History of Yom Kippur: Day of Atonement


The Jewish High Holy Days begin with Rosh HaShanah and continue until Yom Kippur, which starts at sundown tonight. It is the holiest day of the year and marks the end of these 10 Days of Repentance, which begin with the Jewish New Year — as I described in my article on Rosh HaShanah.

Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement,” or more correctly, Yom ha-Kippurim (Leviticus 16), goes back in 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. In time, its significance was deepened so that it acquired personal meaning and filled an individual need. It is observed on the 10th day of Tishri, the seventh month, and is the climax of the whole penitential season.


Yom Kippur in Biblical Times

Originally, on one day of the year, the high priest would enter 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 for the sin of the people as a congregation and sprinkle it upon the ‘mercy seat’ of the Ark of the Covenant (made famous in the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark” :-).

This would “cover” the sin of the people, as this is what the Aramaic (and Hebrew) root “kaphar” (atonement) means. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., later Rabbinic legislation adapted the old ritual to the synagogue. The blast of the ‘shofar,’ the ritual ram’s horn trumpet, signifies, among other things, the inarticulate cry of the soul to God.

The Greek word for “mercy seat” is hilasterion (ἱλαστήριον) and appears twice in the 1st century New Testament. In the Book of Hebrews, it appears in the verb form to “make propitiation” and specifically refers to the “mercy seat” or “atonement cover.” In Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is the noun often translated as “propitiation,” “atonement,” or “sacrifice [of atonement].”


Yom Kippur in Post Biblical Times



In later times, a whole body of Jewish law required the individual to seek forgiveness from one another. This is a part of the Mishneh Torah – a distillation of Jewish law based on the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud – written by the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher and legal authority Maimonides.

It calls for 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.


G’mar chatima tova “May you be sealed in the Book of Life.”


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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