Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)

(prepared for “Torah Foundations of our Faith” on Hebrew Nation Radio) [1]

yom kippurYom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is the traditional anniversary of Moshe appealing to HaShem for the forgiveness of Israel after the Golden Calf debacle. It is the one day a year that the sins of the nation (in a pre-Yeshua world) can be brought to HaShem by the High Priest for mass repentance and blanket forgiveness. It abrogates the sins of the past year.

I think it is interesting that the root of the word “kippur” (atonement) is first found in Scripture in the Flood account.  When the ark is coated with pitch both inside and out, that word pitch is kafor, and it comes from the same khaf-pey-resh root at the Kippur in Yom Kippur.   In both contexts, it refers to something that holds back G-d’s judgment from His people… whether in the form of the waters in the Noachian Deluge, or in the form of punishment for sin in the instance of Yom Kippur. [2]

Interestingly, “Nuchama,” in the Aramaic of the Peshitta, is used for the Resurrection. “Noach,” pronounced “Nuch” in Aramaic, thus corresponds to the meaning “resurrected,” i.e. the ultimate reward of faith in Yeshua.


cohen hagadol yom kippurThe High Priest did not wear his usual priestly vestments into the Holy of Holies. It has been suggested that the gold on the usual garment might remind HaShem of the golden calf incident  – not the thought we want to have between us and HaShem when seeking His forgiveness! The special Yom Kippur garment is white – representing purity. Just as Moshe ascended the Mount alone to ask HaShem’s forgiveness for Israel after the golden calf, so also the High Priest enters the Holy of Holies alone when HE seeks HaShem’s forgiveness for whatever sins Israel has committed since the previous year’s Yom Kippur. It is taught that Yom Kippur was the date of Moshe’s appeal to HaShem, and that is why Israel was given a special Divine audience on that particular day each year.

For one week prior to Yom Kippur, the High Priest must be sequestered from his family (just as a groom is sequestered from his bride for a full week before a Jewish wedding). He then had to immerse himself in ritual baptism before entering the Temple and wash his hands and feet an additional five times before entering the Temple to ensure his purity. There were five times this process would take place throughout the day – before each encounter with HaShem. This is because encountering HaShem would remind the priest of his failure to live completely holy, and he would re-immerse himself again in order to wash off any contaminating thought that may have entered his mind, making him unworthy of approaching his holy G-d.

The High Priest makes a sin offering (qorban chattat) of a flawless bull and confess his own sins and those of his household, and the sins of the rest of the priests. The bull must be his own, not purchased with “public funds.” After atoning for the priesthood’s sins, he can then offer a goat as a sacrifice for the sins of the nation.

He also symbolically lays the sins of the nation on the azazel goat – a second goat which is released into the desert to carry off the sins of the people. Some less reliable translations mistranslate this “scapegoat,” but it is not wrongly blamed for sin, as that translation would imply; it is an innocent animal which is given the honor of carrying off the sins of others. There is never any question that the goat is innocent; that is known by all. Animals do not have free will, and thus cannot be guilty of sin.

Note that the original command was NOT to send it over a cliff or in any other way to cause its death (as was the later practice); it was to be released into the desert alive (Leviticus 16:10). The rabbis of the Maccabbean era (about 186 BCE) wondered what would happen if the azazel wandered back into the camp, and so they ordered that it be run off a cliff – in violation of the instruction given by HaShem in the Torah.

A brief excursus on the term azazel would be appropriate here, as it has been interpreted in a variety of ways.  So, let’s venture down that path.  There are goat-demons mentioned in Torah (Wayyiqra 17:7)… which leads to an interpretation, bolstered by Enochian sci-fi, that the azazel is a goat-demon, like a sartyr of Greek mythology. It is important to bear in mind that the books of Enoch were never Scripture — not for the Jews and not the Gentile councils.  They represented the popular fiction of the day… like “Left Behind” or “Narnia.” This is the favorite reading of the SDA cult and the heretic Origen (“Contra Celsum,” vi. 43).  But, it is a fanciful reading and finds itself at disharmony with the p’shat (plain) reading of the Biblical witness.

