Yom Kippur: The Day of Atonement Then And Now

The following was not written by myself but by my husband, Dave Reynolds who is currently pursuing his Master of Divinity.

Yom Kippur: The Day Of Atonement Then And Now


Dave Reynolds

July 6, 2015

Jewish festivals and feasts, as outlined in the Pentateuch, are much different from our western ideas of festive celebrations. In our western culture, we celebrate many joyful occasions such as Thanksgiving or Christmas with an abundance of food and drink. The requirements for celebrating Jewish festivals and feasts according to the Pentateuch, on the other hand, involve fasting, elaborate rituals, and the sacrifice of certain animals. Through a brief introductions to the ancient Hebrew sources together with enlightenment from modern sources, this writer will demonstrate the relevance of the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur in its biblical context and declare its application pertinent to the modern Jew and contemporary Christian.

The Jewish year begins in the springtime with the festival of Passover in the month of Nissan. (Ex 12:1-2 ESV) Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Ab, Ellul, Tishri, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tebet, Shebat, and Adar1 follow Nissan with most months containing at least one festival day. In order to understand the cyclical yearly calendar, this writer has adapted the following table from John Parsons.2 This list is not comprehensive, differs in spelling from the list of months above, and serves only to aid in understanding the location of the seven major festivals in the calendar year:

The festivals of Trumpets, Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles in the month of Tishri comprise the Jewish High Holy Days. Considered the "most solemn day in the Jewish calendar,"3 Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement, commemorates the cleansing of the Tabernacle after defilement by the death of Aaron's two sons (Lev 10) and specifies the ritual for the purification of the people from their yearly sins. Celebrated on the tenth day of Tishri, its purpose is to "bring the collective sin of the whole year to remembrance so that it might be death with and atoned for."4

Leviticus 16 describes the elaborate rituals Aaron the High Priest must complete in order to consecrate the defiled Tabernacle and secure forgiveness for the children of Israel. The chapter may be divided into three major sections: The command (vv. 1-10), the procedure (vv.11-28), and the everlasting statute (vv. 29-34). First, Aaron receives God's warning against coming into the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle at any time other than on the Day of Atonement. God declares He will punish this offense by killing the priest that disobeys this warning (verse 2), but gives Aaron specific directions on how he must enter the Most Holy Place. (verses 3-5) He must offer a bull for a sin offering, bathe completely, put on the holy linen undergarments, secure the holy coat with a sash, and wear the holy linen turban. He will acquire two male goats and one ram for a burnt offering.

Next Aaron must present these offerings to the LORD. (verses 6-10) By offering the bull as a sin offering, Aaron "makes atonement for himself and his house." (verse 6) He then has to place the two goats before the LORD, cast lots to establish which goat is for the LORD and which goat is for Azazel (verses 7-8), and offer the LORD's goat as a sin offering. (verse 9) The remaining goat serves as a surrogate for Israel's sins and will be sent into the wilderness. (verse 10)

Verses 11-29 include specific directions for Aaron to follow when he makes atonement. There are three states in the ceremony: "The purification of the sanctuary (vv. 11-19); the purification of the people (vv. 20-­22); and the sacrifice of burnt offerings and the cleansing of the participants (vv. 23-28).5 To begin the purification rite, Aaron must offer a bull as a sin offering for himself and his relatives. (verse 11) Then he must burn incense in a censer to created a cloud of smoke in the Most Holy Place in order to cover the Mercy Seat on top of the Ark of the Covenant. Failure to do so will incur God's wrath and result in Aaron's death. Next Aaron must scatter some of the bull's blood seven times on the front of the east side of the Mercy Seat and in front of the Mercy Seat the same number of times. (verse 11-14). Subsequently, Aaron will kill the goat of the sin offering, take its blood into the Most Holy Place, and apply it in the same way as the bull's blood on and in front of the Mercy Seat. After completing these steps, Aaron must mingle the blood of the bull and goat in order to apply it to the Altar of Burnt Offerings to consecrate it. Aaron must daub blood on the four horns of the Altar of Burnt Offerings and pepper it with blood seven times. (verses 15-19) This completes the purification ritual for the sanctuary.

