Posts tagged ‘Yom Kippur’

From the Archives: The Day of Atonement

This is a reposting from a post originally published on September 14, 2010. Astute readers may notice that Yom Kippur this year also falls on a Saturday. This is coincidence. The Hebrew calendar is a lunar calendar, and days are calculated as being from sunset to sunset. Yom Kippur actually begins this year at sunset on Friday, October 7.

I’ve posted previously on Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. This Saturday, ten days after Rosh Hashanah, marks the holiest day in the Jewish religious year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day that God set aside so that the people of Israel could atone for their sin as a nation.

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. Neither shall you do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God. If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no work at all. It is a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening to evening you shall keep your Sabbath.” Leviticus 23:26-32

Now you’ll notice that that there are two words in the passage which are repeated three times: atonement and humble (which carries the context here of denying oneself). This is the one day when the children of Israel were invited by God to consider their lives before Him and to confess their sin. It was the one day a year that only one man in all of Israel – the high priest – could enter into the one most holy spot, the Holy of Holies in the center of the Temple in Jerusalem. There he would offer a blood sacrifice first for his own sin, then the sins of the nation of Israel. The children of Israel would be gathered around the courts of the Temple, watching and waiting to see if the sacrifice would be accepted by God.

Yom Kippur was tied into the very purpose of the Mosaic Law. God had required that His people to be holy and He had given them the Law at Mount Sinai so that they could be instructed in righteousness. Yet God knew that His people could be not become holy on their own, so He gave them a means to be reconciled to Himself: a sacrificial system. The culmination of this system, by which sinning and rebellious Israelites could have their sin covered over, was Yom haKippurim: the Day of Atonement. On this day the High Priest of Israel would enter into God’s presence where He dwelt within the Holy of Holies, first in the desert Tabernacle and much later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The preparations that the priest had to make in order to purify himself before entering this holiest of places were exacting. Should he make an error it would be doubly disastrous, for the descendants of Aaron would be slain by God should they attempt to stand before Him in an impure state. Even worse, the priest would die without the sins of the nation having been atoned for.

In the Biblical period, rigorous requirements were made of each Israelite on Yom Kippur. They were commanded to humble their souls and present offerings of fire for their sins, or be cut off from the people of Israel. They were asked to set aside their earthly appetites and needs, by fasting from sundown to sundown. They were not allowed to do any work, or risk being completely destroyed. These were far harsher strictures than an ordinary Sabbath rest, and served to point out the absolute seriousness of the Day of Atonement.

Very special offerings were made before God on Yom Kippur. These consisted of incense, a bull, and two goats. Four times the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, beginning with the incense offering. As the incense burned, it formed a cloud which obscured the Ark of the Covenant; between the outstretched wings of the seraphim on its lid was the Mercy Seat, where God’s Shekinah (His glorious Presence) rested. This cloud was not just and offering but was for the protection of the high priest, since no man could see God and live. Next was the sacrifice of a bull. The priest would lay his hands on the bull, acknowledging his own personal sin and that of the priesthood. This process of laying on of hands was the symbolic means by which those sins were transferred to the bull, allowing its death to serve as a substitute for others. The bull was then slain, and its blood taken into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the Mercy Seat.

Finally came the climax of Yom Kippur: the sacrifice of two goats. Two goats were brought before the high priest and lots were drawn. One goat would be for the Lord, and one would be for the sins of Israel as a nation.

The first goat was to be an offering to the Lord, and once more the priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of this sacrifice upon the Mercy Seat. Then he symbolically laid his hands upon the second goat, known by the Hebrew term Azazel, or scapegoat. It was then led from the camp – and later the Temple – into a deserted place, where it would be forced off of a cliff. Jewish tradition holds that people would line the path of the scapegoat and curse at it, strike it, spit at it, and pull out its hair, to encourage it to depart with their sins as swiftly as possible.

Although today Yom Kippur is still considered the holiest day in the Jewish year, modern Judaism observes the day in a radically different fashion. Jews continue to fulfill the command to humble themselves by severe fasting. There is no Temple now, and no sacrifices are offered. Modern Judaism teaches that blood sacrifice is not necessary, and that through prayer, repentance and mitzvot, good deeds, that one’s sins will be forgiven. Yom Kippur is a day on which the practice of charity is encouraged. Observant Jews spend the day praying in the synagogue, where the confession of sin is the high point of the service. The congregation confesses in unison, naming only general sins that cause all men to stumble. There is no mention of specific sins committed by individuals. White clothing is worn to symbolize a contrite and humble heart and confidence in God’s ability to forgive sin. The shofar is blown at the end of the synagogue service to symbolize the closing of the Books of Judgment, and the congregants will gather in one another’s homes to break the fast and share a meal.

