Atonement, Day of (Yom Kippur)

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An annual fast and day of expiation, observed on 10 Tishri (September or October), the most widely observed of all Jewish holy days. The term yôm kippûr is late rabbinical Hebrew for Biblical Hebrew yôm hakkippûrîm, both terms meaning Day of Atonement.

In the Bible. The only explicit references to this day in the Old Testament are found in the most recent stratum of the Pentateuch: Lv 16.134; 23.2632; 25.9; Nm 29.711. In this source the prescriptions for Temple worship are projected historically to the tent of meeting in the desert where Aaron ministered. The day is described as one of most solemn rest from work as on the Sabbath. There is a convocation at the Temple and special sacrifices are ordained. All must "afflict themselves," i.e., fast and perform acts of penance for their sins and those of the whole nation. The jubilee year is to be heralded by the blowing of the ceremonial ram's horn, the Shofar, on the Day of Atonement.

The unusual Temple ceremonies are described in detail in Lv 16.134. The high priest, wearing special vestments, first sacrificed a bull for his own sins and those of the priests. On this occasion only, he was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies, behind the sanctuary veil, with incense and the blood of the sacrificial animal to sprinkle the mercy seat as an act of expiation. Then he repeated this ritual, the second time sacrificing a male goat in expiation for the sins of the people and for the sanctuary itself. Finally the priest made atonement also for the outer sanctuary by sprinkling blood upon the altar (Ex 30.10).

In addition there was quite a different kind of rite often referred to as that of the scapegoat. The high priest selected two goats and cast lots upon them, "one lot for Yahweh and one lot for Azazel" (Lv 16.8). The goat "for Yahweh" was sacrificed as described above; the other had all the sins of the people placed upon its head by the symbolic imposition of the high priest's hands and was released in the wilderness to carry away the burden of guilt. The name scapegoat (Lat. caper emissarius ) reflects a misunderstanding of some of the ancient versions in translating the phrase "for Azazel." A modern theory, that the word identifies the place where the goat was released, is not generally accepted. Azazel was in fact thought by the Jews to be an evil spirit or devil that dwelt in the wilderness (a fallen angel according to 1 Enoch 10.48). The Israelites did not sacrifice a goat to him, but they presented it before Yahweh and then sent it and their sins "into the wilderness to Azazel" (Lv 16.10). A number of parallels to this ritual have been pointed out in Babylonian and other ancient religions, and it is very probable that the Israelites here adopted an ancient popular custom and interpreted it in the light of their own religious observance.

The origin of the Day of Atonement itself remains obscure. The fact that it is not mentioned in any pre-exilic text of the Old Testament, nor even in the oldest postexilic texts, establishes a probability that it was instituted very late, but more precise information is not available. It is possible, however, that the practice of expiatory rites among the Hebrews was itself very ancient. The ritual of the Day of Atonement is alluded to in the New Testament (e.g., Heb 6.19; 9.7), but it did not persist in Christian observance. A tractate of the Mishnah (Yômâ, The Day) is devoted to details of the ritual.

Modern Customs. After the destruction of the Temple, prayers and synagogue services replaced the sacrifices and rites described above, but the essential motifs of self-affliction, confession, and expiation have always remained the heart of Yom Kippur observance. In the modern celebration there is a preliminary ritual on the eve, for which tradition prescribes a festive meal before sundown, the kindling of the festival lights, the settling of debts and disputes, and reconciliation with relatives and neighbors. The evening penitential services that follow in the synagogue begin with the Kol Nidrê (All vows ), a formula of absolution from all ceremonial or ritual vows intended to provide the worshiper with a new beginning and release him from any unfulfilled or forgotten promises of cult or custom. In the Ashkenazic (German-Jewish) ritual the Kol Nidrê is adapted to a distinctive and beautiful melody characteristic of the emotions of Yom Kippur. Since in history this formula has been the occasion of much misunderstanding outside Judaism, Jewish writers have been careful to insist that it does not refer to obligations to one's fellowmen or one's country.

On the Day of Atonement itself observance prohibits, even more solemnly than on the Sabbath, not only all business transactions or manual labor, but also, throughout the holy day, eating and drinking, bathing and anointing, the wearing of shoes, especially during services, and sexual relations. Custom has also associated almsgiving with Yom Kippur, and also the burning of candles in the synagogue in memory of the deceased, and the visiting of their graves. In keeping with the ancient idea of substitution or transference, it was once customary for an individual to swing a fowl over his head in symbolic sacrifice for some other person deserving of death for his sins. Other men, as an additional form of self-affliction, submitted to 39 lashes to be administered in the synagogue.

The essence, however, of the observance is the series of synagogue services, consisting of prayers, hymns, readings, and the confession of sins, which have been so much expanded that from sunrise to sunset on Yom Kippur they constitute one continual service. The Morning Service (šahărît ) contains a memorial ceremony for the dead, including the prayer yizkōr (may he remember). The passages of Lv 16.134, Nm 29.711, and Is 57.1558.14 are read at this time. In the Additional Service (mûsāp ), there is a long description of the Temple ceremony on the Day of Atonement. The Afternoon Service (minhâ ) contains the reading of Leviticus ch. 18 and the Book of Jona. In the evening again there is a service peculiar to this day called the Neilah (n e'îlâ, conclusion), which concludes with the recital of the liturgical prayer Shema (Hear, O Israel ) and a single blast on the Shofar. The public confession of sins, which recurs throughout the day, is a general formula recited in unison, and not an individual confession. In the Ashkenazic, Sephardic (Spanish-Jewish), and other rituals there are many more prayers and readings that have been adopted into the liturgy. These rituals also contain many minor variations in the services themselves.

Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 175178. r. devaux, Ancient Israel, Its Life and Institutions, tr. j. mchugh (New York 1961) 507510. h. danby, tr., "Yoma," The Mishnah (Oxford 1933). k. kohler and m. l. margolis, The Jewish Encyclopedia, j. singer (New York 190106) 2:275289. g. f. moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim, 3 v. (Cambridge, MA 192730) v.2. s. landersdorfer, Studien zum biblischen Versöhnungstag (Alttestamentliche Abhandlungen 10.1; Münster 1924). j. morgenstern, "Two Prophecies of the 4th Century B.C. and the Evolution of Yom Kippur," Hebrew Union College Annual 24 (195253) 174. a. z. idelsohn, Jewish Liturgy and Its Development (New York 1932) 223248.

[g. w. macrae]