This Saturday, September 18th, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The holiday begins at sundown Friday and ends Saturday evening.
Yom Kippur is commonly recognized as the most important religious holiday in Judaism. It is a time for personal reflection on sin and the realization of forgiveness for that sin.
Since Christianity developed in and from Judaism I thought it might be good to do a short series on this holiday. We begin today with examining how the holiday was observed during the period of ancient Israel. On Friday we will look at how it developed in the Post-Biblical period after the temple was destroyed and sacrifice ended. On Saturday we will look at how the holiday is observed today. This last part of the series will include interviews with two Israeli Jews, one orthodox the other secular. I will also include some of my memories of Yom Kippur 1997 when my wife and I lived in Jerusalem.
Yom Kippur in Ancient Israel
The ordinances of the Day of Atonement are found in Leviticus 16, with supplementary material found in Leviticus 23:26-31 and Numbers 29:7-11. Many scholars, however, do not see the feast in chapter 16 as the earliest development, but as a progressive outgrowth of temple cleansing ceremonies. One reason for this conclusion is the introductory statement to the ordinances concerning the death of Aaron's sons and the forbiddance of Aaron to enter the holy place. The text seems to indicate that the sin of Nadab and Abihu warranted a special day that would stress both the holiness of God and personal cleansing.
Chapters 40-48 of Ezekiel are often viewed as the climate in which the Day of Atonement of Leviticus 16 could develop. The discussion of architectural plans and guilt offerings creates an atmosphere that honors the holiness of God who dwells in Israel's midst. Ezekiel 45:19-20 indicates two days a year in which the temple was to be cleansed, on the first day of the first and seventh months. These cleansing ordinances correspond closely with the rites of the high priest in Leviticus 16. Apparently the early form of an atonement day and the need for temple purification were combined to create a single holy day which honored the holiness of the God of Israel. Eventually this was celebrated on the tenth day of Tishri.
Thus the day of Atonement, as found in Leviticus 16, does not seem to have existed in the form it is presented to the reader. It evidently began as a response to the tragedy of Aaron's sons and was later fully developed in the priestly documents concerning temple cleansing.
Aside from the historical development of the day, it is the ritual described in Leviticus 16 that became the basis for celebration. There are two aspects of the day that are important: the requirements of the people and the rituals performed by the priest.
There are three requirements explained in 16:29-34. First, the day is to be celebrated annually making a yearly atonement for the people. Second, the day is to be a Sabbath, ceasing all work done by both Israelites and the foreigners who live among them. Third, it is a day in which they must deny themselves. The idea of denying one's self is often interpreted as a day of fasting. While the Leviticus text does not specify a fast, other passages in the scripture speak explicitly of denying or afflicting the soul as fasting (Ps 35:13; Isa 58:3, 5, 10).
Apart from general requirements for the people, the majority of the passage is concerned with the performance of ritual by the high priest. There were three separate procedures which made up the day: 1) The sacrifice for the priest; 2) The sacrifice for the people; and 3) The ceremony of the scapegoat.
The requirement for the priest and his household was a young bull (Lev 16:6). The animal was placed in the courtyard where slaughter usually took place. The priest would lay his hands upon the head of the animal and confess his sins and that of his household. At the end of this confession was a pronunciation containing the sacred name. Taking the blood from the slain bull and an incense censor the priest would enter the sanctuary to sprinkle the mercy seat seven times in order to cover the sins of the priests. He would then retreat to the courtyard to prepare the offering for the people.
The requirement for the people was one of two goats chosen by lot (Lev 16:8-10). The chosen goat was slaughtered and its blood carried into the sanctuary by the priest to sprinkle the ark seven times. He would then return and exchange the goat's blood for the bull's and sprinkle the veil of the holy place seven times, then again with the goat's blood. Finally, he would combine both animals’ blood and anoint the horns of the altar of incense. He would then pour the rest out at the base of the altar of burnt offering. At the end of this ritual the sanctuary and its implements were atoned from man's sinfulness.
The third phase was the ritual of the scapegoat. This was intended to symbolize the removal of the sin of Israel from the camp. After confessing the sins of the people upon the animal's head, the priest turned the animal over to a man who was responsible for leading it into the wilderness (Lev 16:20-22). In later periods stations were set up to watch the progress of the goat and to report when it had reached the wilderness. Those who had gathered also participated by yelling at the goat and pulling at its wool to help drive it away. At the end of the route there was a cliff. According to legend, the attendant would tie a scarlet thread around the animal’s neck and push it over the cliff. The legend further states that, a scarlet thread hanging in the sanctuary would turn white at the moment the goat perished. A sign that the people were cleansed from their sins (M. Yoma 6.8; cf. Isa 1:18).
The day was completed by the priest taking a change of gold clothing in place of his white linen. He would then officiate over a final burnt offering in which the fat from the bull and goat sacrifice was used. The remaining carcass of the animals were taken outside the camp to be burned (Lev 16:23-28).