Yom Kippur (Yom Ha-Kippurim, Shabbat Shabbaton, Sabbath of Solemn Rest, Sabbath of Sabbaths, or the Day of Atonement) is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and occurs on Tishri 10 (the 10th day of the seventh month on the Biblical Israelite calendar). It is a Sabbath day dedicated to the affliction of one’s soul and atonement for the various sins one has committed within the past year.
While Jewish tradition requires that sins against another person be reconciled if possible (or reconciliation sincerely sought to the best of one’s abilities; reconciliation is a miracle of God, and no matter the state of your own heart and your genuine desire to resolve matters, one cannot truly reconcile if another party is unrepentant or unwilling to humble one’s self enough to participate), forgiveness among mere mortals should be completed before Yom Kippur, not on Yom Kippur itself, with the aforementioned Days of Awe dedicated to such a purpose.
As the day when the High Priest of Israel atoned for Israel’s collective sins via blood sacrifice, Yom Kippur is the final opportunity to sincerely repent and make amends with God before judgment is sealed, both individually as a sinner who has fallen short of the Grace of God and collectively as a faithful people—for on this day He will forgive you, purify you, and cleanse you from all your sins before God.
Though Yom Kippur is regarded as a day of high solemnity, there are other sentiments rippling through the day: joy in the presence of the Lord on this particular day; hope and confidence that God will hear our cries of repentance and forgive our sins; lingering introspection and prayer that our records may be fully cleansed before the Neilah service; and peace that God will be faithful to our cries for repentance and indeed provide a provision for atonement. The basis of atonement dates back to the Old Covenant Day of Atonement.
The commandments contained in the Ark of the Covenant illustrate how far mankind has fallen short of the mark God has for us. Leviticus 16 best explains the Jewish understanding of the Day of Atonement, as they would seek atonement by bringing two sacrificial animals into the Most Holy Place of the Tabernacle.
As one rabbi explained, "After sacrificing on the priest’s own behalf, he would then sacrifice one animal in the temple as the sin offering. The second was named Azazel, or scapegoat. The priest would symbolically lay the sins of the people on the head of the goat and lead it outside of the camp, representing the sins of the people being taken away. This animal sacrifice would occur once a year and was always a temporal covering of sin. Year after year, the Israelites repeated this tradition to ensure sins were covered and names were sealed in the Book of Life."
This concept then evolved prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when the high priest conducted not merely the sprinkling of animal blood but a much more involved sacrificial ceremony that included confessing not only his own sins but the sins of the priests and all of Israel. The High Priest was clothed in white linen and entered the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood. This ceremony concluded with a goat (symbolic of the sins of all of Israel) being killed in the wilderness. All of this eventually evolved into the Yom Kippur ceremonies that the Jewish people hold dear to their faith today.
Relevant Bible verses in analyzing Yom Kippur and its related themes include Leviticus 16:3-5, Leviticus 16:8-10, Leviticus 16:18-22, Leviticus 16:29-31, Leviticus 23:27-32, Exodus 10:10, Exodus 30:10, Psalm 103:12, Isaiah 1:18, Isaiah 53:6-11, Hebrews 9:12-14, Hebrews 9:23-28, 2 Corinthians 5:21, 1 Peter 2:24, Colossians 2:14, Acts 27:9, Hebrews 9–10, Hebrews 9–10, Hebrews 13:11–13, Jeremiah 31:34, Romans 6:23, Isaiah 43:25, Isaiah 58:3-6, Numbers 29:7–11, Psalm 32, Isaiah 53, Jonah, Acts 27:9, Romans 5, 1 Peter 1:2, 1 Peter 2:24, and 1 John 2.
The day before Yom Kippur includes its own traditions in preparation for fasting: the kaparot service in the very early morning hours, requesting and receiving a piece of honey cake (being granted the piece of honey cake being symbolic of God granting a sweet new year ahead), a meal in the early afternoon and another meal right before the fast, possible immersion in a mikvah on this day, extra charity given during the afternoon services, blessing of the children with the priestly blessing after the second meal but before the fast officially begins, and the lighting of holiday candles.
