Jewish Holiday: Yom Kippur

By: Amy J. Kramer

Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, is observed the tenth day of the Hebrew month of Tishri, September or early October in the secular calendar.

The first Yom Kippur took place after Moses returned from his second trip to Mt. Sinai with the replacement set of tablets containing the Ten Commandments. He had broken the original set when he returned the first time to discover the children of Israel worshipping a golden calf rather than G-d, who brought them out from Egypt.

Moses successfully pleaded with G-d on their behalf, and on the first of Elul, he ascended the mountain, this time for a second set of tablets. In Moses' absence, the nation fasted from sunrise to sunset. Moses descended the mountain on the tenth of Tishri. Upon returning, Moses found the nation truly repentant and announced that G-d had forgiven them. He decreed that the tenth of Tishri would remain a day of atonement for all generations.

And this shall be an eternal law for you. Each year on the tenth day of the seventh month you must fast and do no work. This is true of the native born and of the proselyte who comes to join you. This is because on this day you shall have all your sins atoned, so that you will be cleansed. Before G-d you will be cleansed of your sins. It is a Sabbath of Sabbaths to you, and a day upon which you must fast. This is a law for all time. (Leviticus 16:29-31)

Later, following the completion of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle the Israelites were commanded to build in the desert, Moses, through direct communication with G-d, instructed the people in the tabernacle's service and rituals. In time, this became the basis for the priestly duties performed during the first and second temple era. Today, the basic elements of the Temple service is symbolically recreated in our taffilot, prayer services, and traditonal Jewish homelife.

Following the sin of the golden calf, the Israelites who wandered the desert, understood that the private and communal actions taken every Yom Kippur helped ensure annual atonement for their sins.

In the Desert: In the desert, Moses's older brother, Aaron, assumed the role of Kohen Gadol, or High Priest. Through immersion, vestment changes and the sacrificial blood of animals chosen "for G-d," the High Priest was able to purify himself, his family and his nation.

In addition, the Kohen Gadol purified the Kodesh K'dashim, the Holy of Holies, the curtained-off area of the tabernacle which contained the original set of broken tablets over which the Shechinah, or G-d's spirit, hovered like a cloud.

Using a goat, called Azazel, often translated as scapegoat, the High Priest would place his hands on its head and confess the sins of the nation, essentially laying the blame on the head of the animal. The goat was then pushed off a high cliff to fall to its death.

The purpose of killing an innocent animal was not to solely blame it for the collective sins of the people. It was a kind of vehicle through which one could transport those sins and transgressions far away. Divine forgiveness was only possible after the entire congregation acknowledged and sought forgiveness for their behavior. It was also a symbolic reminder of what G-d could do to them if they did not repent.

This kind of transference ritual provided the basis for the Jewish custom of kapparot, or atonements, which may have originated in Babylon, which included, in their ten-day new year celebrations, a Kapparu, a day for cleansing of sins. The belief that somehow sins can be transferred from human to animal, has been a controversial subject among rabbis. As a result, this ceremony is no longer (except among the very ultra-orthodox or Hasidic circles) practiced today. Instead, repentance, prayer and giving charity is the accepted Jewish practice for obtaining divine forgiveness.

As far as scholars can tell, the only time Yom Kippur rituals were suspended was during the dedication of the second temple by King Solomon, which began two days before the holiday and continued through Sukkot, The Feast of Tabernacles, with food, drink and festivities.

The First and Second Temple Era: Much is written about Yom Kippur's observance during the Second Temple era. Seven of the eight chapters of the Talmud tractate Yoma detail the High Priest's temple service. The books Ecclesiastics and Jubilees, which were written in the second century B.C.E.; texts found in the Qumram Caves near the Dead Sea; and, the works of Philo of Alexandria, the Hellenistic philosopher who lived in Egypt during the later years of the second temple, corroborate the writings of Talmudic sages.

Yom Kippur was so important that those who were not able to worship in Jerusalem spent the entire day in their local synagogues refraining from food and drink. Even those not religious, made an exception for Yom Kippur. For the many who did make the trek to Jerusalem, an awesome experience was waiting.

