Yom Kippur

Day of Atonement

Purpose of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest and most somber day of the Jewish year. Yom Kippur concludes the Ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). Like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur is a prospective holiday, when we prepare for the year ahead through fasting, penitence, and confession.

Origin of Yom Kippur

God established the Day of Atonement in Leviticus, setting down rules for it in two instances actually (Leviticus 16:29 ff. and 23:27 ff.)—an indication of the holiday’s profound importance. God tells Moses in the first of these passages:

It shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins. It is a Sabbath of solemn rest to you, and you shall afflict yourselves; it is a statute forever. And the priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the holy linen garments. (Leviticus 16:29–32)

Yom Kippur required action from both the high priest and the people: the high priest was to make atonement through sacrifice, and the people, for their part, were to practice self-denial and refrain from work. Thus, all Israelites had to do their part during this collective Day of Atonement.

By God’s commandment, the high priest followed a specific protocol on Yom Kippur. He bathed and dressed in white linen raiments, an act of purification, before entering the Holy of Holies. There the high priest made two sin offerings: a bull for his house and a goat for the people. The priest would lay the sins of the people on the head of a second goat, which had been chosen by lot as the “scapegoat.” After the high priest spoke the sins and iniquities of the people and put them on its head, the scapegoat would be removed into the wilderness.


How Yom Kippur Is Observed

Observant Jews spend the Days of Awe that fall between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur making amends with their fellow man, so that they enter Yom Kippur in a spirit of reconciliation and atonement for past wrongs. We learn in the Scriptures that we must be in right relation with our neighbors if we are to love the Lord our God—the two go hand in hand. The V’ahavta sums up our obligations to God: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). A second law sums up our obligations to one another: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; see Mark 12:30).

In addition to making amends, it is common to feast the day before Yom Kippur in preparation for the fast, from which children and the sick are exempt. Many observant Jews light a candle for their deceased parents on Yom Kippur, a practice also carried out on the anniversary (yahrzeit) of parents’ deaths.

The day of Yom Kippur itself is observed by abstaining from work and practicing self-denial, as mandated in Leviticus. In the Talmud, “self-denial” is interpreted to mean: “It is forbidden to eat or drink, or bathe or anoint oneself or wear sandals, or to indulge in conjugal intercourse” (Yoma 8.1). By abstaining from work and indulgence, we are meant to enter a state of introspection and repentance, attending to the sins and misdeeds we have committed and acknowledging our dependence on God for redemption.

Special Synagogue Readings for Yom Kippur

The celebration of Yom Kippur involves a somber liturgy, which includes the absolution of congregants from ill-advised future promises (Kol Nidre), communal confession of sins (Vidui), the mourning of departed parents (Yizkor), and the blowing of the shofar. After the blowing of the shofar, Jews may break the Yom Kippur fast. The following is a non-exhaustive list of important Yom Kippur readings and liturgy:

Evening Service:

Recitation of the Kol Nidre and the Vidui, a lengthy confession of sins

Morning Service:

Torah portion: Leviticus 16:1-34, Numbers 29:7-11

Haftarah portion: Isaiah 57:14-58:14, recitation of the Yizkor, recitation of the martyrology

Afternoon Service:

Torah portion: Leviticus 18:1-30

Haftarah: The book of Jonah in its entirety, Micah 7:18-20

Recitation of the Ne’ilah prayer, the Sh’ma, the Baruch Shem; collective proclamation L’Shana Haba’ah b’Yerushalayim! (Next Year in Jerusalem!)

Concludes with the blowing of the shofar

Traditional Customs and Folklore of Yom Kippur

According to tradition, Yom Kippur falls on the day Moses brought down the second set of sacred tablets of the Ten Commandments, the first set of which he had destroyed, and the repentant Israelites were absolved of their great sin: worshipping the golden calf. Maimonides writes, “It is the day on which the Master of the prophets descended with the second Tables [of the Law] and brought them the good news that their great sin was forgiven.”

For this reason, Yom Kippur took on at once an air of gravity and of joy—contrition sweetened by the taste of forgiveness. It even became a time for matchmaking in ancient Israel. Tradition tells us that on Yom Kippur, all of the girls would wear white (those who did not own white clothing were lent white raiment for this special occasion). They would go out dancing in the vineyards, and the young men were permitted to see them dance. The Talmud explains, “And what did they say? ‘Young man, lift up thine eyes and see what thou wouldst choose for thyself: set not thine eyes on beauty, but set thine eyes on family; for Favor is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman that feareth the Lord shall be praised [Proverbs 31:30]’” (Yoma 6.1).

No longer do the women go out dancing on Yom Kippur, but the tradition of wearing white on Yom Kippur lasts into our own time. Ashkenazi Jewish men imitate the high priest’s manner of dress when attending Yom Kippur service today by wearing a white kittel (a funerary shroud, reminding us of our mortality). White symbolizes purity in Jewish tradition—wedding garments, for instance, are also traditionally white. The book of Isaiah bears out this symbolic significance—God says to His people in Isaiah 1:18: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”

Yom Kippur in the New Testament

For believers in Yeshua, the scapegoat is a picture of the Messiah, who was sent “as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10 NIV). Like the scapegoat, Yeshua receives our iniquities and transgressions and takes them from us. Unlike the scapegoat, his sacrifice is good for all time, rather than needing to be repeated from year to year. Yom Kippur can be a conundrum to Jewish believers in Yeshua. Do we fast and confess our sins like the rest of the Jewish community, or do we rejoice in the knowledge that we have been granted lasting forgiveness in Messiah? Many Jewish believers view Yom Kippur as a time for identification with our Jewish people, introspection for ourselves and intercession for loved ones, knowing all the while that Jesus is the One that makes us at one with God. Believers in Yeshua who observe Yom Kippur recognize that, although we particularly focus on our need for repentance and forgiveness on this day, we have received ultimate, lasting atonement through Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of God.

Glossary of Yom Kippur Terms

Azazel—removal (associated with the scapegoat that was sent into the wilderness)

High Holy Days—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Kol Nidre—Jewish liturgy, well-loved for its melody; the words of Kol Nidre, which is sung at the beginning of Yom Kippur, absolve Jews of any promises that may be broken in the coming year; rabbinical, not a biblical, tradition

Machzor—prayer book used for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

Shabbat Shabbaton—alternative name for Yom Kippur meaning “Sabbath of Sabbaths”

Shofar—ram’s horn, traditionally blown during Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur; used to be blown to mark the start of Jubilee, when all people in Israel were released from bondage

The Ten Days of Awe—start with Rosh Hashanah and conclude with Yom Kippur; together Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as the High Holidays

Teshuvah—Hebrew term for returning to the right path or penitence; the practice of atoning for one’s sins

Viddui—prayer wherein we repent of having committed a long litany of sins (similar in nature to the Penitential Order of the Anglican Church or the Catholic prayer of penitence)