The “antetype of Messiah” reading is popular in some circles as well.  This understanding is not found in any pre-Chrisitan commentaries, not showing up until Cyril of Alexandria, an Egyptian “church father.”  An early witness for this reading comes from the Coptic (Egyptian) text of the Disciple’s Prayer, ca. late 3rd or early 4th Century CE, when it makes its way into a Bible translation.  The Coptic reads, in some manuscripts, “kannenobe non evol” — which translates literally, “and carry our sins far away from us” — a deliberate wording intended to echo the azazel goat image of Yom Kippur.

In contrast to these supernatural interpretations, we find a tradition that is actually — may wonders never cease — rooted in a Jewish cutlural-historical context.  The interpretation of the term azazel referring to a certain cliff comes from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Yoma 67b; Sifra, Aḥare, ii. 2 & Targum Yer. Lev. xiv. 10… but these are admittedly late, since the original practice was to loose that goat (Wayyiqra 16:8-10).  Running it over a cliff would not come into play until many centuries later (prior to the first century, but well after Moshe’s generation), and it is absolutely not commanded in Torah.

Nachmanides understood the term “azazel” (עֲזָאזֵל) as a personification of sin… but not an actual demonic entity; and his teacher Maimonides (known as the Ramban) saw it as merely symbolic.  These views are more harmonious with the plain reading of the text.

La’azazel” is most likely intended to be read “for absolute removal,” given the immediate context, as this finds the closest correspondence to Wayyiqra 16:8-10.  This is the understanding that comes most closely in line with the p’shat reading of that passage.  In Jewish hermeneutics, the p’shat must undergird the remez, ‘drash, and sod.  None of these can conflict with the p’shat, or plain sense of the text… lest it all become nonsense.  Rabbi Berkowitz just stated the other day, and I agree with his analysis: that this second “goat [is] used as a proxy, upon which ‘sins’ were placed, and the goat then taken away. Much like Taschlich just the other day, just a physical demonstration of what Hashem does with our sins. Don’t build it into some stone to trip over, it’s not.”


is dressed a little differently from one sect of Judaism to the next.  Reform Jews wear a white shroud with no pockets on Yom Kippur as a reminder that we cannot carry our sins with us into heaven. This often inspires people to attempt to reconcile with HaShem as well as their fellow imagebearers… which, of course, is the traditional activity associated with the Yomim Nora’im (Days of Awe), in the midst of which we currently find ourselves situated.  Our status as imagebearers, in part, requires us to take part in “tikkun olam” (repairing this sinsick world), and that begins with repairing our broken relationships with each other and with HaShem.  This feature transcends sect and can be seen in virtually all of Jewish practice.

Elie WieselFrom our current position squarely in the midst of a season called the Days of Awe (or in Hebrew, the Yorim Nora’im).  Listen to the words of this prayer for the Days of Awe written by Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel. [3]


Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time. How long can we go on being angry?

More than 50 years have passed since the nightmare was lifted. Many things, good and less good, have since happened to those who survived it. They learned to build on ruins. Family life was recreated. Children were born, friendships struck. They learned to have faith in their surroundings, even in their fellow men and women. Gratitude has replaced bitterness in their hearts. No one is as capable of thankfulness as they are. Thankful to anyone willing to hear their tales and become their ally in the battle against apathy and forgetfulness. For them every moment is a grace.

…They no longer look at every passer-by with suspicion. Nor do they see a dagger in every hand.

Does this mean that the wounds in their soul have healed? They will never heal. As long as a spark of the flames of Auschwitz and Treblinka glows in their memory, so long will my joy be incomplete.

What about my faith in You, Master of the Universe?