At his point in the ritual, Aaron will present the second goat, also known as the "scapegoat,"6 to the LORD. He must put both hands upon the goat's head and confess all the sins of the people. Through this act the sins of the people transfer to the goat. An assistant will then lead the goat to a desolate area where it will bear the sins of Israel. (verses 20-22) in this way, the sins of a guilty people transfer to an innocent living sacrifice and results in their purification.

Finally, Aaron will begin the purification ceremony for those priests who participate in the ritual. He will enter the sanctuary, remove his holy linen garments, bathe a second time, put on his elaborate High Priest vestments, exit the sanctuary, and offer a burnt offering for himself and for the people thus making atonement for his sins and the sins of the people. He will conclude the ritual when he presents the fat of the sin offering by fire upon the Altar of Burnt Offerings. The priests who will defile themselves by the release of the goat and the disposal of the animals involved in the offerings will wash their clothes and bathe in water in order to be ceremonially clean and permitted to reenter the camp. With the completion of these complicated steps, the sanctuary and the people will be cleansed from all sin and may look forward to another year in God's presence.

Leviticus 16:29-34 records God's specific command concerning this ritual. He declares the Israelites will celebrate it on the tenth day of Tishri. YHVH further instructs his people to "afflict yourselves" and "do no work" since this day is a solemn day of cleansing from sin and a day of rest (verse 29). The phrase "Sabbath of solemn rest" (verse 31) refers to prohibition of any type of work done on that day. Though not specifically spelled out in the text, avoidance of food, water, and other bodily comforts including bathing or anointing oneself, intimate relations with one's spouse and wearing sandals will later serve as guidelines for personal discomfort.7 The LORD declares this day also to be a day of atonement since they will receive cleansing from their sins. (verse 30) This day of fasting and atonement, according to verses 31:34, will be a perpetual celebration for the children of Israel. Aaron obeys and executes God's commands given through Moses. (verse 34)

The language Moses uses in Leviticus 16 describes the significance of this holy day for ancient Israel. The Hebrew verb kipper, found in verses 11, 16, 17, and 18 sheds its meaning of "atone or expiate"8 when one encounters it in these passages. A better translation of kipper in this context is "purge or purify."9 Ancient Israelites believe the act of committing a sin "harms the one sinned against and simultaneously commits an offense to God. In addition, every act of sinning releases a pollution."10 These sins penetrate the Altar of Burnt Offerings, the Altar of Incense, and the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle.11Aaron performs these rites to both decontaminate the sanctuary and cleanse the people from sin. Through this ritual, God provides a way to restore the fellowship between the people and Himself that has been broken through the contamination of sin12 and enures a pristine sanctuary where He may manifest His presence.

For the next 500 years the Israelites practice the Day of Atonement. When Solomon builds the Temple at Jerusalem (2 Chr 6 and 7), the practice moves from the Tabernacle to the Temple. Civil war breaks out around 930 B.C.E.13 after the reign of Solomon and the kingdom splits into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Apostasy runs rampant and results in the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria in 722 B.C.E., while the Southern Kingdom of Judah endures until Babylon takes it captive in 586 B.C.E. When exiles from Judah return to Jerusalem around 516 B.C.E., they restore Temple worship. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe this return from exile and rededication fo the Temple. For approximately the next 600 years, the Jews practice Temple worship, including the Day of Atonement.

