Yom Kippur – “Day of Atonement”

Yom Kippur centers its attention upon atonement—being right with God even though one knows himself or herself to be a sinner, and that God cannot have fellowship with sinners. Here is the mystery of atonement: God makes a way for a sinner to be made clean, and thus to be a fitting companion with Him.

During the Temple time, elaborate cultic rituals were done on this day, the only day of the year when the High Priest entered the Most Holy Place and applied blood to the mercy seat, between the cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant. After the destruction of the Temple, however, the emphasis changed in the surviving Judaisms. Without the ability to perform sacrifices and priestly atonement for the sins of the people, the manner in which atonement was viewed and defined changed. Rather than looking to a High Priest and the sacrificial ritual of the Day, atonement was sought through acts of repentance.

In many ways, the Jewish perspective of how repentance leads to atonement has been misunderstood. Many have assumed that Jews believe they are able to tip the balance in favor of righteousness during the ten days of awe which proceed Yom Kippur. But in fact, if one takes the time to read the Rabbinic literature, it is clear that all who come to the Day of Atonement admit that apart from God’s mercy and compassion, there would be no one who could be assured of atonement for sin. But since the Torah teaches that God is gracious and compassionate to those who seek His favor (Ex. 34:6-7), the repentant sinner may be assured that God has forgiven him of his sin. Thus, Yom Kippur is marked by a seeking of God’s forgiveness, and a realization that only by His great compassion do we continue to exist and enjoy His gift of life.

It is true that from a modern Jewish perspective repentance does “tip” the scales, but only because God is merciful. The Yom Kippur liturgy clearly states that atonement is a matter of God’s mercy and not “won” or in some way “deserved.” Unfortunately, while in Ancient Israel the whole issue of atonement centered around a sacrifice which foreshadowed Messiah, in modern Judaism the sacrifice cannot exist, and thus one of the key elements of the symbolism of the Festival is missing. Some Messianic Jews wonder whether or not Yom Kippur is appropriate, since those who have come to faith in Yeshua believe that He alone is our atonement, and that our forgiveness has been eternally secured by His sacrifice, once for all time. Some have questions, then, whether Yom Kippur is still valid for believers in Yeshua.

All Messianic believers would agree that Yeshua‘s sacrifice has fully effected the forgiveness of sins, and that we are completely righteous in Him, needing no further atonement. But even the Apostolic writers stress the need for introspection and repentance (2 Cor 13:5). Yom Kippur, if understood correctly, is not a day by which our atonement is realized, as much as it is a day to be reminded that our atonement was procured at great cost by our King, and that we, in so far as we have demonstrated faithlessness and rebellion in departing from His ways, must return to Him with full hearts, seek His forgiveness with a repentant heart, and determine to walk in His statutes. Yom Kippur, then, for the Messianic believer, is a day of deep and honest reflection upon the atonement which is ours in Yeshua, and a recommitment to holy living, both before God and our fellow man. If understood as it was given to us in the Torah, Yom Kippur enhances and strengthens our faith.

The Traditions of Yom Kippur:

1. In the orthodox synagogue, Yom Kippur is one of the holiest days.

There are five services as over against the normal four on other festivals. The five are:

  1. Kol Nidrei (meaning “all the vows”) – the evening service named after the opening prayer

  2. Shacharit – the morning service

  3. Mussaf – the additional service

  4. Minchah – the afternoon service, including the reading of the book of Jonah

  5. Neilah – (“closing the gates”) a unique service for the conclusion of Yom Kippur, including the sounding of the shofar

2. Yom Kippur is a solemn fast day.

On the basis of Lev. 23:32, “It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall observe this your sabbath.” “To deny oneself” (literally the Hebrew has “to afflict one’s soul”) is understood by the Rabbis as “to practice self-denial,” which means “to fast.” The Haftarah passage, Isaiah 58:6ff, seems to follow the same line of thinking, namely, that humbling oneself is to fast. Thus, for those wishing to follow Torah, Yom Kippur is a day of fasting. However, the day before is to be a day of eating in almost a festive fashion, symbolizing the confidence that God does indeed forgive sins and that He shows compassion upon His people.

