The day of atonement, Yom Kippur, is the annual holiday on which the high priest and Israel confessed their sins and, with the sanctuary and altar, were cleansed. Leviticus 23.26–32 dates it to the tenth day of the seventh month, although it was to be observed from the evening of the ninth day to the evening of the tenth (Lv. 23.32). The holiday requires self-denial or fasting and fire offerings as part of the process of making atonement. Numbers 29.7–11 sets forth the same laws but lists in detail the sacrifices (whole burnt offerings) that were to be presented on the day. Ezekiel dates some cleansing aspects of the day of atonement to the first month of the year (Ezek. 45.18–20; but see 40.1). Exodus 30.10 contains a command that Aaron perform the rite of atonement on the altar one day each year, but Leviticus 16 offers the fullest explanation of what was to be done on the day of atonement. Aaron, presented as the first high priest, enters the most sacred part of the sanctuary in his holy attire on this day alone. There he sacrifices a bull as a sin offering for himself and his house (Lv. 16.2–5, 11–14) and takes two goats, and casts lots over them, with one being assigned to the Lord, the other to Azazel (Lv. 16.6–10). Aaron sacrifices the Lord's goat as a sin offering for the people and also makes atonement with its blood for the altar and the sanctuary, which requires cleansing because of the people's uncleanness (Lv. 16.15–19). Aaron then presents the live goat (the scapegoat), and after confessing the people's sins over it and symbolically placing them on it, he sends it away. “The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness” (Lv. 16.22). After changing his sacred vestments, Aaron again offers an atoning sacrifice for himself and for the people (Lv. 16.23–25). The chapter also stipulates that the people are to afflict themselves (fast) and refrain from work completely (Lv. 16.29–31). Leviticus 25.9 says that a trumpet was to be sounded on the tenth day of the seventh month after a forty-nine-year period to announce the beginning of the jubilee or fiftieth year, thus suggesting that the tenth day of the seventh month may once have been considered the new year (cf. Ezek. 40.1).

It may be that Ben Sira describes the high priest Simon as he engaged in the rites of the day of atonement (Sir. 50.5–21), although the text does not explicitly identify the occasion. The magnificence of the high priest's garments and the splendid stateliness of the observances are stressed. Jubilees traces the origin of Yom Kippur to the time when Jacob mourned for Joseph, after he had received the false report that Joseph had been killed (Jub. 34.18–19). But the topic surfaces already in the section about the Flood in which, apparently building on the verb dyn (“to judge”) in Genesis 6.3, the writer declares that if the Israelites turn from their sins in a proper way once each year, they will be forgiven (Jub. 5.17–18; see Jub. 6.2 where Noah offers an atoning sacrifice). Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities 13.6 mentions the fast associated with the day. Philo deals with the day of atonement in Allegorical Interpretation II.52 (the sufferings placed on the scapegoat are the lot of the person who is fond of suffering), and The Special Laws I.72 (the high priest enters the most sacred area only once each year); I.186–188 (he calls it the fast observed by all and deals with the sacrifices, the goats, and purification); and II.193–203 (he deals with the more sober character of the day, the temperance and prayers involved, the fast after the harvest had been gathered in honor of the God who gave it, and the numerical significance of the fact that it fell on the tenth day of the seventh month). Josephus paraphrases the biblical material from Leviticus 16 as he surveys the festivals found in Numbers 28–29, but he does add a few other details such as the practice that the high priest paid for his own young bull (Jewish Antiquities 3.240–243).