Around 30 C.E. an itinerant Jewish preacher named Yeshua Bar Yosef challenges the religious practices of the day. For three years He preaches a message of reconciliation to God and at one point in His ministry, rebukes the Pharisees for their perversion of the practices of the Laws of Moses. (Matt 23) Between the celebration of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, a close disciple betrays Him into the hands of the Jews who desire to kill Him for blasphemy. (John 13:21-20; 18:1-24) The next day the Roman governor Pontius Pilate crucifies Him (John 18:28-19:37) and some faithful disciples bury Him in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. (John 19:38-42)

After Jesus of Nazareth rises from the dead and appears to many disciples (John 20-21), He commissions His disciples to carry His message to the world. (Matt 28:19-20) He ascends into Heaven (Acts 1:1-11) and energizes His disciples with the Holy Spirit to execute their commission. (Acts 2) They spread Jesus' message to the known world and prompt the Jews of Thessalonica to declare, "These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also... " (Acts 17:6)

Jesus' disciples recognize the significance of His teaching. Under divine inspiration, some of Jesus' disciples compose sacred books or write religious letters to churches in the known world. Later collected into a book known as the New Testament, these writing record and reinterpret Jesus' teachings. The Apostle Paul, the Apostle Peter, and the writer of the book of Hebrews compare Jesus' atoning sacrifice that restores "the human relation situation in relation to God"14 with the sacrificial system contained in the Pentateuch. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:3 declares, "... Christ died for our sins... " and demonstrates the way His death brings reconciliation to God. (Col 1:21-23) Peter, one of Jesus' original twelve disciples, likens Jesus to the scapegoat of Leviticus 16 when he asserts, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness." (1 Pet 2:24) The writer of the book of Hebrews compares the work of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement with the sacrificial act of Jesus Christ. Jesus enters into the heavenly tabernacle and offers His blood to secure redemption and reconciliation. (Heb 9:1-14)

Almost forty years after Jesus' ascension to the heavenly tabernacle, the Roman army decimates the city of Jerusalem. In 70 C.E. they destroy the Temple, effectively ending Temple worship. The Jews of the Diaspora, or dispersion, who continue to observe the feasts and festivals, must reinvent the rituals of the Temple and introduce the rite of kapparah.15 The celebration of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, changes from a rite the priest performs in the Tabernacle or later in the Temple to a private ceremony performed by a Jewish man. During the ceremony, the penitent "believer, holding a rooster or hen firmly by its legs, circles it over his head three times (a Cabalist number), in the meanwhile reciting the mystical formula in which the offering of the fowl, soon to be shed by the ritual slaughterer or sochet, is to be accepted vicariously as atonement for the sins he has committed during the year gone by."16

The next transformation of the Yom Kippur celebration occurs during the Middle Ages when repentance substitutes for animal sacrifice, the practice of fasting continues, and corporate prayer sanctifies the day. A Jew no longer recognizes the transference of personal sin to a goat or chicken, but assumes "moral responsibility for his own actions.17 In other words, according to Ausbel:

"Atonement" was now repentance--a transformation of the individual "from within," and to attain it became the objective of all the rites and prayers on Yom Kippur. The sincerity of the individual's repentance was to be tested by the alacrity with this he altered his outlook and conduct.18

Maimonides, a philosopher and rabbi from the twelfth century agrees with the change in focus for he says, "Every man should confess his sins and turn away from them on that day [Yom Kippur]."19 All Jews from twelve years old through adulthood are required to fast that day and attend synagogue services. At the synagogue, Jews repeat a complex litany of prayers that classify various sins. The pious and repentant Jew repeats these words fifty six times:

"Al chet... ""For the sin which we have committed before Thee by... " And for these enumerated wrongdoings he implores, in concert with the entire congregation: "... O God of Forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, grant us remission."20

Modern day Jews follow a complex series of services that begin on the evening before Yom Kippur.21 They observe the ancient fasting and self-afflicting regulations of Leviticus 16. The Kol Nidrei service in the synagogue begins before sundown when the cantor declares three times "null and void those vows and promises that we may make and fail to fulfill in the coming year."22 The Ma'ariv service follows the Kol Nidrei. Special music accompanies the chanting of prayers of repentance. The people pray using the "first person plural because even though each of su is asking atonement for his or her own sins, it is important to feel part of and responsible for the whole community of Israel."23