The Temple Service: A week before the holiday, the High Priest would leave his home to live inside the temple. That week, he would perform all the temple duties himself. In addition, he would study two Torah portions and learn one by heart to make sure he didn't make any mistakes. The night before, the High Priest would stay up all night learning Torah and preparing himself spiritually. If he fell asleep, young priests woke him up by reciting psalms. Sometimes they would make the High Priest stand all night on the cold, stone floor.

In the morning, he would put on his priestly clothes and go about the daily morning service, including the morning's sacrifice, the lighting of the menorah and the burning of incense. Then he would wash his hands and feet in a golden basin. Afterwards, he took a bath, a ritual he repeated throughout the day.

Then, the High Priest would change into a simple robe made of white linen and walk over to a young bull and recite for himself and for his family the first of three confessional prayers. Three times during the prayer he pronounced the Shem Hameforash, (the name by which G-d identified himself to Moses at the burning bush, and to this day, remains unpronounceable), instead of the usual "Adonai," meaning Lord.

The crowd of worshipers, in awe of the moment, fell on the floor, and cried out in loud voices, "Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le'olam Va'ed," Blessed be the Name, the glory of His kingdom forever and ever, a phrase, that even today, is only said out loud on Yom Kippur.

The High Priest then walked over to two identical goats. Through a lottery, one goat was chosen as a sacrifice to G-d, and the other, a scapegoat, with red wool tied around its horns, was sent out into the wilderness, a symbol of the collective sins of the people. The young bullock was then slaughtered and its blood collected in a basin for later use.

Then came the most important part of the ceremony. The High Priest walked up a special ramp (so temple priests could ascend with modesty in tact) to the altar, filled a gold pan with coals and a golden ladle with incense. Then, with everyone watching, he walked into the Kodesh K’dashim, the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary where G-d's spirit dwelled and where no one but the High Priest entered except on Yom Kippur. Once inside, he lit the incense, and if all went well, emerged unscathed from the inner chamber.

The ritual continued with the High Priest sprinkling blood on the curtain of the Holy of Holies as an act of purification. Next, the remaining goat was slaughtered and additional blood sprinkled on the curtain and around the base of the altar.

The scapegoat was then led through the temple's gate to a waiting priest whose job it was to take it to predetermined spot about ten to twelve miles away. Along the way, there were ten stations with food or drink in case the tired priest needed to break his fast. When the priest came to the final station, he pushed the goat off a cliff. Using a system of signal flags, the priest leading the animal would message back to the temple that the sins of the people were forgiven as the red wool around the goat's horns turned miraculously white.

Afternoon Service: Although the special Yom Kippur service was concluded, the regular afternoon temple service still had to be completed. The High Priest again washed and changed his clothes, lit the menorah and burned the incense.

When he finally went home, he was accompanied by well wishers, who after praying and fasting all day, wanted to thank the High Priest for a successful Yom Kippur. At home, however, he could still not relax. As High Priest, it was his duty to invite fellow priests and dignitaries to a feast. Today, when families return home from the long day of fasting and praying, they also come home to break-the-fast meal, usually dairy, joined by family and friends.

An interesting anecdote: It was also the custom following Yom Kippur, for unmarried young men and women to go dancing in the vineyards to find mates. All the young women wore white so the rich would not have an advantage over the poor who could not afford finer clothes. In the Talmud, Rabbi Simeon Ben Gamaliel is quoted as saying, "There were no happier days in Israel than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur." This is probably the basis today for many communities which host singles' dances right after Yom Kippur.

Post Temple Era: After the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E., the rabbis faced the difficult challenge of keeping the service and rituals of Yom Kippur intact for future generations. The rabbis had to reconstruct the day without the pageantry associated with temple life.

Emphasis had to shift from sacrifices and priestly rituals to prayer, repentance and giving of charity. But, because of the historic importance of the day, and the people's memory, the rabbis retained descriptions of the rituals in the Yom Kippur service, now referred to as the Avodah. The mahtzor, (the special prayer-book used on Yom Kippur), and the temple services it recounts, has taken the place of the actual sacrifices and rituals whose origins date back to the Israelites in the desert and to the Jews of the first and second temple era.