In my previous post on Rosh Hashanah, I discussed the sound of the shofar — the ram’s horn — as God’s wake up call for us, calling us to turn away from focusing on the physical world in which we live, and to contemplate the holiness of God and our relationship with Him. If Rosh Hashanah was the wake up call, then Yom Kippur is a day of preparation. Preparation for what? Very simply, preparation to be in God’s presence.

God instructed Moses concerning the Shalosh Regalim, three major festivals when every adult male Israelite would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem and worship at the Temple.

“Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Passover]; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest [Shavuot] of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering [Sukkot] at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.” Exodus 23:14-17

“You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread … You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel.” Exodus 34: 18, 22-23

“Three times in a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths …” Deuteronomy 16:16

If Rosh Hashanah woke us up to point us to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, then Yom Kippur is to prepare us for the last of the fall feasts of Israel: Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. As the name of Sukkot implies, we’re preparing to have God tabernacle among us. The Israelites would go up to God’s house, up to the Temple.

But if you’re going to go up to God’s house, you have to get ready. Therein lays a problem. You see, God is holy, and He hates sin. He cannot even look upon us because we have sin. Luckily for us, God took care of this problem. God made sure that Yom Kippur took place before Sukkot, in order that His people could be cleansed of sin and stand before Him. Yom Kippur allowed His people to know that their sin had been forgiven, so that they could go up and enjoy being in the house of God with a free conscience and a clean heart. When Sukkot arrived, they could truly participate in the rejoicing that God commanded for that festival.

Believers in Jesus Christ have received atonement once and for all through His sacrificial death on the cross. The blood of God’s own Son, Himself sinless in nature, was the only sacrifice sufficient to make final atonement for sin. Interestingly enough, we have confirmation of this from an extra-biblical Jewish source. The Talmud records that on the Day of Atonement a scarlet thread would be hung outside of the Holy of Holies. If the scapegoat, the sacrifice for sin, was accepted by the Lord the thread would turn from scarlet to white, making real the words that the prophet Isaiah had written 700 years before:

“Though your sins are scarlet they shall be white as snow.” Isaiah 1:18

The Talmud goes on to record that each year on the Day of Atonement the thread might turn white or might not, reflecting the changing spiritual state of the nation of Israel. This continued for many years, until 40 years prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, after which the thread never turned white. It remained scarlet every year, until the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. This tractate of the Talmud bears evidence to the fact that somewhere around 30 A.D. – the approximate date when Jesus was crucified – the animal sacrifices offered by the high priest of Israel were no longer accepted by God! This is because the blood of bulls and goats could never atone for sin for more than a short time. They were only shadows of a final sacrifice, a once and for all atonement for sin – the sacrifice of our Messiah Jesus on the cross. Jesus is the fulfillment of Yom Kippur, as both our great high priest and a sacrifice for all of our sin. In Him our sin is truly forgiven and our conscience cleansed.

This Saturday my wife and I — as we have done in years past — will observe Yom Kippur. In our own way we’ll follow the tradition of fasting, albeit not a fast from food. Since neither of us are allowed to fast from food for 24 hours due to health issues, we will be fasting from some other normal aspect of life, such as the use of the computer (which is a sacrifice for two people who can’t seem to go an hour without checking email). Why do we do this, if we know that we’ve already achieved atonement? We do it to honor my Jewish heritage, and we do it to acknowledge and honor what Christ went through to atone for our sins. The solemn gravity of Yom Kippur has taken on for us a great joy as well, because we know that our sins are forgiven and that we have eternal life through Jesus.

The Day of Atonement

I’ve posted previously on Rosh Hashanah, the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. This Saturday, ten days after Rosh Hashanah,  marks the holiest day in the Jewish religious year: Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day that God set aside so that the people of Israel could atone for their sin as a nation.

“And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you, and you shall humble your souls and present an offering by fire to the LORD. Neither shall you do any work on this same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God. If there is any person who will not humble himself on this same day, he shall be cut off from his people. As for any person who does any work on this same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no work at all. It is a perpetual statute throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It is to be a Sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening to evening you shall keep your Sabbath.” Leviticus 23:26-32

Now you’ll notice that that there are two words in the passage which are repeated three times: atonement and humble (which carries the context here of denying oneself). This is the one day when the children of Israel were invited by God to consider their lives before Him and to confess their sin. It was the one day a year that only one man in all of Israel – the high priest – could enter into the one most holy spot, the Holy of Holies in the center of the Temple in Jerusalem. There he would offer a blood sacrifice first for his own sin, then the sins of the nation of Israel. The children of Israel would be gathered around the courts of the Temple, watching and waiting to see if the sacrifice would be accepted by God.