On the Day of Atonement, Jews celebrate by attending four services throughout the day. The reading of liturgical poems, other recitations, the reading of the Torah portion, and a memorial service for the dead characterize Shaharit, the morning service. Musaf, the longest service of the year, recounts the rituals of the first Day of Atonement found in Leviticus 16. The congregation prostrates themselves in worship and then honors Jews who have suffered martyrdom. During Minhah, the briefest service during the day, the people read Leviticus 18 and the Book of Jonah. Yom Kippur concludes with Neilah, a service that may reflect the time when the gates to the Temple were secured. The focus changes from repentance to hope in God for a place in the Book of Life. The congregation recites the Shema. (Deut 6:4) The service ends with a blessing of the Holy Name of God repeated three times, the repetitions of "The Lord is God" seven times, a concluding prayer, and the "final shofar blast"24 from a trumpet made from a rams's horn.

The significance of Yom Kippur for the modern day Jew has not changed since the time of Moses. For over 3,500 years Jews have celebrated this time of fasting, cleansing and introspection. The passage in Leviticus 16 details the rituals involved and the attitude of the participants. Though the manner of celebration has changed since the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the participants still focus on repentance and reconciliation to God and their fellow man.

Modern day Christians may learn many lessons from the Day of Atonement and Jesus' sacrifice for our sins. First, we need to recognize the necessity of experiencing a person Day of Atonement. Just as the Jew confesses his sins before God, we must come before Jesus Christ, confess our sins and believe He forgives and cleanses us from "all unrighteousness." (1 Jn 1:9)

Second, we as disciples of Jesus Christ need to heed the Apostle Paul's advice to look inward from time to time. He declares, "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves... " (2 Cor 12:5) Periodic soul-searching to see if we are walking according to the Word of God should be part of our spiritual discipline. If we lack strength, we need to call our fellow believers and follow James' advice: "Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working." (Jas 5:16)

Finally as a community of believers we must realize that we are part of a larger community and our actions affect those around us. The Apostle Paul addresses this issue in Romans 14. He entreats the believers in Rome to stop judging and criticizing one another. He desires each follower of Christ to honor the Lord in his everyday actions and to take responsibility for them since God will judge him. (Rom 14:1-12) Paul also teaches the Romans that they influence fellow believers. He writes concerning eating certain foods or abstaining from certain foods, but the message is clear. He wants no believer to experience offense from a fellow believer. Rather than quarrel about food, Paul urges the Romans to "pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding." (Rom 14:13-18) As disciples of Christ, we need to observe these warnings from Paul and seek only what edifies our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

In Conclusion, we should not relegate the celebration of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, to a chapter in a book of the Pentateuch and consider it to be an archaic festival. Rather, we should embrace the celebration as a time of introspection, repentance, and cleansing. By celebrating this festival, the Jew becomes a better Jew and the Christian becomes more like his Lord.



1 Nathan Ausbel, "Calendar, jewish," The Book of Jewish Knowledge: An Encyclopedia of Judaism and the Jewish People.

2 John J. Parsons, "The Jewish Calendar-Mindfulness of the Divine Rhythm" and "The Jewish Holidays-A Simplified Overview of the Feast of the Lord." No Pages. Cited 4 July 2015. Online: http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Holidays/Calendar/calendar.html and http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Holidays/Introduction/introduction.html.

3 "John E. Hartley, "Atonement, Day of, "DOTP 54.

4 "Feasts," ZIBD 474.

5 Samuel E. Balentine, "Day of Atonement," NIDB 2:42.

6 Ausbel, "Calendar, Jewish," The Book of Jewish Knowledge 521.

7 Hartley, "Atonement, Day of," DOTP 58.

8 Balentine, "Day of Atonement," NIDB 2:42.

9 Balentine, "Day of Atonement," NIDB 2:42.

10 Hartley, "Atonement, Day of, "DOTP 55-56

11 Hartley, "Atonement, Day of, "DOTP 55-56

12 Joel B. Green, "Atonement," NIDB 1:345

13 "Northern Kingdom Falls to Assyria." No Pages. Cited 5 July 2015. Online: http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/revelation/related-topics/northern-kingdom-falls-to-assyria.html.

