Yom Kippur: Atonement and Forgiveness

The perpetual cycle of the Jewish “Holy Convocations” (Lev 23:3) includes one

yearly appointed time, which according to Jewish tradition, has become the most holy

day of the year. Yom Kippur is Hebrew for the “Day of Atonement.” It is observed on the

tenth of the month of Tishrei, trailing Rosh Hashanah or Head of the Year, and separated

each year by the Yomim Nora’im or “Ten Days of Awe.” Yom Kippur is a fast, not a


The observances of Rosh Hashanah, the Ten Days of Awe, and Yom Kippur are

closely related; however, only Rosh Hashanah (Lev. 23:23-25) and Yom Kippur

(Lev. 23:26-32) are part of God’s Levitical calendar. The observance “Ten Days of Awe”

was added by the rabbis to facilitate the transition from repentance to forgiveness.

This article will examine these observances from three perspectives: biblical,

rabbinic, and prophetic or messianic. The approach is to always take Jewish tradition into

account, but only in light of biblical truth.

The Holy God of the universe has always desired for the Jewish people to be holy.

The word “holy” comes from the Hebrew kadosh” which means “set apart.” God gave

the Jewish people the Law of Moses to set them apart. Yet even then, in His infinite

wisdom and unconditional love for us, He incorporated Yom Kippur, the singular Jewish

holy day when His grace is best displayed.

Knowing too well that the children of Israel couldn’t remain holy, God set aside

one day of the year when all Israel would come together and wait with nearly unbearable

anticipation for the High Priest to perform the sacrificial duties for atonement.

As Leviticus 16, tells us with colorful detail, only once a year was the High Priest

allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the very heart of the Jewish Temple. First the High

Priest would have to atone for himself by providing both a sin and a burnt offering

(Lev. 16:3). After offering sacrifices to the Lord for himself and the other priests, He

would be ready to make an offering for the atonement of all of Israel (Lev 16:5-7).

The blood of the sacrificed animals was sprinkled on the Mercy Seat (the cover

closing the Ark of the Covenant) located in the Holy of Holies. Blood sacrifice was a key

factor because blood was and is a symbol of life (Lev 17:11).

The animals to be used for the atonement of the whole congregation were two

male goats. One goat was slaughtered and its blood applied on the other goat, known as

Azazel (meaning uncertain). Azazel or the “scapegoat” was then escorted to the outskirts

of town, into the wilderness. Tradition tells us, the scapegoat was kicked off a cliff to its

certain death, taking with it all the sins of Israel to be remembered no more.

The picture was one of atonement and forgiveness by God’s grace through the

shedding of blood, and this picture hasn’t changed.

As a matter of fact, since God gave Israel the Mosaic Law, the forgiveness of sin

has always required a blood sacrifice for which the children of Israel needed the Temple.

In 70 A.D., the Temple was destroyed, leaving our people with a dilemma: “ With no

Temple, how was Israel to perform sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin?”

Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, a first-century rabbi (student of Rabbi Hillel)

convened with other contemporary rabbis and finally decided to “adapt” the Judaism of

the day to a new Judaism without a temple. Pharisaic Judaism became Rabbinic Judaism

and to this day teaches that in lieu of a sacrifice, Jewish people are now called to do

tefilah (prayer), teshuvah (repentance), and tzedakah (charity). Thus Yom Kippur today

only carries the meaning of its biblical counterpart, but much of its original practices

have been swept under the carpet of convenient modern re-structuring.

Nevertheless, in some Jewish communities around the world, we can still witness

a ritual known as Kapparot on Yom Kippur. A live chicken is waved in circles over one’s

head as he/she recites a special prayer acknowledging the chicken as his or her

substitutionary atonement.

The truth is that 2000 years ago, one came to be our Azazel. Yeshua (Jesus) came

to carry our sins on His shoulders (Rom. 5:8, 8:3) and be our sacrifice. Today Jews who

have put their trust in Yeshua’s death, burial, and resurrection no longer need a temple

because they no longer need a sacrifice. The price has been paid once and for all as a free

gift from God (Eph. 2:8-9).

In Leviticus 23, God tells us three times that Yom Kippur requires the “humbling

of the soul” (vv. 27, 29, 32), which explains why Jewish people fast on that day, although

that would be considered a humbling or affliction of the body.

The future will bring both spiritual and physical afflictions with the advent of

Israel’s final atonement in the End Times. This affliction of the body as prophecied in

Zechariah 13:9 will bring about the affliction of the soul, when all Israel (Rom. 11:26)

will mourn and call on Yeshua at the end of the Great Tribulation (Zechariah 12:10),

saying in one accord: “Baruch Haba Bashem Adonai” or “Blessed is He Who comes in

the Name of the Lord” (Luke 13:35).

A perfect God gave us a perfect program as delineated by the Fall holidays in His

Holy calendar. Rosh Hashanah prepares us for repentance; Yom Kippur reminds us of our

atonement, now in Yeshu; and, finally, Sukkot invites us to dwell or “tabernacle” with


Olivier Melnick