I now realise I never lost it, not even over there, during the darkest hours of my life. I don’t know why I kept on whispering my daily prayers, and those ones reserved for the Sabbath, and for the holidays, but I did recite them, often with my father and, on Rosh Hashanah eve, with hundreds of inmates at Auschwitz. Was it because the prayers remained a link to the vanished world of my childhood?

But my faith was no longer pure. How could it be? It was filled with anguish rather than fervour, with perplexity more than piety. In the kingdom of eternal night, on the Days of Awe, which are the Days of Judgment, my traditional prayers were directed to you as well as against you, Master of the Universe. What hurt me more: your absence or your silence?

In my testimony I have written harsh words, burning words about Your role in our tragedy. I would not repeat them today. But I felt them then. I felt them in every cell of my being. Why did you allow if not enable the killer day after day, night after night to torment, kill and annihilate tens of thousands of Jewish children? Why were they abandoned by Your Creation? These thoughts were in no way destined to diminish the guilt of the guilty. Their established culpability is irrelevant to my “problem” with You, Master of the Universe. In my childhood I did not expect much from human beings. But I expected everything from You.

Where were You, God of Kindness, in Auschwitz? What was going on in heaven, at the celestial tribunal, while Your children were marked for humiliation, isolation and death only because they were Jewish?

These questions have been haunting me for more than five decades. You have vocal defenders, You know. Many theological answers were given me, such as: G-d is G-d. He alone knows what He is doing. One has no right to question Him or His ways.” Or: “Auschwitz was a punishment for European Jewry’s sins of assimilation and/or Zionism.” And: “Isn’t Israel the solution? Without Auschwitz, there would have been no Israel.”

I reject all these answers. Auschwitz must and will forever remain a question mark only: it can be conceived neither with G-d nor without G-d. At one point, I began wondering whether I was not unfair with you. After all, Auschwitz was not something that came down ready-made from heaven. It was conceived by men, implemented by men, staffed by men. And their aim was to destroy not only us but… You as well. Ought we not to think of Your pain, too? Watching Your children suffer at the hands of your other children, haven’t You also suffered?

As we Jews now enter the High Holidays again, preparing ourselves to pray for a year of peace and happiness for our people and all people, let us make up, Master of the Universe. In spite of everything that happened? Yes, in spite. Let us make up: for the child in me, it is unbearable to be divorced from you so long.

So ends his prayer.

Forgiveness is something we are called to administer regardless of whether or not our offenders have asked for it.  It is, I think, more for us, really, than for the offender.  I was assaulted 10 years ago… stabbed, beaten, and left for dead.  I had forgiven my assailants before I even left the hospital… but the police officers who saw me laying there bleeding in the 7-11 parking lot… looked right at me… and turned the other way, who thought it was more important to get donuts and coffee than to attend to a crime victim… it took much longer to forgive them.  I hate to admit it… but it took me nearly seven years to forgive their crimes of indifference… or maybe it was a hate crime on their part.  But, whatever it was… it festered within me and eroded away at me for way too long.  It certainly was not on par with what Elie Wiesel had to forgive… but I can testify after the fact that letting go of it brought me a sense of shalom, that was more freeing than I could have imagined.  I didn’t know what worship was until I had forgiven those police officers who had been derelict in their civic duty, leaving me to bleed out and die.

mishlachOne of the Hebrew words for freedom is mishlach.  At its root is the word shalach (to cast off).  When we cast off our grudges and vendettas… that is when we truly become free, in mind, body, and soul, to worship with our whole being, as we are commanded to in the Shema.