14 Christopher M. Tuckett, "Atonement in the New Testament," ABD 1:518.

15 Ausbel, "Yom Kippur," The Book of Jewish Knowledge, 522.

16Ausbel, "Yom Kippur," The Book of Jewish Knowledge, 522.

17 Ausbel, "Yom Kippur," The Book of Jewish Knowledge, 522.

18 Ausbel, "Yom Kippur," The Book of Jewish Knowledge, 522.

19 Ausbel, "Yom Kippur," The Book of Jewish Knowledge, 522.

20 Ausbel, "Yom Kippur," The Book of Jewish Knowledge, 522.

21 Information on the modern Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur comes from Michael Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 1985), 111-117.

22 Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays, 113.

23 Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays, 114.

24 Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays, 117.



Ausbel, Nathan. "Calendar, Jewish." Pages 70-71 in The Book of Jewish Knowledge: An Encyclopedia of Judaism and the Jewish People, Covering All Elements of Jewish Life From Biblical Times to the Present. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1964.

Ausbel, Nathan. "Calendar, Jewish." Pages 519-523 in The Book of Jewish Knowledge: An Encyclopedia of Judaism and the Jewish People, Covering All Elements of Jewish Life From Biblical Times to the Present. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1964.

Balentine, Samuel E. "Day of Atonement." Pages 42-45 in vol. 2 of The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfield. 5 vols. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006.

"Feasts." Pages 473-475 in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Edited by James Dixon Douglas and Merrill C. Tenney. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Green, Joel B. "Atonement." Pages 344-348 in vol. 1 of The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. edited by Katharine Doob Sakenfield. 5 vols. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006.

Hartley, John E. "Atonement, Day of." Pages 54-60 in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch. Edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Holy Bible (ESV). No Pages. Cited 4 July, 2015. Online: https://www/biblegateway.com

"Northern Kingdom Falls to Assyria." No Pages. Cited 5 July 2015. Oneline: http:// www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/revealtion/related-topics/nothern-kingdom-falls-to-assyria.html.

Parsons, John J. :The Jewish Calendar-Mindfulness of Divine Rhythm." No Pages. Cited 4 July 2015. Online: http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Holidays/Calendar/calendar.html.

Parsons, John J. "The Jewish Holidays-A Simplified Overview of the Feasts of the Lord." No Pages. Cited 4 July 2015. Online: http://www.hebrews4christians.com/Holidays/Introduction/introduction.html.

Strassfield, Michael. The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1985.

Tuckett, Christopher M. "Atonement in the New Testament." Pages 518-522 in vol. 1 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman. 6 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

John Knox @watchmanjohn ·

Reading this [and I did read the entire blog] brought back memories from long ago when such reading was standard fare for me. This is a good treatise that speaks of many hours research, compilation and much thought. It was good to be reminded again that the OT does have relevance for believers who follow 'the way' for the author has brought this together correctly and simply in the last paragraph.
I was interested that the author mentioned that Moses was the writer of Leviticus when scholars are practically unanimous that the book had a long period of growth, and that although it includes some material of considerable antiquity, it reached its present form in the Persian period (538 332 BCE) with both the priestly coded and holiness code making substantial contributions.
I need to congratulate the author and hope that the bloggers on CB will have the fortitude to fully read through, for such blog is a breathe of fresh air to the usual that we read on this site.
Thank you "K" princess


Beth M @blest ·

First of all, I have to tell you, Dave, that I almost clapped out loud when I read your first sentence! (COL instead of LOL) because you actually wrote "different from" instead of "different than", the former being correct and the latter being a) always incorrect grammatically, b) used by the majority of people everywhere, and c) happens to be a really big pet peeve of mine. Can you tell? :wink:

Excellent paper. Very interesting and highly enlightening.

When are you coming down here?


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