Yom Kippur itself is largely spent at the synagogue praying for God’s forgiveness for any residual sins not already forgiven, with morning services, an opportunity to go home perhaps for a nap, and then returning to the synagogue for evening services, which last until the tekiah gedolah at nightfall. Once Yom Kippur concludes, it will not be uncommon to encounter joyful singing and dancing among congregants. Then preparations began for Sukkot five days later.
Morning prayer services often include reading several passages from the Torah. In the afternoon service, it is customary to read the Book of Jonah in its entirety. Five prayer services are traditionally incorporated into Yom Kippur observances: Maariv (on Erev Yom Kippur, may include the Kol Nidre), Shacharit (morning prayer service, includes the Yizkor memorial service and passages from the Book of Leviticus), Musaf (a study of the Yom Kippur temple service), Minchah (a reading of the Book of Jonah often in its entirety), and Neilah (the closing of the Heavenly Gates service at sundown).
In some congregations, evening services begin with the cantor chanting Kol Nidre and reciting other prayers from the Machzor before concluding with the approximately one-hour-long Neilah tradition. During the Neilah, the Ark is opened, and congregants will generally stand, as the Neilah service is considered symbolically the closing of the gates of heaven, and this time that the Ark is open is one’s final opportunity to reconcile one’s record with God before His holy judgment is pronounced upon each one of us. It would not be uncommon to hear refrains from the Shema: "Hear, O Israel, God is our Lord; God is one."
Finally, the service ends with a tekiah gedolah—the long blast of the shofar—and a proclamation to "next year in Jerusalem," ending Yom Kippur and the fasting. Singing and dancing to lively music (e.g., Napoleon’s March) is not uncommon as congregants rejoice at the concept of living the upcoming year in a holy and righteous manner before God and before one another.
After a day of fasting, a festive meal with friends and family would only be natural, and many use this occasion to start planning how to build their sukkah in time for Sukkot.
No work is performed on Yom Kippur, as observants refrain from food, beverages, and even water on this day. The fast lasts 25 hours, beginning on Erev Yom Kippur and concluding at sundown on Yom Kippur, when the stars first sparkle in the night sky.
There are exceptions for those whose health does not permit them to safely fast, and exceptions are granted to children under age 9 and women giving birth who are not permitted to fast even if they desire to participate in the tradition. There are other exceptions for those who may have recently given birth, even if they were not actively giving birth at the time, and the details of such religious advice are to be a matter between the woman, her physician, and her rabbi.
While this fast is fairly well known, even outside the Jewish community, the Talmud provides additional prohibitions on washing, bathing, wearing cosmetics or leather shoes, or participating in sexual relations.
Based on Isaiah 1:18, it is traditional to wear white on Yom Kippur, symbolic of purity and God’s promises that our sins shall be made white as snow. Sometimes religiously observant men will wear white robes known as kittel; the rabbi will almost always wear a Kittel, which is traditionally worn when the dead are buried and/or on a wedding day, but sometimes other congregants will participate in the tradition as well. Meanwhile, others may simply wear whatever white clothes they may own and will wear rubber sneakers rather than leather shoes in remembrance of the days when atonement was covered via animal sacrifice. Women may wear fancy dresses and canvas shoes.
Some rabbis also cite the importance of wearing white because when Israel approaches the Throne of God, it will not be in sackcloth and ashes but with people adorned in white, a color of purity, repentant of their sins, and confident in their Lord to pardon them of their sins.
One tradition found in certain rabbinical writings is that on Yom Kippur, a Cohen (Jewish priest) will tie a scarlet cloth to a horn of the Azalel. When the sacrifice was deemed fully acceptable to God, the scarlet cloth would become white.
We see a parallel in the Book of Revelation regarding those whose names are inscribed in the Book of Life wearing white: "He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life, but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels" (Revelation 3:5).
Azalel and Yeshua, Our Messiah
"He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place, and the man shall release it in the wilderness." (Leviticus 16:21–22)
On Yom Kippur, the High Priest offered one goal as a sacrifice and one as the Azalel (scapegoat). Azazel is a Hebrew noun that seems to best translate as "dismissal" or "entire removal." The symbolism of the High Priest laying his hands on the head of the live goat and confessing the sins of Israel would parallel the themes of Yom Kippur and the individual and collective sins being renounced. The goat would be left to perish in the wilderness, symbolic of carrying the burden of Israel’s sins into the barren wilderness.
