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History of Yom Kippur


The Jewish High Holy Days begin with Rosh Hashana and continue until Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur, which begins with sundown this evening, also known as the Day of Atonement, or more correctly Yom ha-Kippurim (Leviticus 16) goes back to Jewish antiquity almost 4,000 years to the time of Moses. This most solemn occasion of the Jewish Festival cycle was the season for annual cleansing from sin, but in time its significance was deepened so that it acquired personal meaning and filled a private need. It is observed on the 10th day of Tishri, the seventh month, and is the climax of the whole penitential season.

Originally, on one day of the year the high priest would enter into the innermost part of the Tabernacle (and later the Temple in Jerusalem). He would enter the Holy of Holies with the blood of the sacrifice which was for the sin of the people as a congregation, and sprinkle it upon the ‘mercy seat’ of the Ark of the Covenant (made famous by the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” :-). This would ‘cover’ the sin of the people, as this is what the Aramaic (and Hebrew) root ‘kapar’ (atonement) means. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., later Rabbinic legislation adapted the old ritual to the synagogue. The blasts of the ‘shofar‘ the ritual ram’s horn trumpet, signify, among other things, the inarticulate cry of the soul to God.

In later times, there is a whole body of Jewish law requiring the individual to seek forgiveness from one another. This a part of the Mishneh Torah – a distillation of Jewish law based in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud – written by the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher and legal authority Maimonides. It calls for an attention to requests for forgiveness from family, friends and associates for the offenses of the past year. The body of law, lore and custom surrounding repentance, forgiveness and the Day of Atonement is immense, and has grown since the time of Maimonides.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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