Yom Kippur was tied into the very purpose of the Mosaic Law. God had required that His people to be holy and He had given them the Law at Mount Sinai so that they could be instructed in righteousness. Yet God knew that His people could be not become holy on their own, so He gave them a means to be reconciled to Himself: a sacrificial system. The culmination of this system, by which sinning and rebellious Israelites could have their sin covered over, was Yom haKippurim: the Day of Atonement. On this day the High Priest of Israel would enter into God’s presence where He dwelt within the Holy of Holies, first in the desert Tabernacle and much later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The preparations that the priest had to make in order to purify himself before entering this holiest of places were exacting. Should he make an error it would be doubly disastrous, for the descendants of Aaron would be slain by God should they attempt to stand before Him in an impure state. Even worse, the priest would die without the sins of the nation having been atoned for.

In the Biblical period, rigorous requirements were made of each Israelite on Yom Kippur. They were commanded to humble their souls and present offerings of fire for their sins, or be cut off from the people of Israel. They were asked to set aside their earthly appetites and needs, by fasting from sundown to sundown. They were not allowed to do any work, or risk being completely destroyed. These were far harsher strictures than an ordinary Sabbath rest, and served to point out the absolute seriousness of the Day of Atonement.

Very special offerings were made before God on Yom Kippur. These consisted of incense, a bull, and two goats. Four times the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies, beginning with the incense offering. As the incense burned, it formed a cloud which obscured the Ark of the Covenant; between the outstretched wings of the seraphim on its lid was the Mercy Seat, where God’s Shekinah (His glorious Presence) rested. This cloud was not just and offering but was for the protection of the high priest, since no man could see God and live.  Next was the sacrifice of a bull. The priest would lay his hands on the bull, acknowledging his own personal sin and that of the priesthood. This process of laying on of hands was the symbolic means by which those sins were transferred to the bull, allowing its death to serve as a substitute for others. The bull was then slain, and its blood taken into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the Mercy Seat.

Finally came the climax of Yom Kippur: the sacrifice of two goats. Two goats were brought before the high priest and lots were drawn. One goat would be for the Lord, and one would be for the sins of Israel as a nation.

The first goat was to be an offering to the Lord, and once more the priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of this sacrifice upon the Mercy Seat. Then he symbolically laid his hands upon the second goat, known by the Hebrew term Azazel, or scapegoat. It was then led from the camp – and later the Temple – into a deserted place, where it would be forced off of a cliff. Jewish tradition holds that people would line the path of the scapegoat and curse at it, strike it, spit at it, and pull out its hair, to encourage it to depart with their sins as swiftly as possible.

Although today Yom Kippur is still considered the holiest day in the Jewish year, modern Judaism observes the day in a radically different fashion. Jews continue to fulfill the command to humble themselves by severe fasting. There is no Temple now, and no sacrifices are offered. Modern Judaism teaches that blood sacrifice is not necessary, and that through prayer, repentance and mitzvot, good deeds, that one’s sins will be forgiven. Yom Kippur is a day on which the practice of charity is encouraged. Observant Jews spend the day praying in the synagogue, where the confession of sin is the high point of the service. The congregation confesses in unison, naming only general sins that cause all men to stumble. There is no mention of specific sins committed by individuals. White clothing is worn to symbolize a contrite and humble heart and confidence in God’s ability to forgive sin. The shofar is blown at the end of the synagogue service to symbolize the closing of the Books of Judgment, and the congregants will gather in one another’s homes to break the fast and share a meal.

In my previous post on Rosh Hashanah, I discussed the sound of the shofar — the ram’s horn — as God’s wake up call for us, calling us to turn away from focusing on the physical world in which we live, and to contemplate the holiness of God and our relationship with Him. If Rosh Hashanah was the wake up call, then Yom Kippur is a day of preparation. Preparation for what? Very simply, preparation to be in God’s presence.

God instructed Moses concerning the Shalosh Regalim, three major festivals when every adult male Israelite would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem and worship at the Temple.

“Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread [Passover]; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest [Shavuot] of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering [Sukkot] at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.” Exodus 23:14-17

“You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread … You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your males are to appear before the Lord GOD, the God of Israel.” Exodus 34: 18, 22-23

“Three times in a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths …” Deuteronomy 16:16

If Rosh Hashanah woke us up to point us to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, then Yom Kippur is to  prepare us for the last of the fall feasts of Israel: Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. As the name of Sukkot  implies, we’re preparing to have God tabernacle among us. The Israelites would go up to God’s house, up  to the Temple.

But if you’re going to go up to God’s house, you have to get ready. Therein lays a problem. You see, God is holy, and He hates sin. He cannot even look upon us because we have sin. Luckily for us, God took care of this problem. God made sure that Yom Kippur took place before Sukkot, in order that His people could be cleansed of sin and stand before Him. Yom Kippur allowed His people to know that their sin had been forgiven, so that they could go up and enjoy being in the house of God with a free conscience and a clean heart. When Sukkot arrived, they could truly participate in the rejoicing that God commanded for that festival.

