Known in Hebrew as yôm (ha)kippūr(îm), the Day of Atonement is the most solemn festival in the Jewish religious calendar. It is celebrated on the tenth day of the seventh month, Tishri (= September/October). The name is found in Leviticus 23.27–28; 25.9 and is explained in Leviticus 16.30: “for on that day the Lord will make atonement (yĕkappēr) for you to purify you from all your sins.” Leviticus 16 describes the elaborate rites performed by the high priest in the Temple at Jerusalem. The priest drew lots between two goats, one of which was presented as a sin offering to God, and the other dispatched to Azazel in the wilderness. It was only on this day that the high priest entered the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the Temple enclosure in which the ark of the covenant was situated. He would enter bearing incense whose fragrance symbolized God's forgiveness of the sins of Israel.

In antiquity as well as today Yom Kippur was considered a festival of spiritual accounting. Leviticus 16.29, 31 ordains that “you shall afflict yourselves.” This term was interpreted to signify a day of fasting when all food and drink were avoided. Tradition has added to these abstentions other deprivations, such as refraining from bathing, the use of cosmetics, and sexual intercourse. The people spend the day within the synagogue reciting and chanting a specially composed liturgy, the core of which includes confessional prayers, thanksgiving hymns, and petitions to God for favor in the coming year. According to Leviticus 25.9–10, Yom Kippur was the day of the jubilee year (i.e., the fiftieth year) when slaves were freed, debts canceled, and land returned to its original owners. This aspect of the ancient festival is preserved in the modern collection of pledge contributions for the assistance of those in need.

Jewish tradition regards Yom Kippur as a day of judgment. On this day God passes judgment on the past deeds of every individual and decrees who shall live and who shall die during the ensuing year. The judgment process actually begins ten days before Yom Kippur, on the first day of Tishri, or Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and reaches its culmination on Yom Kippur.

Even after the early Christians ceased to observe the day of fasting, some of the symbolism of Yom Kippur was retained in certain formulations. Note, for example, such New Testament expressions as “the blood of Christ” or “the day of judgment,” as well as the parallel made in Hebrews 9.1–14.

See also Feasts and Festivals


Ben Zion Wacholder