Leviticus 23.26-32 gives us the commands concerning the day of Yom Kippur. The name, of course, means Day of Atonement. It is considered to be the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. It was on this day that once a year substitutionary sacrifice was made by the High Priest upon the mercy seat. Blood atonement was made for the High Priest first and then for the people.
Leviticus 16 actually gives us the details of what happens on that day. There are two goats that are offered as part of the sacrifice. One goat called chatat, from the Hebrew word for sin, was slain as a blood sacrifice for the atonement of the nation of Israel. The second goat was called Azalel or scapegoat. The priest would lay his hands on this goat, confess the sins of the people and release it into the wilderness. This symbolized the taking away of the sins of Israel.
Obviously the theme of this holiday is vicarious sacrifice. One takes the place of another. Forgiveness and atonement came through the goats that were sacrificed. It was G-d’s provision for His people.
Since the destruction of the Temple, Judaism has not observed this day in accordance with Scriptures. No sacrifices are made. The rabbis of the first century made substitutions for the lack of being able to offer a sacrifice. Therefore, Rabbinic Judaism says that atonement is made through Tefilah – prayer, Teshuvah – repentance, and Tzedakah – charity. Yet, if one looks closely at the practices and prayers of this day, the theme of atonement through sacrifice is definitely there.
This holiday is observed more in the synagogue than at home. We have just finished the ten days of Awe in Hebrew Yomim No’arim. These days which we will enter into this week are to be days of self-examination. We are to reflect on how we can better our relationship with G-d and with our fellow man.
Leviticus 23 tells us that we are to humble ourselves on this day, i.e. fasting. Before sundown when the fast is about to begin, a festive meal is prepared. These meals are similar to those of other holidays. Yom Kippur begins and so does the fast. Traditionally, we are to go without food and water. The rabbis tell us that the fast is only for healthy adults over the age of 13.
The fast involves five prohibitions:
After the meal, we gather together for our Erev Yom Kippur service. Traditionally, Kol Nidre, “All Vows” is prayed in this evening service. The prayer is a special cantorial piece asking G-d to forgive us of any vows that have been taken inappropriately. This came out of the time of the Middle Ages when Jewish people were forced to convert. At Beth Emanuel we do a Messianic version of the Kol Nidre.
On Yom Kippur morning, we continue our observance by gathering together again at the synagogue. The mood and theme of the day are all reflective of the need for atonement of sins. Traditionally, this is the time when one’s fate for the next year is sealed and fervent prayers request that one’s name be written in the Book of Life for one more year. As believers in Yeshua the Messiah, we know our names are written in the Book of Life because of His atonement for our sins. So we do not celebrate Yom Kippur wondering what will happen to us. Will our names be written or will they not be written in the Book of Life?
It is blood alone that atones for sin and Yeshua shed His blood on behalf of mankind. Our good deeds cannot save us. G-d requires a blood sacrifice and He provided that for all who would accept it. Just as ancient Israel had to offer the animal sacrifice for atonement to take place, we must personally accept who Yeshua is and what He did. There is no other way give in the Tenach for atonement to take place.
There is also a practice known as kapparot – expiations, which continues to this day in Hassidic and Sephardic communities. A chicken is waved over one’s head while chanting a prayer. This custom is symbolic of the transferring of sins to the chicken, which is then slaughtered in place of the individual. This can be done any time between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur but the preferred time is early on Yom Kippur morning. Many communities use money instead of a chicken.
This is the prayer that is said: “This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken will go to its death (or, if using money, “this money will go to charity”) while I will enter and proceed to a good long life, and peace.”
On Yom Kippur the following prayers are said:
Confession (Vidui): The ritual of Yom Kippur is replete with petitions for the forgiveness for sins. These are listed as a series of misdeeds and are recited by both the individual and the community. The sins are listed in the plural implying that Jews are responsible for one another. As each of the wrongdoings is recited, members of the congregation beat their hearts to emphasize the more “subjective” side of the sin. Avodah: “Recalling the Temple Service.” This is part of the additional service (Mussaf) and is a record of the impressive ritual of Temple days when the High Priest alone entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. The descriptions of this elaborate ceremony and of the subsequent exaltation of the people offer a rare insight into the poignant spirit of the day. At certain points in this recitation, the congregation prostrate themselves in total submission to God.
The Book of Jonah: The Book of Jonah is read during the Minchah (afternoon) service on Yom Kippur. It tells the story of the prophet Jonah who lived c. 750 BCE. It is read to show the power of repentance. G-d held back judgment when the people of Ninevah repented.
The day is closed with the Neilah service. This represents the closing of the gates. The final blast of the Shofar is sounded. The fast is broken with the taste of the sweet challah and the sweet honey cake symbolizing the sweet new year Jewish people hope to have. As Messianic believers, we are confident as we end our observance of this day that our sins are atoned for because Yeshua paid the price. “Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, who has secured our salvation in Yeshua the Messiah!”