Ten days after Rosh Hashana (on the 10th of Tishri) comes Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. This most solemn of days occurs sometime during the last two weeks of September and the first two weeks of October.
The Biblical day begins at sundown, not sunrise. ("And there was evening and there was morning - the first day." Gen. 1:5) Yom Kippur, then, begins at sundown on the 9th of Tishri. Since this is a day of solemn fasting, a large family meal is joyfully eaten during the afternoon before the fast begins.
Among some orthodox Jews, there is a custom (rare today) called "Kapporot." This involves swinging a chicken over one's head to atone for one's sins, a rooster for a male and a hen for a female. A prayer is recited: "This is my substitute, this is my pardon, this is my atonement, this rooster goes to death and I shall enter a long, happy and peaceful life." The bird is then ritually slaughtered and given to the poor. Although this practice is not widely accepted among the rabbis, its very existence shows a certain consciousness of the necessity of a substitutionary blood atonement. A remnant of this practice substitutes a charitable gift of money, tied in a handkerchief, in place of a chicken. This is known as "tzedakah" (righteousness).
The synagogue services begin with the Evening Service at which the famous Kol Nidrei is chanted. The Kol Nidrei, or "All Vows", is a prayer which asks God to absolve the worshipper from all vows made during the previous year, vows which were imperfectly kept. During this service, the Tallit or prayer shawl, is worn by all males who have been "Bar Mitzvahed," i.e., who have passed through the rites of manhood. (Only married men wear the Tallit in Orthodox synagogues.)
The lengthy Yom Kippur services involve confession of sin collectively, traditional prayers, chants, and scripture readings (Lev. 16, the Book of Jonah, various Psalms, etc.) The services close with the sounding of the shofar, or ram's horn trumpet, symbolizing the closing of the heavenly gates. During the High Holy Days, God is said to bring His heavenly court into session to judge the deeds of mankind. Court opens with Rosh Hashana and closes with the final shofar blast of Yom Kippur. One hopes one is sealed in the Book of Life at the close of Yom Kippur.
If this is the Day of Atonement, then where is the Atonement, where is the payment for sin? In the Torah, the five books of Moses, sin is atoned for by the sacrificial animal, as we shall see below. But how is sin atoned for now, according to Rabbinic Judaism, since the Temple is not in existence? Leviticus 16:30 reads ". . . on this day, atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you." The rabbis have interpreted this to mean that the day itself atones for sin. Since there is no longer a blood atonement possible, repentance, prayer, fasting, and charity are substituted for the sacrifice. There is also reference made to Abraham's obedience in being willing to offer up his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, on Mount Moriah (which later became the Temple Mount). His act is thought to have some merit in saving the nation.
In the Bible, however, we read in Leviticus 16 that sin was atoned for by the blood of the sacrificial victim. The high priest, after becoming ritually pure, offered a bull for his sins and the sins of his household. Then two goats were set aside. Lots were cast, and one goat was chosen to be the scapegoat or "Azazel." The High Priest slaughtered the other goat to atone for the sins of Israel and brought the blood into the Holy of Holies. The scapegoat was sent away to be lost in the desert after the High Priest laid both hands on its head and confessed the sins of Israel. In this way, the sins of the nation were symbolically carried off into the desert. The hides, flesh, and offal of the sacrificial animals were carried outside the camp and burned. The people were to fast and rest from their work. Anyone who did not fast was to be cut off from the people, and anyone who did any work at all was to be destroyed.
Yom Kippur and the New Covenant
Messiah came to be the "atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world." (I John 2:2). Jesus is our great and pure High Priest. He offered himself as the atonement for the sins of his people by taking all the punishment for their sins upon himself as a substitute sufferer. As the prophet, Isaiah, said, "the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:6). (See our Isaiah 53 section.) Messiah was taken outside the camp to be destroyed, and his blood was presented in the ultimate, heavenly Holy of Holies once and for all, not year after year as in the ancient temple. Israel was strictly commanded do no regular work on Yom Kippur and to afflict their souls and humble themselves before God. Now God calls us to humble ourselves before Him, to repent and turn to him in faith, resting from our works, our own attempts to be accepted as righteous in His eyes (Gal. 3:10 & 11, Heb. 4:1-11). We must personally receive the Messiah's sacrifice as the all sufficient atonement for our sins. Just as the high priest laid his hands on the scapegoat and confessed the sins of Israel, we are to confess our sins and cast them upon Jesus who came to die as our scapegoat (Hebrews 1-12, Titus 3:4).
Suggestions for Christians
Return to the CHAIM Home Page