This Sunday evening and Monday mark a special holiday on the Jewish calendar: Yom Kippur, also known as the Day of Atonement.
The biblical guidelines for this day are laid out in Leviticus 23:27–28: “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the LORD. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God.” This day takes place on the 10th day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. It falls approximately a week after Rosh Hashanah and a week before Sukkot on the calendar.
Leviticus 23 explains how God intended for the Day of Atonement to be treated as a Sabbath holiday. In verse 32 He said, “It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath.” It was meant to be a day of no work, a day of taking a position of full humility. That’s what the phrase “afflict your souls” means: not to harm oneself but to deny oneself of pleasure—in this case, food, as fasting is a central part of this day.
God intended for the Day of Atonement to be treated as a Sabbath holiday.
The ceremonious details of the Day of Atonement are listed back in Leviticus 16. Moses wrote of the responsibilities of the high priest in this chapter. God’s commands focus on blood. Leviticus 17:11 says, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” Blood sacrifices are key because they fulfill God’s requirement of life to atone for sin.
Also of great importance is the scapegoat. In Leviticus 16:21 Aaron was instructed to lay his hands on the goat’s head, confess all of Israel’s sins over it, and send it into the wilderness. After Aaron died, the high priest took this role. It’s easy to see the parallels between this goat and Jesus today, but when Leviticus was written, this was simply the means of making atonement.
The high priest’s role was most important of all. Because of the sacredness of the day, he was held to strict expectations. His fast began earlier, as he was meant to stay awake for the entire night of Yom Kippur and because food might induce sleep. Other priests would read Scripture to him, snap their fingers, or have him walk on cold stones to keep him awake throughout the night. Absolute precision was necessary in his actions. If he performed any of the procedures out of order, he would have to start again from the part of the ceremony he led incorrectly.1 Though they might seem unnecessarily strict today, these actions conveyed the seriousness of the ceremony and the purpose behind the Yom Kippur practices.
But these rituals of sacrifice and worship aren’t common parts of the observance of Yom Kippur today. One glaring reason is that the sacrifices had to be made in the Temple, which was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago in AD 70. Instead the focus is on the 25-hour period of prayer and fasting that lasts from sundown to sundown. Though the day is spent with family and friends, it is not a joyful day. Observers don’t wish each other a “Happy Yom Kippur,” but rather a good or meaningful fast.2
Though they might seem unnecessarily strict today, these actions conveyed the seriousness of the ceremony and the purpose behind the Yom Kippur practices.
Much of the day is spent inside the synagogue, as many synagogues hold five prayer services that fill the majority of the day. The shofar blast signals the end of the fast, a happy time for the hungry observers ready for a good meal. Though each family has the flexibility to choose what type of meal they’ll have to break their fast, bagels, tuna or egg salad, noodle kugel, and quiche are among the most common foods on the Yom Kippur menu in Jewish households. Reasonable exceptions to fasting are made, such as children under the age of nine and those who must eat for medical reasons not being required to fast.3
Since Leviticus 23:28 says, “You shall do no work on that day,” some businesses and schools close on this day. Not all companies formally observe Yom Kippur, though, as some employees are still expected to work.4
Today rabbinical Judaism teaches that prayer, repentance, and good deeds atone for sin rather than animal sacrifice. For those of us who believe in Christ for salvation and redemption, our atonement was made 2,000 years ago when Jesus died for our sins, and our acceptance of His sacrifice means God has declared us righteous in His sight. Though the observance of Yom Kippur has changed throughout the years, it has always carried enormous significance as a day of showing reverence to the Almighty God.
1 Scott, Bruce (1997). The Feasts of Israel. The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, Inc.
2 “What Is Yom Kippur and How Is It Celebrated? A Brief Explanation of the Day of Atonement.” Newsweek. Last modified October 8, 2019. https://www.newsweek.com/what-yom-kippur-how-it-celebrated-1463670.