

O God, I have committed iniquity, transgressed, and sinned before You, I and my house. O God, forgive the iniquities and transgressions and sins which I have committed and transgressed and sinned before You, I and my house, as it is written in the Law of Your servant Moses, “For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you: from all your sins shall you be clean before the Lord.”

As the high priest ended the confession with the phrase “before the Lord,” he spoke aloud the sacred name of God, the name Jehovah. Upon hearing the ineffable name of Jehovah, the mass of people responded by falling down on their faces in worship, proclaiming, “Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom for ever and ever!”

The high priest then approached two male goats that had been taken from the people, both of which were to be used as sin offerings. Their fates, however, were to be entirely different. Near the two goats, the high priest shook a small box containing two lots. On one lot were written the words, “For the Lord,” and on the other lot, “For Azazel” (scapegoat). He put both hands in the box and took a lot in each hand. The hand with the lot “For the Lord” signified which goat would be sacrificed. The other lot signified which goat would be the scapegoat. The high priest then pronounced, “A sin offering to the Lord” (Jehovah), after which the people responded in worship as before. To distinguish between the two goats, the high priest tied a red wool thread or rope to the head of the scapegoat and a second rope to the neck of the sacrificial goat.

Returning to the bull set aside for a sin offering, the high priest again placed his hands on the animal and made the same confession over it as he had done previously, uttering for the third time the holy name of Jehovah. Again the people responded in worship, “Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom for ever and ever!” The high priest then slaughtered the bull and caught its blood in a bowl, which he gave to a nearby priest who stirred the blood to keep it from coagulating. Next the high priest scooped out coals from the bronze altar. With a ladle containing two handfuls of incense in his left hand and a fire pan of coals in his right hand, he entered the sanctuary or holy place of the Temple.

Passing the table of showbread on his right and the golden seven-branched candlestick on his left, the high priest went behind the veil into the holy of holies. Putting the fire pan down between the two poles of the ark of the covenant, he powdered the coals with the incense. The resulting smoke filled the room. After burning the incense, he exited the holy of holies, said a short prayer in the holy place, and went to retrieve the blood of the bull. He did not dawdle in the holy place, lest the congregation be frightened and think he had been struck down by God.

With the bull’s blood in hand, the high priest entered the holy of holies again and, with his finger, sprinkled the mercy seat with the blood. He counted as he flung the blood once upward and seven times downward. This act completed, the high priest left the holy of holies and deposited the basin of blood in the holy place.

ATONING FOR THE HOLY OF HOLIES
The high priest then sacrificed the male goat chosen by lot and designated “For the Lord.” Unlike the bull, he did not pronounce a priestly confession of the goat. Once the animal was slain, its blood was carried into the holy of holies by the high priest, and the same sprinkling procedure as with the bull’s blood was performed. Following that, the basin was brought into the holy place.

Picking up the basin of bull’s blood, the high priest again sprinkled the blood as he had done in the holy of holies, this time sprinkling it on the veil separating the two compartments. He did the same with the blood of the goat. Then he mixed the remaining blood of the bull with that of the goat. Going to the altar of incense (Ex. 30:10), he sprinkled some of the mixed blood on the four horns of the altar, beginning with the northeast horn and working counterclockwise to the southeast horn. Finally he sprinkled the top of the altar seven times, exited, and poured what was left of the blood at the base of the bronze altar.

These are but a few of the words recited by penitent worshipers on the most important day of the Jewish calendar. Sometimes called “The Great Day” or, even more reverentially, “The Day,” it is the solemn occasion on which a Jewish person’s fate is determined for the coming year. It is Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement. 

Continue to part 2 of Yom Kippur: The Day Of Atonement»

About Bruce Scott

Bruce Scott is the Field Ministries director for The Friends of Israel.

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