As Messianic believers living out Torah, fasting on Yom Kippur seems very appropriate. It has both biblical as well as traditional bases, and becomes a time of deep introspection, seeking genuine repentance before the Lord where sin has been allowed to remain in one’s life, and where the flesh has usurped a position which the Spirit desires to reclaim. It is also an effective time for community introspection. As the Torah community fasts and prays together, Yom Kippur can be a time of honest appraisal and seeking God’s strength for purity and repentance for the whole community.

3. Many who follow Rabbinic halachah observe additional measures of affliction.

No bathing, no anointing of the body with oil or lotions, no wearing of leather shoes, no sexual relations. All of these were considered by the Rabbis as acts of pleasure (wearing leather shoes was considered much more comfortable than going barefoot or wearing nonleather sandals).

From a Messianic perspective, these are permissible as each feels they enhance their seeking for repentance. However, there is a caution: some in modern Judaism practice these on the premise that the more one afflicts one’s soul, the more God accepts their repentance. Yet we know that God does not accept self-sacrifice for atonement, but rather the sacrifice of Yeshua our Messiah. One’s motivations, therefore, are all-important. Fasting on Yom Kippur should cause us all the more to rely upon Yeshua as our sacrifice. If other measures of affliction move us in the same direction, they can be beneficial. But if they cause us to think that the more we are afflicted, the more we are accepted, this moves beyond the biblical faith to some kind of man-made ritual and should be avoided.

4. It is traditional to burn a candle throughout Yom Kippur in remembrance of deceased relatives.

One beautiful tradition is to place the Siddur and a Bible as the center piece of a table, covered with a white cloth. Since the family is fasting, the Siddur and Bible take the place of the traditional Challah (Sabbath bread) on the table. We fast from the normal Sabbath bread, feeding only on the word of God and prayers, remembering that Yeshua is the Word of God incarnate.

Pictures of deceased family members can then be placed alongside the centerpiece, with the yartzeit candle, reminding us of those who have come before us, and by whose testimony we received the truth of atonement. Altogether, these items are a stunning symbol of the beauty of Yom Kippur.

5. Many people wear white on Yom Kippur as a sign of purity.

The kittel (a white robe usually tied at the waist) for the men is customary among the orthodox and Hassidic. Usually men wear a white kippah on Yom Kippur. The Torah scroll and bimah are likewise “dressed” in white for the day.

Wearing white is also traditional among Messianic communities as well, emphasizing the need not only for personal repentance and purity, but also for a renewal of the whole community. The white covers for the bimah and Torah remind us of the purity of Yeshua as the Word of God, and His central place in the whole issue of eternal atonement.

6. It is considered very important that matters which separate members of the community be settled in advance of Yom Kippur.

And that as much as possible, all debts be repaid, especially those which may be causing hardship to the lender or be causing a breach between the lender and borrower.

Once again, this Torah tradition has a good biblical basis. Yeshua teaches us in Matthew 5:23ff that when one presents an offering and knows that there exists something between oneself and another, the offering should be suspended until the offence is taken care of. This no doubt has the festival sacrifices well in mind. It is therefore perfectly valid to see the festivals, and especially Yom Kippur, as a special call to make things right with one’s neighbor within the community.

7. The reading of Jonah.

Traditionally on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, centers on the issue of teshuvah, repentance. The interweaving of the reluctant prophet with the complete repentance of the city of Ninevah gives a platform for much discussion on this topic of repentance. Why was Jonah afraid that the Ninevites would repent? Did Jonah need to repent himself? Did he? These types of questions are particularly appropriate at this most solemn day as each one turns an eye inward to investigate the heart and one’s relationships with God and fellowman.

8. It is traditional to break the fast together as a community.

The day of solemn introspection gives way at the end to the joy of sins forgiven, and the gladness that exists when one is right with his God and neighbor. As the fast is broken, the somber atmosphere of the day gives way to rejoicing and celebration.

It is also traditional that one begin with some tangible activity to prepare for building his sukkah. This can be as simple as marking the place where the sukkah will be built, or even laying out some of the materials for the sukkah for actually beginning the construction in the following days.

Read about the next Festival, Sukkot: Click Here

An excerpt from book Introduction to Torah Living, by Tim Hegg, p. 148-152