The Jewish Feasts: Part 12, Atonement

Yom Kippur, not Passover, is the most important of the Jewish Feasts!

The Days of Awe are the most somber period of the Jewish Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the capstone of the Days of Awe. The correct form of the Feast name is Yom HaKippurim, (the Day of Coverings); but Yom Kippur is the more common name.

I have heard it said many times that Passover is the most important Jewish Feast. That is simply not true. With no Temple to worship in, Passover has certainly become the most well known and faithfully celebrated of the Feasts, but for sheer spiritual impact, Yom Kippur is by far the most vital. it is a recognition of personal and national sin, and a plea for salvation.

 Christians celebrate Easter as a salvation event, and rightly so, because Easter celebrates specifically the time and actuality of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. Jews celebrate Passover at roughly the same time as Easter, but not at all as a salvation event. As stated in earlier parts of this series, Passover is a celebration of redemption from slavery and resurrection as a people.

©Ron Thompson 2020

 In AD 325, Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea officially severed Easter from Passover. This was unfortunately done for explicitly anti-Semitic reasons; however, given the salvation emphasis placed on Easter by non-Jews, it was probably best to do so.

Recall that the ten Days of Awe are all about repentance and reconciliation. On the final day, on Yom Kippur, one’s deeds will be judged by God, and his or her state of salvation determined for the coming year. As you can see from Leviticus 23, above, the day is a Sabbath. Not only that, but the phrases “you are to deny yourselves” (stated twice) and “Anyone who does not deny himself on that day is to be cut off from his people” are regarded as a command to fast, on pain of excommunication. The Hebrew terms used here literally mean to “humble, or afflict one’s soul”. Traditionally they are taken to include fasting, abstinence from sex, and refraining from personal grooming. Yom Kippur is the only Biblically mandated fast day, though rabbinic Judaism does recognize certain other somber days as fast days, and Zechariah 8:19 mentions several months when ancient fasts were practiced.

The Temple Precincts

The ritual of Yom Kippur for Tabernacle observance is described in more detail in Leviticus 16. It is quite complicated. More so in Temple days, and still more after the addition of Oral Traditions. There are very strict and detailed regulations regarding the attire of the High Priest (Heb. Cohen HaGadol), his multiple cleansings, and who and at what times other people could enter the Temple precincts. The actual Temple/Tabernacle observance included the following, in brief:

  • The High Priest would cast lots over two male goats: one, designated as Chatat, was to be sacrificed; the other was to set aside “for Azazel”; this one would be “brought before the people” so that their sins would symbolically be laid upon him.
  • The Priest would sacrifice a young bull to atone for, or “cover”, his own sin and that of his household, and the sacrificial goat, to atone for the sins of the people.
  • Under smoke from incense, blood from these sacrifices was to be sprinkled, with his finger, inside the Holy of Holies, on the Mercy Seat, the front of the Ark, and “toward the east”, that is, between the Ark and the Veil.
  • Outside the Holy of Holies, blood was also to be sprinkled on the Horns of the Altar.
  • Having completed these actions, the High Priest was to lay his hands on the head of the live goat and “confess over it all the transgressions, crimes and sins of the people of Isra’el” (CJB). This, the “Scapegoat” now carrying all the sins of the people, was then to be led out of the city to an uninhabited area about 7 miles away, by a fit man appointed to the task. Ostensibly, this goat was to be released, but in practice, it was usually pushed off a cliff to prevent it from wandering back with the people’s sins. Accomplishment of this task was then signaled back to the Temple.
  • The bullock and the goat were then cut open; the fat and fatty organs were burned on the altar, and the rest of the carcass taken out and burned (on the Mount of Olives in Temple times).
  • The High Priest would then read from Torah in the Court of Prayer (aka, the Court of women).
  • Next, the Priest would sacrifice his ram, the ram for the people and seven additional rams.
  • Finally, he would remove the incense pan and ladle from the Holy of Holies.

For a really good description of the Temple ritual, derived from rabbinical documents, refer to this excellent article by a knowledgeable rabbi: The Service of the High Priest

Important Concepts

  • As seen previously, the Passover Lamb or Kid was a fellowship offering, to be killed and shared as a meal between friends or family.
  • The bull and goat sacrificed on Yom Kippur were sin offerings. As such, they could atone for (temporarily cover over), but not permanently remove, the sins of the people. Sin offerings had to be completely burned, not eaten. You don’t want to re-ingest your sins!
  • The rams were burnt offerings. They were consumed completely in fire, with the rising smoke symbolizing righteous prayer and thanksgiving.
  • The goat for Azazel was symbolically innocent, vicariously taking on itself the sins of the people and carrying them away. Its killing was not a sacrifice; it was merely a disposal.

Note especially: Hebrews 9:22 says that,according to the Torah, almost everything is purified with blood (CJB, emphasis mine). The context is speaking specifically about ritual vessels and implements, but the same is true with people. The Torah provides atonement through sacrifice for “unintentional sin”, i.e., for sins committed thoughtlessly, accidentally, negligently, or perhaps even in passion. No place in the entire Bible do we ever find a sacrifice for intentional disobedience or rebellion against God! There is no atonement for intentional sin! The theme of Yom Kippur is “regeneration”, that is, salvation. So how is any human being saved? Under Torah, it is by God’s grace, through faith–as pictured in the Scapegoat. Under the New Covenant, by God’s grace, through faith–as delivered for all times past or future by Jesus, the antitype of the Scapegoat!

Table of Contents: The Jewish Feasts
Start of Series: The Jewish Feasts: Part 1, Chapter Introduction
Previous in Series: The Jewish Feasts: Part 11, Trumpets
Next in Series: The Jewish Feasts: Part 13, Yom Kippur Factoids

Author: Ron Thompson

Retired President of R. L Thompson Engineering, Inc.

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