Believers in Jesus Christ have received atonement once and for all through His sacrificial death on the cross. The blood of God’s own Son, Himself sinless in nature, was the only sacrifice sufficient to make final atonement for sin. Interestingly enough, we have confirmation of this from an extra-biblical Jewish source. The Talmud records that on the Day of Atonement a scarlet thread would be hung outside of the Holy of Holies. If the scapegoat, the sacrifice for sin, was accepted by the Lord the thread would turn from scarlet to white, making real the words that the prophet Isaiah had written 700 years before:

“Though your sins are scarlet they shall be white as snow.”  Isaiah 1:18

The Talmud goes on to record that each year on the Day of Atonement the thread might turn white or might not, reflecting the changing spiritual state of the nation of Israel. This continued for many years, until 40 years prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, after which the thread never turned white. It remained scarlet every year, until the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. This tractate of the Talmud bears evidence to the fact that somewhere around 30 A.D. – the approximate date when Jesus  was crucified – the animal sacrifices offered by the high priest of Israel were no longer accepted by God! This is because the blood of bulls and goats could never atone for sin for more than a short time. They were only shadows of a final sacrifice, a once and for all atonement for sin – the sacrifice of our Messiah Jesus on the cross. Jesus is the fulfillment of Yom Kippur, as both our great high priest and a sacrifice for all of our sin. In Him our sin is truly forgiven and our conscience cleansed.

This Saturday my wife and I — as we have done in years past — will observe Yom Kippur. In our own way we’ll follow the tradition of fasting, albeit not a fast from food. Since neither of us are allowed to fast from food for 24 hours due to health issues, we will be fasting from some other normal aspect of life, such as the use of the computer (which is a sacrifice for two people who can’t seem to go an hour without checking email). Why do we do this, if we know that we’ve already achieved atonement? We do it to honor my Jewish heritage, and we do it to acknowledge and honor what Christ went through to atone for our sins. The solemn gravity of Yom Kippur has taken on for us a great joy as well, because we know that our sins are forgiven and that we have eternal life through Jesus.

Spiritual Preparation

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lent season, which begins a 46-day countdown to Easter Sunday. Although many associate Lent with Roman Catholicism, it is also celebrated by Protestant denominations such as the Church of the Nazarene, Methodists, and Lutherans. Lent is traditionally marked by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. As someone who grew up in a Jewish household, I find these traditions familiar. They remind me of the practices which Jews engage in during the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as we daven (pray) and fast; they also bring to mind the Jewish practice of tzedakah, obligatory acts of charity.

Lent is more than simply traditions. Lent is a time which spiritually prepares us to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. Spiritual preparation can often come through exercising spiritual disciplines, practices which aim at bringing Christians into a state of holiness and purity. I think it is safe to say that throughout the history of the Church that such practices have not been necessarily easy to engage in, nor have they always enjoyed popularity. My friend David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, has for years engaged in the spiritual discipline of reading one chapter from Psalms each morning and meditating upon it. I have tried this discipline myself on and off over the years since he first shared it with me, and cannot say that I have had the discipline to maintain it.

Over at United Methodeviations, Dan Dick has been talking about such disciplines and whether or not church members practice them or not. Shockingly, he reports being told by a clergy leader, “we can’t expect people to practice spiritual disciplines.  They are relics of a bygone age.”  Not surprisingly, Dan asks what type of faith this will lead to:

Really?  And what kind of faith will this leave us with?  When I don’t exercise, I get fat.  When I don’t practice on an instrument, I get rusty.  When I don’t study, I don’t learn as much.  To become Christlike, won’t I have to do something?

Dan’s point is well made; in order to grow to maturity as a Christian, more is required than simply proclaiming oneself a Christian. One must engage in spiritual disciplines designed to focus one on Christ, rather than on the things of this world. John Wesley devoted his life to the practice of such disciplines in his personal life, and to teaching others to engage in such practices themselves. Among the spiritual disciplines Wesley practiced and taught were: public worship of God, regularly searching the Scriptures, regularly participating in the Lord’s Supper (communion), private and family prayer, fasting or abstinence, feeding the hungry, welcoming in strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison, and sheltering the homeless.

I think it’s interesting to note that some of these disciplines directly benefit us in our walk with Christ, while others of the disciplines seem to directly benefit others (feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, etc.). Perhaps the message in that is that it isn’t about us, rather that it is about Jesus and doing the things He did, and treating others the way that He did. As Lent begins, I plan to abstain from several things which can normally prove to be distractions from my spiritual life. I’ll also be praying about whether it’s enough to give them up for a 4-week period, or whether they are things that simply don’t need to be in my life. If the goal is to prepare myself to be in a state of readiness to celebrate the holiness of Resurrection Sunday, and to be more Christlike, why should I stop once Easter is done?

Will you join me in spiritual preparation?

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