The Old Testament Day of Atonement, also known as Yom Kippur, is the holiest day of the Jewish year. It is the culmination of the High Holy Days which began ten days earlier with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Collectively, the full ten days is referred to as the “Days of Awe.” In Jewish teaching, Yom Kippur marks the final opportunity to repent before God, before the Book of Life is sealed for another year.1 The idea behind Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) was to be a day of forgiveness for past sins. According to the History Channel, modern Jews continue to honor the day, as they did not accept Jesus as their messiah and that:
Jews are encouraged to make amends and ask forgiveness for sins committed during the past year. The holiday is observed with a 25-hour fast and a special religious service. Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are known as Judaism’s “High Holy Days.”
The observance of Yom Kippur comes on the tenth day after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (the “Start of the Year”). These holidays could be celebrated as early as September, but usually fall in the months of October or November on our western calendar, which is known as Tishrei on the Jewish calendar. For 2022, Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Tuesday October 4 and runs through sundown on October 5.
A question that often comes up from non-Jews concerns the inconsistent dates for Jewish holy days. On our western Gregorian calendar holidays such as Christmas fall on the same date every year, while Jewish (and Muslim) holidays move around the calendar. The reason is that Jews and Muslims base their calendar on a lunar cycle, as opposed to the solar calendar used by Gentiles.
The calendars used by Jews and Muslims are shorter than our solar based, western calendar. The Hebrew lunar year is about 11 days shorter than the solar year, whereas the Muslim calendar is about 12 days shorter. Jews use a 19-year Metonic cycle to bring their calendar into line with the solar year, with the addition of an intercalary month every two or three years (similar idea to leap year), for a total of seven times per 19 years.2
Leviticus 16 is the first we see of the Day of Atonement. The text notes it was after the deaths of Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, who met their demise when they tried to offer strange fire before the Lord. It is interesting to note that the instructions for Yom Kippur, the day to atone for the previous year’s sins, come on the heals of guidelines concerning purity and impurity in chapter 15. Now in chapter 16 the holiest day of the year is discussed and the Lord makes it clear that Aaron is not to approach the mercy seat based on his own schedule: “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at just any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat which is on the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud above the mercy seat” (Lev. 16:2).
For Christians, there is a parallel as Coffman points out:
In his office as High priest, Aaron was a type of the Son of God himself, our Great High Priest. Of course, there were inevitably some great dissimilarities. Jesus had no need to offer sacrifices for himself, as did Aaron, but in other particulars there is an amazing correspondence.3
Anyone who has ever flown on a commercial airliner knows the safety briefing that flight attendants give to passengers as the aircraft is taxiing out for takeoff. In the event of a drop of cabin air pressure, oxygen masks will deploy until the plane can get to a lower altitude. Part of the instructions concerning the potential use of that mask include, “If you are traveling with someone needing assistance, put on your mask first, then help anyone needing help.” The concept of putting on your own mask first is seen in the fact that Aaron and the priests had to make atonement for their own sins, as well as the sins of their respective families, before offering atonement for the sins of the nation. The Lord required a blemish free bull for the offering from the priestly families. The ritual at this grand sacrifice during the time of the second Temple was most solemn and impressive.4
Leviticus 16:3-5 shows the importance of atonement for sins. Aaron was instructed to bathe and dress in special clothes before entering the Holy Place. Once attired in his unique linen garments, he took from the congregation two male goats for a sin offering and one ram for a burnt offering. The bull was offered first to cover Aaron and his house’s sins. He then set the two goats before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. Two lots were set over the goats and the goat upon which the lot fell for the Lord was used as a sin offering for the people. The other goat received the lot to have the sins of the people placed on it and then was sent out of the camp into the wilderness and given a name which has worked its way into our English vernacular: scapegoat.5
For modern Jews, the Day of Atonement is still important. In 1973, Egypt and Syria chose Yom Kippur as the date to launch the Yom Kippur War — also known as the fourth Arab-Israeli War — against Israel because they knew many Israelis (including military units) would not be on duty or would have reduced manpower so that personnel could spend the holiday with family. This explains why Israel was caught off guard and was in desperate straits before they were able to regroup and push back the Egyptians and Syrians.
Since the destruction of the temple in AD 70 Judaism has undergone some changes. With the loss of the temple, animal sacrifices ceased. In discussing how Judaism is practiced in more modern times, I talk about the subject with Rabbi Misha BenDavid, who is of the Universalist branch of Judaism. (He also happens to be my brother, but that is another article for another issue.) BenDavid stated that much of modern Judaism stems from Rabbinical Judaism which was established in the eighth century AD. Rabbinical Jews of that time period thought that the Jewish faith needed a time of atonement and reflection and that the Rosh Hashana-Yom Kippur time frame would be the best time for such observances. As a result, Rabbinical Judaism brought in many of the observances and elaborated on many things Jews were already doing but gave more meaning to the observances.
Like ancient times, Yom Kippur is marked more by what one does not do, more so than what one does. For the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, the expectation is basically that observers will do nothing pleasurable, including eating, sports, or entertainment. Even drinking water might be stopped for the day. Married couples will abstain from sex during Yom Kippur and many will take the day off from work, which can create problems for those who do not observe the holiday. One of the most notable issues with someone taking off for Yom Kippur was in Game 1 of the 1965 World Series when Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Sandy Koufax refused to play. As the pennant race between the Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants tightened coming down the stretch, Koufax was asked about the potential conflict between his faith and his game in an October 1 Interview (Yom Kippur was October 5 that year):
From what I’ve been told, there are no dispensations for this particular day. But then I haven’t really talked about it to a rabbi. If we sew up the pennant, I plan to take it up and find out the proceedings. If I’m told it isn’t proper to pitch, then I won’t because I wouldn’t feel right about it.6
Koufax had pretty well set the precedent for his actions when in April 1959 he asked to be relieved of his starting duties because a game coincided with the start of Passover. When one considers that Yom Kippur is for mourning and reflection, the actions of Koufax and others makes sense. After all, it is hard to do any meaningful reflection when standing on a pitcher’s mound in front of almost 48,000 fans.
In some ways, the traditions and practices associated with the Days of Awe almost resemble an accountant closing out the books for the year that is about to end and opening the records for the new year about to commence. At Rosh Hashanah, the books are opened and sins are confessed and atoned for. Not just sins against God, but sins against people are also included in the repentance, reflection and atonement. Then on Yom Kippur, the books are closed out for the previous year and sealed so that everyone starts the new year with a clean slate.
Modern Judaism features as many as five services starting at sundown the day before Yom Kippur, each one with its own purpose. Not all Jews will attend all services, but some do. Synagogues whose attendance is low to nonexistent throughout the year will see their attendance spike on Yom Kippur, much like some churches see attendance spikes on Easter or Christmas. So large are some of the spikes in attendance, some synagogues or schulls sell tickets for attendees and participants pay for admission.
One thing that occurred to me in writing this article is that despite the importance of Yom Kippur, outside Leviticus 16 there is no reference to it, not even in the life of Jesus. We have records of Jesus observing the Feast of the Tabernacle (John 7:2ff) and Passover (John 21) and at least one reference to Passover in Acts 12:4 (in the Old King James Version it is erroneously translated “Easter”). But Yom Kippur? Not a hint of it. Yet even today, it is the largest single day attended holy day in Judaism. Interesting, is it not?
3Coffman’s Bible Commentary, Copyright © 1971-1993 by ACU Press, Abilene Christian University. All rights reserved.