October 8, 2019

Understanding the Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur



The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, is the most holy and solemn day of the Jewish calendar. It is the only day when the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place within the Tabernacle and ancient temples. It was the only day when the high priest reconciled Israel with God and symbolically brought them back into the presence of the Lord. No other day and no other ancient ritual comes closer to the full meaning and purpose of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

The fall season of festivals begins with Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashana marks the start of a ten-day period of repentance and preparation for the Day of Atonement. During these ten days, Israelites would seek to draw closer to God in preparation for these sacred rituals. On the Day of Atonement, all of Israel would be forgiven for their sins of the previous year, thus allowing them to be cleansed and prepared for the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot to occur five days later. Feast of Tabernacles was the final and most joyous of the three major Jewish feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

The Day of Atonement followed a complex, yet beautiful ritual, symbolizing that all of Israel now had been forgiven and was able to re-enter the presence of the Lord through the high priest (see Leviticus 16).

The ritual began with the high priest, dressed in his normal colorful golden garments, offering the daily morning ritual of sacrifices and burning of incense on the altar of incense. He then would wash his flesh and change into simple white robes. The act of washing and changing clothes would actually occur five separate times throughout the ritual. The wearing of just the white robes could symbolize the Savior who leaving His heavenly throne, “laid aside all the glory … [and] put upon Himself the plain robe of humanity … becoming like one of us.” [1] The color of white is also a powerful symbol of purity, representing the absolute purity of the true Great High Priest, even Jesus Christ.

The high priest selecting lots for the goat for the Lord and for the scapegoat
Next, the high priest would bring two goats into the Tabernacle or temple and cast lots for each of them. One lot was for Azazel, or the scapegoat, and the other was for the Lord (Leviticus 16:7-10). A red ribbon was tied around the horns of the scapegoat to distinguish it from the other goat.

The high priest would then take a bullock, or young bull and place his hands on its head, symbolically transferring his own sins and the sins of his fellow priests to the bull. He would then slit the throat of the bull and catch the blood in a dish to be saved for later services. (Leviticus 16:11)

The high priest entering the Holy of Holies with incense on the Day of Atonement
He then would bring a burning coal from the altar of sacrifice and incense into the Holy of Holies through the veil for the first time. Here dressed in all white, the high priest would burn the incense before the Lord. The room would fill with smoke, the cloud of smoke often being a symbol of the presence of God. (Leviticus 16:12-13).

The high priest then would exit the Holy of Holies, wash again, and take the blood of the bull and re-enter the Holy of Holies for a second time. He would then sprinkle seven times the blood of the bull on the Ark of the Covenant. (Leviticus 16:14). The shedding of the blood of the young bull represented that the high priest was forgiven and reconciled to enter into the presence of the Lord.

The high priest entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement
The high priest would then kill the goat that was chosen for the Lord, again saving the blood in a dish. He then would enter the Holy of Holies with this blood for the third and final time. As he did before, he would sprinkle the blood of the goat seven times before the ark. (Leviticus 16:15-16). As the goat was the offering for the people, this act of bringing its blood into the Holy of Holies represented that all of Israel was symbolically able to enter the presence of the Lord, through the high priest and because of the shedding of the blood of the sacrifice. Just as the high priest could only enter by blood, so too it is only by the shed blood of Jesus Christ that we can enter God’s presence.

As the high priest exited the Holy of Holies, he would then sprinkle the combined blood of the bull and the goat before the veil of the Tabernacle. He would also use the blood to cover the four horns of the altar of incense. The remaining blood was poured out at the base of the altar of sacrifice in the outer court. (Leviticus 16:18-20).

High priest laying his hands on the scapegoat for the Day of Atonement
The high priest would then return to the scapegoat and place his hands upon its head symbolically transferring the sins of all the people to the goat. He then would utter the sacred name of the Lord, which was never to be said except on this holy day, “Oh, Jehovah! I intreat Thee! Your people, the House of Israel, has been iniquitous, sinned, and erred before you. Oh, then Jehovah! Cover over, I intreat Thee, upon their iniquities, their transgressions, and their sins!” [2] The goat was then taken outside of the Tabernacle and led into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:20-21). The guiltless goat, dependent upon its owner for its care and protection, would become lost and die in the desert. Perhaps no symbol of the Savior is more powerful than the scapegoat. Innocent of any wrongdoing, just like this goat, the Savior has had laid upon Him the sins of the world. As Isaiah so beautifully stated, “All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6).

The scapegoat being led into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement
Modern readers often gloss over the significance of the Day of Atonement as simply an outdated, archaic ritual of death and covering of blood. However, as one better understands each of the aspects, it teaches a powerful message of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

The word atonement, or kaphar in Hebrew, actually means to cover. Thus, as the high priest literally covers with blood the ark, the veil, and the altars of the Tabernacle, he symbolically shows that atonement has been made, and that the way is now open to progress back through the Tabernacle because of the shedding of blood.

From the scriptures we learn that when the Savior went to pray and suffer in Gethsemane, He first left eight disciples at the entrance, then took Peter, James, and John further into the garden, and then by Himself, went further in to pray. Though it is impossible to know the exact reason for this three-level progression the Savior creates within the garden, it has a strong correlation to the three levels of the Tabernacle with the outer courtyard, the holy place, and the holy of holies. It is as if the Savior desired to recreate these three levels, to show that He was officiating as our Great High Priest and interceding on our behalf.

How beautifully the symbolism of the Day of Atonement teaches us that it is only through the shed blood of the Lamb of God, even Jesus Christ, that we can once again enter the presence of the Lord. It is only because He took upon Himself our sins and iniquities, that we can be forgiven and our burdens made light. Because of Him, we can have our sins covered over, blotted out, or atoned for. The book of Hebrews teaches, “But Christ being come an high priest … Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). How wonderful it is that unlike ancient Israel, who only could be forgiven once a year, we can daily come to the Lord, lay our sins and guilt upon Him, and continually be forgiven and cleansed because of His atonement!


[1] Thus Shalt Thou Serve, The Feasts and Offerings of Ancient Israel, C.W. Slemming, pg. 151.
[2] Paraphrased from: The Temple, Its Ministry and Services by Aldred Edersheim, pg. 253-254 and Carta's Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by Israel Ariel, pg. 146-147.