Sometimes it takes a power-purge to make sure all of our being can focus on HaShem.  To help us accomplish that purge, we generally fast all day (sunset to sunset) on Yom Kippur, and we perform a litany of special prayers. [Note that Jews do not typically pray spontaneously all that much in public worship; we tend to pray more prescribed prayers.  And, Yom Kippur is no exception.]  Paul Billerbeck and Hermann Strack, in their Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, written over a century ago, presented an argument that at least bears acknowledgement, though it is not a widely popular  one.  They assert, based on this week’s haftarah portion (Isaiah 57:14-58:14), that blood sacrifices after 30 CE would constitute a rejection of Yeshua’s sacrifice.  It was understood at least as far back as the 3rd Century that the traditional food-fast is itself a blood sacrifice in that it reduces the white blood-cell count.  They suggest that Isaiah 58 coming after Isaiah 53 makes the Isaiah 58 fast the definition bearing upon Believers following the Execution Stake illustrated 5 chapters earlier, i.e. that we are to fast not from food… but from selfish deeds by doing acts of tzedekah for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the infirmed rather than abstaining from food.  Now, this is admittedly a minority position, but one which does actually find some backing in the Babylonian Talmud.  I’ll leave it you to consider whether that view warrants consideration.


HaShem’s role in Yom Kippur is primarily to accept the sacrifice on behalf of His people and forgive their sins… but historically, He has also provided a visible sign of His acceptance of the Yom Kippur sacrifice, as we find in the Talmud’s recounting of the “Miracle of the Crimson Strip.”

isaiah 1.18This miracle is linked to Israel confessing its sins and ceremonially placing this nation’s sin upon the azazel goat. The sin was then removed by this goat’s death. It specifically concerns the crimson strip or cloth tied to the azazel goat before it is led outside of the gates and, by this point, driven off a high cliff. A portion of this red cloth was also removed from the goat and tied to the Temple door. Each year the red cloth on the Temple door turned from crimson to white as if to signify the atonement of another Yom Kippur was found acceptable to HaShem. This happened without fail every year, for about 200 years in a row. Sin was represented by the red color of the cloth (the color of blood). But the cloth remained crimson that is, Israel’s sins were not being pardoned and “made white.” As God told Israel through Isaiah the prophet:  ”Come, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as [white] wool” (Isaiah 1:18).

The Miracle of the Crimson Strip suddenly stopped occurring in 30 CE. This annual event, which had  happened for over 200 years until 30 CE had ceased, and the cloth was now remaining crimson each year and would continue to up to the time of the Temple’s destruction. This undoubtedly caused much stir and consternation among the Jews. But, unlike Temple sacrifices or the Yom Kippur events (as detailed above) where sin is only covered over for a time, the Messianic sacrifice comes with the promise of forgiveness of sins through grace given by God to those who accept a personal relationship with Messiah.

tractate yomaThis is essentially a one-time event for each person’s lifetime and not a continual series of annual observances and animal sacrifices. The mechanism providing forgiveness of sin changed in 30 CE. The Babylonian Talmud records, “Our rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple the lot [‘For HaShem’] did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-colored strap become white; nor did the western most light shine; and the doors of the Heykal [Temple] would open by themselves” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 39b). The Jerusalem Talmud gives the same report.

Notice from that Talmudic passage that the Crimson Strip miracle was replaced with three new ones:

The Miracle of the Lots

The first of these miracles concerns a random choosing of the “lot” which was cast on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The lot chosen determined which of two goats would be “for the Lord” and which goat would be the “azazel” or “scapegoat.” During the two hundred years before 30 CE, when the High Priest picked one of two stones, again this selection was governed by chance, and each year the priest would select a black stone as often as a white stone. But forty years in a row, beginning in 30 CE, the High Priest always picked the black stone! The odds against this happening are astronomical (2 to the 40th power). In other words, the chances of this occurring are approximately 5,479,548,800 to 1.

The lot for azazel, the black stone, contrary to all the laws of chance, came up 40 years in a row from 30 to 70 CE! This was considered a dire event and signified something had fundamentally changed in this Yom Kippur ritual. This casting of lots is also accompanied by yet another miracle.

The Miracle of the Temple Menorah

On that same Yom Kippur, the most important lamp of the seven-branched Menorah in the Temple went out, and would not shine. Every night for 40 years (over 12,500 nights in a row) the main lamp of the Temple lampstand (menorah) went out of its own accord no matter what attempts and precautions the priests took to safeguard against this event!