Although there is no evidence for animal sacrifices at Qumran, and, consequently, atonement would have taken a different form (see 1QRule of the Community, 1QS iii.6–9), Yom Kippur does appear in several kinds of texts. [See Rule of the Community.] Temple Scrolla (11Q19 xxv.10–xxvii.10) presents the legislation from Leviticus (16.23, 27–32) and Numbers (29.7–11) but clarifies a few scriptural ambiguities. [See Temple Scroll.] For example, it specifies that three rams were to be offered, one as a burnt offering and two as sin offerings (one for the high priest and one for the people). It also gives the exact sequence of the offerings. Several of the calendrical texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls mention the day and name the priestly course that would be on duty during the festival in particular years (Calendrical Document A, 4Q320 4.iii.7, 4.iv.3, 4.v.6,; Calendrical Document Ba, 4Q321 2.ii.2, 2.ii.6; Rule of the Communitye, 4Q259, 7.2). The holiday also figures in a passage that provided one of the first clues that the Qumran group followed a different calendar from the one used for the Temple cult. [See Calendars and Mishmarot.] Pesher Habakkuk (1QpHab), where it comments on Habakkuk 2.15 (including the words “to gaze on their festivals” [reading mw῾dyhm rather than m῾wryhm (“their nakedness”) in the Masoretic Text]), relates the verse to a time when the Wicked Priest “pursued the Teacher of Righteousness to consume him with the ferocity of his anger in the place of his banishment, in festival time, during the rest of the day of atonement. [See Pesher Habakkuk.] He paraded in front of them, to consume them and make them fall on the day of fasting, the sabbath of their rest” (1QpHab xi.4–8). If the Wicked Priest was the high priest, the requirement of complete rest combined with his duties in the Temple would have prevented such an attack on the Teacher of Righteousness and his community if the two had observed Yom Kippur on the same date. [See Teacher of Righteousness; Wicked Priest.] Hence they probably used different calendars. The scroll Melchizedek (11Q13) refers to an eschatological day of atonement as the end of the tenth and apparently final jubilee when the sons of God and people of Melchizedek's lot will receive atonement during this year of grace for Melchizedek (11Q13 ii.7–9). [See Melchizedek.] Here the biblical association between the jubilee and the day of atonement is expressed in a new way (Leviticus 25.9 is quoted in 11Q13 ii.25). Words of Moses (1Q22 iii) contains Moses' instructions about the seventh year and also about the day of atonement (see 1Q22 iii.10–12 and iv.1–3). It should be added that the two surviving fragments of the Targum of Leviticus (4Q156) preserve verses from Leviticus 16 (frg. 1 = Lv. 16.12–15; frg. 2 = Lv. 16.18–21).

The festival, which is called “the Fast” in Acts 27.9, is a major theme in Hebrews 6–9 where the annual ceremonies through which the high priest makes atonement for his sins and those of the people are compared unfavorably with the once-for-all sacrifice of himself by Jesus, the high priest of the order of Melchizedek, the mediator of a new and better covenant. The writer asserts that by his self-sacrifice this sinless high priest of the heavenly sanctuary effected complete atonement for his people.

The Mishnah devotes tractate Yoma to the day of atonement. From it the reader learns much about the demanding preparations made by and for the high priest during the seven days prior to the holiday and the biblically based procedures he followed as he carried out the rites of atonement (especially in mishnahs 1, 3–7). The final section elaborates on the implications of the rules that one fast and refrain from work on Yom Kippur and on the sorts of sins that are purged or not purged by the rites.

[See also Festivals.]


  • Danby, Herbert. The Mishnah. Oxford, 1933. Tractate Yoma is translated on pp. 162–172.
  • Milgrom, Jacob. Leviticus 1–16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible, 3. New York, 1991. On pp. 1009–1084, he offers a thorough analysis of Leviticus 16.
  • Talmon, Shemaryahu. “Yom Hakkippurim in the Habakkuk Scroll.” Biblica 32 (1951), 549–563.
    Talmon first drew the correct calendrical conclusions from the dating of the Wicked Priest's attack on the Teacher of Righteousness to the day of atonement.
  • Wright, David P. “Day of Atonement.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6 vols., edited by David Noel Freedman, vol. 2, pp. 72–76. Garden City, N.Y., 1992.

James C. Vanderkam