There are similarities between this concept and Isaiah 53, which the rabbis of centuries past viewed as a Messianic prophecy yet a prophecy of a Messiah yet to come and which is often omitted from Shabbat readings. "And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. For He shall bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:6, 11). Some rabbis have attempted to explain away what points to a description that can fit only one person in history—Yeshua our Messiah—as text that speaks more broadly to the nation of Israel, not the Messiah.
Not every rabbi throughout history has embraced this interpretation, however. In the 14th century, Rabbi Moshe Kohen ibn Crispin wrote in a religious commentary, "[In contrast to those] having inclined after the stubbornness of their own hearts and their own opinion, I am pleased to interpret the parasha [Isaiah 53] in accordance with the teachings of our rabbis, of the King Messiah... and adhere to the literal sense. Thus I shall be free from forced and far-fetched interpretations of which others are guilty."
Other rabbis, Jewish preachers, and Bible commentators have also affirmed that Isaiah 53 refers to a Messiah, not the nation of Israel, though the nation of Israel has in a sense suffered as an Azazel "scapegoat" for nations throughout the centuries and in the modern geopolitical world.
As the Jews have turned a blind eye to acknowledging their Messiah, salvation in Yeshua has been extended to the gentiles. "For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in... and so all Israel shall be saved." (Romans 11:25–27)
Rabbis throughout the centuries have acknowledged the reality that all have sinned and none are righteous on their own accord. "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:20). "Sins overwhelmed me, but You atoned for our transgressions" (Psalm 65:3). Without the shedding of blood, which is needed to purify sins, there is no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22).
There is not another Holy Day that points more clearly to the atonement that can only be fulfilled through faith in Israel’s Messiah, Yeshua HaMashiach, and His atonement on behalf of all of us on a rugged old cross. "And in Him we live, move, and have our being (Acts 17:28)—not through rituals on earth. As Yeshua came as High Priest and poured His blood in the Holy of Holies in Heaven for all of mankind, He extends forgiveness to each of us who confesses, repents, and turns from our wicked ways.
By God’s grace, we should extend radical forgiveness to those who have transgressed against us. Yom Kippur is a beautiful opportunity to extend grace and forgiveness to others with whom you desire to heal a broken relationship. Extending grace and forgiveness is not natural for a carnal human being who seeks their own definition of vengeance, and reconciliation is a divine mercy that can only be accomplished through the Grace of God.
There is a story in the Talmud where Yohanan ben Zakkai’s disciples asked him this question while he was on his deathbed: "Rabbi, you are the light of Israel, the pillar on which we lean, the hammer that crushes all heresy. Why should you weep?" Ben Zakkai’s response to his disciples is that he was afraid of dying because he was not sure if his soul was right with God and whether his eternity would be spent in Heaven or hell.
Despite the beautiful traditions of the Jewish religion, there was no assurance for this precious rabbi who had dedicated his life to the teachings of the Torah and yet had missed out on God’s whole plan of salvation through the Jewish Messiah, "the Lamb of God who taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29) and who fulfills God’s sacrifice of atonement (Romans 3:25) whose blood covers all sin (1 John 1:7). The blood of bulls and goats cannot remove sin from our records so that we can stand unblemished before our Creator; only the Blood of our Messiah could fulfill such redemption as He took on the punishment that we fully deserve. His body and His blood are the kapparah (atonement) and korban (sacrificial offering) for the sins of mankind.
While forgiveness and reconciliation of sins on earth and before God are important, God has reconciled the world to Himself in Yeshua (2 Corinthians 5:19) and paid for our atonement once and for all (Hebrews 9:12) through the life, death, resurrection, love, mercy, and forgiveness that can only be fulfilled through following the commandments and keeping the testimony of Yeshua, our Messiah, our High Priest, and our Sacrificial Lamb, who has reconciled us as one with our Heavenly Father.