The Miracle of the Temple Doors

The Temple doors swung open every night of their own accord. This occurred for forty years, beginning in 30 CE. The leading Jewish authority of that time, Yohanan ben Zakkai, declared that this was a sign of impending doom, that the Temple itself would be destroyed.

Sota 6:3 of the Jerusalem Talmud states:

“Said Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai to the Temple, ‘O Temple, why do you frighten us? We know that you will end up destroyed. For it has been said, ‘Open your doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars'” (referencing Zechariah 11:1).

Yohanan Ben Zakkai was the leader of the Jewish community during the time following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, when the Jewish government was transferred to Yavneh, some thirty miles west of Yerushalayim.  The Temple was no longer just a place for High Priests alone, but the doors swung open for all to enter the Lord’s house of worship.  A change in the sin-atonement economy had taken place, a change admitted to even by the Jewish rabbis. HaShem was, it seemed, no longer accepting the Yom Kippur sacrifice.

They continued to make their annual sacrifice every year until the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE, but the same signs of apparent non-acceptance were there year after year. Of course, we know what that change was. The Jewish Messiah Yeshua’s undeserved (and thus sacrificial) execution had taken place about 5 months earlier at Passover, which that year corresponded to April 5th. The ultimate Sacrifice of Messiah had been made and was accepted by HaShem.  This is not to say that the mandated sacrifices were now abrogated, but they were now reduced from a covering to a symbolic act, a tangible reminder of the consequences of sin.  I believe that this is also the function they will serve in the Millennial Kingdom.


Since there is no longer any holy altar, Yom Kippur can no longer be observed as it was during the Temple era. The rabbis knew, however, that it did not cease to be observed after the destruction of the first Temple and thus followed the Bible in continuing to observe it as it was between the first Temple era and the second. The sacrifices were replaced with specific prayers and acts of “tzedekah” (righteousness or charity). [Note that the Ethiopian Falasha (Beta Israel) and the Samaritans have their own Temples and (despite debate over the legitimacy of those Temples) still practice the full sacrificial system, but for all other Jews, these substitutions are made.]

slichotEvery night at midnight for 40 days preceding Yom Kippur, prayers asking for forgiveness are offered.  These are called “slichot” prayers.  A righteous person’s own sufferings (tzaakah) are also considered a substitute for purposes of atonement. In ancient times, righteous Jews would inflict upon themselves 39 malkot, or “stripes.”  This was the Jewish corporal punishment for any sin in the days between the two Temples and even had some carryover into Second Temple Judaism. The Apostle Sha’ul received this punishment at least five times.

Study of the Torah is another tradition (and for many Jews, study of the Talmud as well).  The day preceding Yom Kippur, there is a large feast in preparation of the following day’s fast. On Yom Kippur, just as during Temple times, every Israelite over age 12 is required to fast except for the dangerously ill. The fast opens with a somber prayer of forgiveness called the Kol Nidre (all vows). It expresses a deep consciousness of our inability to keep in full our vows, promises, and obligations to HaShem. It recognizes that no matter how conscientious we are, we are always “on the debit side” in our relationship to HaShem.


Many who recognize that the Messiah has already made the ultimate atoning sacrifice observe Yom Kippur a bit differently.  Messiah’s sacrifice covered all original sin, and all deliberate sins of anyone who accepts His sacrifice… but we still need to repent; we still need to observe a time of mourning over our having sinned against HaShem, and a time of seeking haShem.  For those that truly desire to obey Him , it is an opportunity to observe a time appointed by HaShem for a specific interaction with Him.

Despite the limited amount of debate about whether or not Believers should fast, to which I referred earlier with the Billerbeck & Strack teaching, Messianic Judaism, for the most part, views fasting as a way to sensitize our spirits to the Will of HaShem.  Fasting, it is asserted, expresses our humble desire to draw closer to HaShem. It is a picture of the coming time of reconciliation with our holy G-d.  Denying ourselves food is also considered a tangible reminder of our dependence on HaShem for everything. It helps us remember how temporary and fragile our physical existence in our present bodies is. By the end of the fast, the stomach is testifying to that fact, and our pridefulness is broken so that we can approach HaShem in a state of humility.

