Yom Kippur can be somewhat of 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’re forgiven in Messiah?
I remember my first Yom Kippur as a new believer. I had received the Lord in May 1975 and decided to be baptized in September. But the baptism service at the church I attended was to take place on Erev Yom Kippur. Oy, not good! As a college student I hadn’t always attended High Holiday services, but now, with God in my life, I felt a strong urge to go. Happily, the service times weren’t in total conflict. So with hair still wet from my baptism, I sped over to the Kol Nidre service!
What a mix of emotion—from the joy of the baptism to the somber atmosphere of Yom Kippur. My family, along with the rest of the Jewish community, were confessing sin and hoping for God’s forgiveness. But I stood, knowing whom I had believed, knowing that my sins were atoned for, once and for all. The joy of my salvation mixed with sadness for my family.
Jewish believers often experience moments of contrast and mixed emotion: the December dilemma” of Hanukkah and Christmas. Then there is springtime, with Passover and Easter. For some, these times and seasons are held in tension between loyalty to the Jewish community and unity with our Christian brothers and sisters.
So when it comes to the sadness and joy of Yom Kippur, what are we to do?
If you are one who struggles with this question, maybe some of the “what” will fall into place as you examine the “why.” Why would a Jewish believer in Jesus celebrate a holiday that is filled with so much angst over an issue that Yeshua has resolved for us, namely atonement?
The Jewish community and often our own families write us off as if we have no part in the inheritance that belongs to the people of Israel. But that inheritance is ours. We, too, share in the blessings and the difficulties of what it means to be Jewish. God made us Jews and the world knows us as Jews. Though others might try to strip us of our identity, many of us continue to embrace our culture, with its customs and celebrations. Perhaps you are motivated to celebrate Yom Kippur as a story to others, letting your family know that you still value tradition and identify with the Jewish community.
This can help them understand that a Jew can believe in Jesus and still remain a Jew. It may enable some to get past their prejudice and see that our Jewish identity is genuine. As we value these things, some may receive our story as Jews who believe in Yeshua. At least with a few, this story will lead to deeper discussions of the gospel.
Identification is a valid reason to celebrate Yom Kippur. The Apostle Paul had much to say about doing those things which let others know that he, too, was a Jew. At the same time, we need to remember that Jesus warned us against practicing our righteousness before others to be noticed by them (Matthew 6:1). His exhortation included prayer and fasting. So we should be careful not to participate in the activities of Yom Kippur merely to be seen by others. Our story is only legitimate when our religious practices have meaning for us. So while much of what we do or don’t do reflects identification with our Jewish people, we must be careful that it also reflects identification with our Jewish Messiah and His way of doing things.
For example, Yeshua said,
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Two of the five ancient prohibitions for Yom Kippur are to refrain from using creams, oils or lotions and to refrain from washing or bathing. Found in the Mishna (Yoma 8.1), it’s likely that these prohibitions already existed in Yeshua’s day.
Yet Yeshua told his followers not only to make their fast a secret, but also instructed them to wash and to use oil—acts forbidden by the rabbis. What do we make of these differences?
If we follow the rules of the rabbis they may be more likely to accept us as one of their own. But does identification with our people, on Yom Kippur, or any other time, mean being accepted by the Jewish community? I don’t think so. Identification is a way to express our continued desire to accept and embrace our Jewish people. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we will be embraced and accepted by them, especially as we demonstrate that we belong to Yeshua. Belonging to the Messiah means being mindful of His teachings. So while we stand with our people in some of the rituals, we should do so in ways that do not call attention to ourselves. In this way God, not other people, will see our righteousness.
In addition to identifying with our people, we need another, more intimate reason for what we do. Yom Kippur is a good occasion to look inside and take a spiritual inventory. With its central themes of sin, atonement and forgiveness, the holiday naturally lends itself to this kind of spiritual introspection. Though we are made righteous in Messiah, we still sin. We are told to flee from sin and pursue righteousness, yet at the same time John bluntly reminds us, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8) Yom Kippur focuses on the need to confess sin and receive God’s forgiveness. It’s not only tailor-made to promote our witness to others (as it gives occasion to discuss these spiritual issues), but it is also a holiday for us to take stock of our own lives before God. The litany of sins we confess in the Al Chet acts as a mirror so we can see ourselves honestly and come clean.
Nevertheless, if you attend traditional Yom Kippur services, stay alert as you progress through the liturgy. The system that traditional Judaism has built to address the reality of sin and the need for forgiveness is not altogether theologically consistent with our faith. We do not believe that three books are opened at Rosh Hashanah and that we have ten days to make everything right before the books are closed and our fate sealed. We do not believe that repentance, prayer and charity (or good deeds) can secure God’s forgiveness for sin.
If you join our non-messianic brethren in prayer, to retain your spiritual integrity, consider remaining silent during the prayers that contradict your faith. This is no different than what your family members would do if they were to attend a church service. Having said that, I believe most of the traditional Yom Kippur prayers are fine for us and we can fully take part in them, messianic or not. Of course, most messianic congregations have solved these problems for us by modifying or eliminating some of the traditional prayers to make the entire worship service consistent with our faith in Yeshua. It’s powerful to remember, especially on Yom Kippur, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
One of the most central features of Yom Kippur is the fast. At its core, fasting is seen as fulfilling the biblical commandment to “deny yourselves” or “afflict your souls” (Leviticus 23:27). The fast enables us to put aside our physical desires and concentrate on our spiritual needs.
In Nehemiah fasting is used to deeply express the people’s repentance (9:1). Later, God speaks through the prophet Joel and declares, “Even now, return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning” (Joel 2:12). In other instances fasting is a means of intensifying prayer in the face of dire need. This was often true when the enemies of Israel came against us (cf. Esther 4:3; II Chronicles 20:3) and our survival was on the line. So it is on Yom Kippur, when it is believed that our individual fate hangs in the balance.
As believers we can certainly fast as an expression of repentance and as an intensification of prayer. But there is another reason to fast on Yom Kippur. That reason is intercession. When Ezra wanted to pray for the people leaving Babylon he called a fast (Ezra 8:21). When Esther was about to take a big risk she asked the community to pray for her, accompanied by fasting (Esther 4:16). Daniel fasted as he prayed on behalf of the exiled Jewish nation (Daniel 9:3).
Yom Kippur is a very fitting time to intercede on behalf of our Jewish family and friends who don’t know the Messiah and the atonement He has accomplished. Our fast can be a time of intensifying and deepening our prayer for others. As weeks, months and years go by, we need help and encouragement to continue praying for those who haven’t shown positive interest in the gospel. Yom Kippur can provide the boost we need to intercede for our family members.
As believers in Yeshua, those who know the joy of salvation, many of us approach Yom Kippur with mixed emotions. Do we rejoice—knowing that to be uncharacteristic for the holiday, yet in keeping with our faith and experience? Or do we take this day to examine our lives and confess our own sins to God? Without doubt, there is room for both. A framework of identification, introspection and intercession provides plenty of occasion to repent and rejoice and remember what is important.
Yom Kippur is a holy day that allows us to come to God and express what is on our hearts. May God be with you as you use the occasion to His glory.