CNEWA Connections: Looking Ahead to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement

Our Jewish friends and neighbors are marking Rosh Hashanah today, but another great holy day comes just next week.

Starting on Friday evening, 29 September, Jews around the world will observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. In the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews take stock of their spiritual and moral lives and begin the process of asking God for forgiveness.

What does this entail?

The ritual for the duties of the High Priest (hakkohen haggadôl) for the Day of Atonement is laid out in detail in chapter 16 of the Book of Leviticus. On the Day of Atonement the high priest is to purify himself and the people through animal sacrifices and ablutions. On the Day of Atonement the high priests enters into the Holy of Holies in the Temple and intercedes for the people asking God for forgiveness. It the chapter there is instruction about the Scape Goat. A goat is chosen and “Aaron must lay his hands on its head and confess all the faults of the Sons of Israel, all their transgressions and sins, and lay them to its charge. Having thus laid them on the goat’s head, he shall send it into the desert…and the goat will bear all their faults away with it into a desert place.” (Leviticus 16:21-22).

For modern Jews, the Day of Atonement is a day of prayer and fasting. The number of services in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement is five instead of the normal three. Synagogue attendance is usually very high on this day. Jewish tradition suggests a festive meal before sundown on the day before Yom Kippur. Since the day for Jews begins and ends at sunset, from the beginning of the Day of Atonement Jews begin a period of abstinence: no eating and drinking, no bathing, no using perfume or make up and no sexual activity.

At the end of the services for Yom Kippur comes a prayer for the High Priest. Jews recall the Temple of Jerusalem, the first of which was destroyed in 587 BC and the second of which was destroyed in 70 AD. Even in the absence of a temple, Jews throughout the world fast and pray for God’s forgiveness and for the same purification which was once achieved through the ministry of the High Priest in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem.

More than just another holy day, the Day of Atonement is a day for profound prayer and reflection — a time for taking stock. It is the day when Jews reflect on their lives, their commitment to God and the Covenant and, in seeking forgiveness from God, renew that covenant for the year to come.

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