Many will also pray for the salvation of Israel on Yom Kippur, since Romans 10:1 says our deepest desire and prayer to HaShem should be for Israel’s salvation. During the last hour of sunlight, we sing the Neilah service ending it with the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). The Shema affirms that HaShem is the sole sovereign over our lives and over the entire universe, and is a pledge to dedicate our lives wholly to serving Him. “Hear, O Israel, HaShem is our G-d; HaShem is One. And you shall love HaShem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (translation from the Hebrew Masoretic Text).

At sunset, we break our fast with challah bread and wine, rejoicing over HaShem’s plan of salvation. Some congregations partake of unleavened bread in place of challah to tie this in with the Nizkor.  The evening ends as do all the feasts – with the exclamation ‘Lashana Haba biYerushalayim‘ (Next year in Jerusalem!) followed, of course, by a shofar blast.

binding of the adversaryYom Kippur is not just about abrogating past sins, however.  It also has a forward-looking aspect.  Most sects of Judaism believe that the Adversary is bound each year on Yom Kippur, preventing him from tempting HaShem’s people on this one day a year. Acts 27:9 reports that “sailing was now dangerous because the Fast was over,” referring to the Day of Atonement (suggesting that The Adversary was no longer bound at that point).

Yom Kippur pictures the removal of the primary cause of sin – i.e. the Adversary and his demons (Revelation 20:1-3). The Adversary is the great deceiver who influences humankind to disobey HaShem, but his days of negative influence are numbered. Just before the inception of the Millennial Kingdom, The Adversary will be bound again, unable to interfere with humanity for a thousand years. Complete global reconciliation with HaShem will be possible again for the first time since the Rebellion of Adam, because there will be no tempter. Without temptation, there is no occasion for sin. After Har-Megiddo (the final battle between good and evil), a defeated Adversary will be forever locked away, along with his demons, in the lake of fire. This is something that every member of the Judaeo-Christian faith should see as a cause for celebration! Thanks to the death and resurrection of OUR High Priest, Messiah Yeshua (Hebrews 9:11-12)… Yom Kippur is a day which ultimately means Freedom.  It is, as it has always been, along with all the other moedim, an appointed time of the Mighty One of Israel for every worshipper…. not just for Jews, but for the grafted-in wild branches as well.

Notes & References

  1. Archived at: https://soundcloud.com/professortice (original broadcast: 29 Sep 2014).
  2. Michael Lohrberg, teaching delivered at Adat Eytz Chayim Congregation (Comstock Park, Mich., 2010).
  3. Elie Wiesel, “A Prayer for the Days of Awe” (2 Oct 1997).

About Prof. Brian Tice, B.Sci., M.Sci.

Brian Tice is currently a Hebraica research scholar and education facilitator with Manuscript Research Group in Michigan and a Jewish Studies and Ancient Languages professor with MJR Yeshiva. He received his rabbinical semikha in 2000. His formal education includes studies in Music and Modern Languages (Kalamazoo Valley Community College); Bible, Youth Ministry, and Ancient Languages (Cornerstone University); Divinity and Practical Ministry (Grand Rapids Theological Seminary); Higher Education and Classical Hebrew Andragogy (Purdue University Global/Kaplan); and Jewish Studies (Tel Aviv University/Coursera)... culminating in B.Sci. and M.Sci. degrees. Professor Tice has been an avid volunteer with Little Mary's Hospitality House critically-ill children's camp, Habitat for Humanity, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kalamazoo, several schools, and several homeless outreach ministries. In 2001, he was awarded a Governor's Commendation for service to the community and extraordinary academic contributions. View all posts by Prof. Brian Tice, B.Sci., M.Sci.

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